Ukiyozōshi (浮世草子, "books of the floating world") is the first major genre of popular Japanese fiction, written between the 1680s and the 1770s in Kyoto and Osaka. Ukiyozōshi literature developed from the kanazōshi genre and was in fact initially classified as kanazōshi. The term "ukiyozōshi" first appeared in about 1710 in reference to amorous or erotic works, but the term later came to refer to literature that encompassed a variety of subjects and aspects of life during the Edo period.
Ihara Saikaku's Life of an Amorous Man is considered the first work in this genre. This work, as well as other amorous literature, drew subject matter from the courtesan critiques and guides to the pleasure quarters that became popular in the 1640s and 1650s. Although Saikaku's works were not regarded as high literature at the time, they became popular and were key to the development and spread of ukiyozōshi.
After Saikaku's death, some notable writers that followed include Nishizawa Ippu, Miyako no Nishiki, and Hōjō Dansui, Saikaku's only direct pupil in novel writing. The last significant ukiyozōshi writer was Ejima Kiseki, from Kyoto. While Kiseki's writing lacked the style and depth of Saikaku's, he is credited with creating the katagi-mono, or character books, a genre that remained popular throughout the eighteenth century. Each book consisted of about fifteen sketches describing various types of people.
By the mid-eighteenth century, Edo had become the center of literary activity, and while ukiyozōshi continued to be produced until around the 1770s, the genre became stagnant after Kiseki's death and slowly declined.
By the time the ukiyozōshi genre first appeared, the commercial publishing industry had been fully developed. Ukiyozōshi books were published at a fixed size and length, and it was around this time that literature first began to be published for profit. For these reasons, prose literature, including ukiyozōshi, tended to be of low quality. Nevertheless, many ukiyozōshi works, particularly those of Saikaku, feature sophisticated literary techniques, structures, and insight into the lives and personalities of the characters.
Ukiyozōshi literature was considered popular literature and was written in the kana-based vernacular language. In contrast, elite literature, such as kanbun, was written in classical Chinese or classical Japanese and typically focused on traditional aristocratic topics, such as love and nature.
Ukiyozōshi covered a variety of subjects, many of which were considered vulgar or inappropriate for elite literature. A prime example is the kōshoku-mono subgenre, which consisted of erotic works centered on the pleasure quarters. The other subgenres of ukiyozōshi are chōnin-mono, which dealt with the lives of townspeople; setsuwa-mono, or tales of the strange or curious; and buke-mono, which focused on samurai. Most ukiyozōshi works fell into one of these subgenres and were aimed at a particular readership.
One important characteristic of ukiyozōshi is its intense realism. Since late kanazoshi literature, a shift towards commoner literature and realism had been apparent, but it was not until ukiyozōshi that Japanese prose literature approached true realism. Ukiyozōshi is markedly less sentimental and reveals a more objective and cynical perspective. For example, many of Saikaku's stories end tragically and are written in a detached, ironic tone.
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- Hibbett, Howard (1959). The Floating World in Japanese Fiction. Vermont, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Company. ISBN 0-8048-1154-7.
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- Haruo Shirane, ed. (2002). Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600–1900. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-10990-3.