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The Aesthetics of Strangeness

Eccentricity and Madness in Early Modern Japan

W. Puck Brecher

Publication Year: 2013

Eccentric artists are “the vagaries of humanity” that inhabit the deviant underside of Japanese society: This was the conclusion drawn by pre–World War II commentators on most early modern Japanese artists. Postwar scholarship, as it searched for evidence of Japan’s modern roots, concluded the opposite: The eccentric, mad, and strange are moral exemplars, paragons of virtue, and shining hallmarks of modern consciousness. In recent years, the pendulum has swung again, this time in favor of viewing these oddballs as failures and dropouts without lasting cultural significance. This work corrects the disciplinary (and exclusionary) nature of such interpretations by reconsidering the sudden and dramatic emergence of aesthetic eccentricity during the Edo period (1600–1868). It explains how, throughout the period, eccentricity (ki) and madness (kyo) developed and proliferated as subcultural aesthetics. By excavating several generations of early modern Japan’s eccentric artists, it demonstrates that individualism and strangeness carried considerable moral and cultural value. Indeed, Edo society fetishized various marginal personae—the recluse, the loser, the depraved, the outsider, the saint, the mad genius—as local heroes and paragons of moral virtue. This book concludes that a confluence of intellectual, aesthetic, and social conditions enabled multiple concurrent heterodoxies to crystallize around strangeness as a prominent cultural force in Japanese society.

A study of impressive historical and disciplinary breadth, The Aesthetics of Strangeness also makes extensive use of primary sources, many previously overlooked in existing English scholarship. Its coverage of the entire Edo period and engagement with both Chinese and native Japanese traditions reinterprets Edo-period tastes and perceptions of normalcy. By wedding art history to intellectual history, literature, aesthetics, and cultural practice, W. Puck Brecher strives for a broadly interdisciplinary perspective on this topic. Readers will discover that the individuals that form the backbone of his study lend credence to a new interpretation of Edo-period culture: a growing valuation of eccentricity within artistic and intellectual circles that exerted indelible impacts on mainstream society. The Aesthetics of Strangeness demystifies this emergent paradigm by illuminating the conditions and tensions under which certain rubrics of strangeness— ki and kyo particularly—were appointed as aesthetic criteria. Its revision of early modern Japanese culture constitutes an important contribution to the field.

W. Puck Brecher is assistant professor of Japanese at Washington State University.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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p. vii-vii

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p. ix-ix

I wish to thank Peter Nosco for his unwavering generosity and guidance over many years. Without his instruction this book would not have been started, and without his encouragement it would not have been completed. In addition, I am grateful for valuable suggestions from David Bialock, Edward Slingerland, Gordon Berger, and Jonathan ...

Part I. Contexts of Strangeness

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Chapter 1. Strange Interpretations

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pp. 3-23

Periodically, circumstances seem to produce, as Nelson Wu describes Ming China, a “perfect breeding ground for eccentrics.”1 At these rare moments strangeness bursts forth to energize and reform mainstream culture. Kinsei kijinden (Eccentrics of recent times, 1790), the first biographical compilation of eccentrics (kijin) published in Japan, marks just such a moment.2 ...

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Chapter 2. Contexts of Strangeness in Seventeenth-Century Japan

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pp. 24-53

Tokugawa Ieyasu and his immediate successors were taking no chances. Having witnessed Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s attempt to unite the country with only temporary success, Ieyasu undertook national unification with an understandable measure of paranoia. Ensuring the longevity of Tokugawa supremacy, he realized, would require bringing aspects ...

Part II. Discourses on Difference in the Eighteenth Century

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Chapter 3. Strange Tastes: Cultural Eccentricity and Its Vanguard

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pp. 57-92

Post-Genroku Japan witnessed growing cultural independence, and had the aforementioned Chen Yuanyun lived several generations later one suspects his work would have encountered a warmer reception. This softening climate also nurtured broader interest in bunjin culture: a packaged nonconformity informed by Chinese tastes, amateurism, and detached playfulness. Such were ...

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Chapter 4. Strange Thoughts: A Confluence of Intellectual Heterodoxies

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pp. 93-115

The second half of the eighteenth century was beset by a sense of decline, an “autumn,” as Takahashi Hiromi phrases it.1 In part, such sentiments crystallized around the perceived disintegration of political authority. The shogun, Tokugawa Ieharu (1737–1786), was a tragicomic figure popularly viewed, according to one Dutch observer, as “a lazy, lustful, stupid man.”2 Described ...

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Chapter 5. Eccentrics of Recent Times and Social Value: Biography Reinvents the Eccentric

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pp. 116-138

Prior to the mid-Meiji period, Marvin Marcus writes, biography amounted to “an encyclopedic compilation of short narratives, a sequence of episodes— often apocryphal—that together come to define a given collectivity. Indeed, the concise, formulaic account of one’s pedigree and accomplishments, enlivened by a representative anecdote or two (historical verifiability being ...

Part III. Finishers and Failures of the Nineteenth Century

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Chapter 6. Strangeness in the Early Nineteenth Century: Commercialism, Conservatism, and Diffusion

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pp. 141-171

Sinophilic bunjin had long been Tokugawa society’s primary custodians of aesthetic strangeness. It was largely through their efforts that ki, kyō, and muyō were validated and popularized as cultural topoi. From the late eighteenth century, however, aesthetic eccentricity diverged from its previous ...

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Chapter 7. Reevaluating Strangeness in Late Tokugawa

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pp. 172-201

In many cases, early modern Japan’s aesthetics of strangeness was a success story. A number of its protagonists—Baisaō, Taiga, Jakuchū, Shōhaku, Kageki—achieved extraordinary notoriety during their own lives and continue to be recognized as the period’s greatest talents. Even those who faced occasional hostility or punitive reprisals for their antics—Nankai, Kien, ...


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pp. 203-236


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pp. 237-241


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pp. 243-254


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pp. 255-267

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About the Author

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p. 269-269

W. Puck Brecher (Ph.D., University of Southern California) is an assistant professor of Japanese at Washington State University. His research interests focus on thought, aesthetics, literature, urban history, and art history in Japan’s early ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780824839123
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824836665

Publication Year: 2013