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  • Unsuitable Books for Women?Genji Monogatari and Ise Monogatari in Late Seventeenth-Century Japan
  • P. F. Kornicki (bio)

Publication entails loss of control over texts: over who reads them, over how they are read, over what texts people read, and over what constructions are put upon them. The Younger Pliny was well aware of this in ancient Rome, though of course in his day "publication" meant putting manuscripts in the hands of professional copyists and booksellers. The advent of print in both Asia and Europe thus merely exacerbated a problem that existed in scribal cultures, too. It was the publication of texts in print that occasioned Zhu Xi's anxious response to what he perceived as the undesirably liberal availability of books in twelfth-century China and that later spurred the worries of nineteenth-century British writers about the reading habits of what Wilkie Collins called the "Unknown Public."1 Similar circumstances obtained in early seventeenth-century Japan, where the abundance of printed publications was a new, and potentially worrying, phenomenon. Among these new publications were the first printed editions of Genji monogatari and Ise monogatari, and their ready availability aroused disquiet, particularly among the sinological scholars we habitually, but inaccurately, refer to as "Confucianists."2

This article seeks to explore the consequences of print for the female readership of Genji monogatari and Ise monogatari, for it was in the context mainly of women readers of these two texts that the anxieties were commonly articulated. We see here a notable difference from the situation in nineteenth-century [End Page 147] Europe, where disquiet about what women were reading related principally to current fiction.3 In seventeenth-century Japan, by contrast, it was rather the classics of the Heian period, especially Genji monogatari and Ise monogatari, and the tradition of court poetry, that gave rise to anxiety. Why should these and other works of Heian literature have been seen to be unsuitable reading matter for women? What effect did such views have on the reading practices of women, and what responses did they elicit? These questions bristle with difficulties, so it will be as well to map out a strategy beforehand for answering them. Since it was print that made these texts easily accessible, I consider, firstly, the early seventeenth-century appearance of these two works in print and the ways in which their presentation affected reading possibilities and practices; secondly, the views of sinologists and others who took exception to them as suitable texts for women and urged women instead to turn to morally beneficial sinological texts; thirdly, the resistance to such views from male defenders of Genji; fourthly, the actual reading practices of women readers; and fifthly, the appropriation of Genji in other contexts that cast light upon the question of women readers. Finally, I argue that if the issue of gender is ignored, the print revolution of the seventeenth century cannot be fully understood, and consider the implications of this study for the further exploration of women's literacy and reading in seventeenth-century Japan.

From Manuscript to Print

By 1600 printing had already been practiced for hundreds of years in Japan, but it was not until the advent of commercial printers and publishers in the early years of the seventeenth century that Japanese literature, including both fiction and histories, was put into print for the first time. This circumstance is largely attributable to the monastic rather than commercial functions of print before the seventeenth century and to the exclusivity of the courtly world in which literary works had been transmitted. The commercial booksellers that began operating in Kyoto in the early years of the seventeenth century rapidly brought most of the corpus of earlier fictional literature into print, however, and by the end of the century both Genji monogatari and Ise monogatari had been published in numerous editions. Although textual scholars have for the most part dismissed these various printed editions, such works, together with their extensive illustrations, continued to serve as the main point of access to the world of the Heian mono-gatari until the Meiji period.4 They form, therefore, an essential part of any consideration of the readership of these two works in...


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