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  • Street Performers and Society in Urban Japan, 1600–1900: The Beggar’s Gift by Gerald Groemer
  • Laura Nenzi
Street Performers and Society in Urban Japan, 1600–1900: The Beggar’s Gift. By Gerald Groemer. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2016. 416pages. Hardcover £165.00.

Woodblock prints, maps, and illustrated guides—as well as studies based upon them—have familiarized us with the landmarks of Edo and enabled us to navigate the city’s alleys, canals, bridges, and temple grounds. We can envision with ease the crowds gathering at Ryōgoku Bridge for the seasonal fireworks shows, the hustle and [End Page 95] bustle around Nihonbashi, the pleasure boats on the Sumida River, or the lively atmosphere at Asakusa Sensōji. Visually familiar as they may be, what did these scenes sound like? Was there a soundtrack to life in Edo? The answer is, of course, yes.

Stroll around the city and, amid the cries of vendors and the chattering of crowds, you would catch a hint of a song, a distant tune, or a line from a play. You would hear the melody of a flute, the sound of a conch shell, the rhythmic rattling of bamboo clappers, or the solemn beat of drums. Follow the sound and you would encounter one of Edo’s many street performers. Unlike professional actors and musicians, these beggars- and outcastes-turned-street-artists were free from the impositions of production managers, deadlines, and budgets and could set up shop on a whim, improvise as they saw fit, and plan their next act in response to the audience’s cheers or jeers.

How did they get there? Which historical forces shaped the milieu in which they came to thrive? Gerald Groemer’s Street Performers and Society in Urban Japan provides an answer to these questions and a score to Edo’s music. (Groemer warns in the introduction that the term “urban Japan” in the title is misleading and that the focus of the work is indeed on the city of Edo.)

There are already various studies of early modern outcaste groups, their struggles, and their sophisticated negotiating skills; Timothy Amos’s and Maren Ehlers’s come to mind.1 Groemer’s work, however, looks less at the usual suspects (tanners, execution ground attendants, butchers) in favor of entertainers of all sorts—dancers, monkey trainers, actors, musicians, and more.

The book consists of six chapters. Chapter 1 traces the evolving definition of hinin from a term analogous to kojiki (beggar) to, by the early eighteenth century, one referring to an occupational group associated with such places and activities as execution grounds, jails, wastepaper recycling, and street performance. Chapter 2 looks at the emergence of performers’ guilds in the medieval period, provides a lengthy taxonomy (twenty-nine categories in all) of early modern outcastes based on Danzaemon’s inventory, and then zeroes in on hinin and monkey trainers. Chapter 3 turns to the religious dimension of street art, from the sincere devotion of the legitimately affiliated to the crass utilitarianism of the hastily self-ordained and every variation in between. Chapters 4 and 5 examine, respectively, the many licensed street artists in Edo (gōmune) and the “hawker performers” known as yashi, as well as their complex and fluid relation with the authorities. In the final chapter Groemer explores the ways in which post-Meiji changes, including the abolition of the outcaste order, the restrictive policies against Shugendō and Buddhism, new forms of taxation, and even the transition from the lunar to the Gregorian calendar created, for street artists, a new stage “strewn with hazardous traps, hurdles, and pitfalls, but also offering new freedoms and opportunities” (p. 339). Groemer also discusses, if briefly, forms of resistance, noncompliance, and creative adaptation to these new conditions.

The Edo that emerges from the pages of Street Performers is a city of bright lights and dark shadows. On the one hand, there is the happy Edo, whose denizens enjoyed [End Page 96] “a seemingly unquenchable thirst for music, dance, and verbal or theatrical entertainment” (p. 1). On the other, there are “the darker realms of Edo-period society” (p. 125): rampant poverty, disease, long lines at food kitchens, and brutal...


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