So many writers, ukiyo-e artists, and merchants composed kyôka ("playful verses": 狂歌) that it would be difficult to overstate the influence of the kyôka movement on the popular arts of Japan in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. The forms called tanka and haiku account for most of Japanese poetry, both among the professional and highly accomplished poets as well as among the amateur ranks. The short poetic forms presented a challenge to poets, who had to invest each word with poetic significance, and the ambiguity of the Japanese language amplified by various rhetorical techniques introduced several levels of complexity. Nevertheless, tanka were also composed by many not-so-skilled versifiers who did not have extensive literary experience or training, but who could, within the required metrical structure, produce acceptable poems, especially for social occasions. Since the writing of poetry was within the reach of many Japanese, there was an explosion of interest in composing verses in the late eighteenth century, particularly in kyôka form.
In 1783, Ôta Nampo (1749-1823), one of the best known kyôka poets (composing under the name of Yomo no Akara) collaborated in publishing a collection of kyôka titled Manzai kyôka shû ("Collected kyôka of 10,000 Years") that was a great success and helped to encourage the formation of a large number of kyôka clubs called ren ("circles") or gawa ("groups"). Although kyôka are often referred to as Temmei kyôka after the period of its greatest popularity — the Temmei era (1781-1789) — examples of comic poetry can be found from as early as the eighth century. The imperial anthologies of the early period of Japanese poetry, the Man'yôshû ("Collection of ten thousand leaves," circa 760 AD) and the Kokinshû ("Collection of ancient and modern times," circa 905 AD), also include comic tanka. The oldest known collection of kyôka is the Hyakushu kyôka ("Kyôka on one hundred brands of drinks"), attributed to a priest named Gyôgetsubô (1265-1328).
By the Kyôhô era (1716-1735) kyôka were popular in the Kamigata region (the Kyôto-Ôsaka region). In the 1760s kyôka became an independent poetic form with a variety of schools, and the center of activity shifted from the Kamigata region to Edo, where the genre developed into the most dominant literary movement in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. The townspeople (chônin) embraced kyôka, the most active period being 1785-1792, although the genre lasted well into the nineteenth century. Many kyôka appeared in illustrated verse books called kyôka-zôshi as well as in kyôka ehon and ukiyo-e single-sheet prints, especially surimono. These works blended poetry with pictorial design and calligraphy, and the best of them achieved an impressive harmony and interplay of graphic design and poetic style. Educated chônin and a small number of samurai displayed their skill and extensive literary knowledge by composing kyôka, often by contributing verses at kyôka gatherings. Kyôka were to become so popular that they were, in effect, the common link between members of the two usually distinct samurai and chônin classes. Kyôka acted as a catalyst for a fusion of arts in Edo wherein poetry, calligraphy, fiction, ukiyo-e, and kabuki theater interacted in a highly imaginative manner.
The bakufu (the shogun's government) played a role in the gradual demise of kyôka. In 1789 Matsudaira Sadanobu (1758-1829) came to power, and soon afterwards instituted the Kansei reforms to curb the excesses of the merchant class. In addition, samurai were forbidden to write kyôka in an attempt to revitalize the once strict code of ethics of the warrior class and to separate samurai from the chônin's "corrupt" lifestyle. Although a few samurai continued to write kyôka (usually under pseudonyms), Sadanobu's proscription left the field open to the chônin. who thereafter were the most important writers of the verse form. During the Bunka and Bunsei eras (1804-1829) writers continued to compose kyôka, and many surimono, expensive to produce and technically brilliant in execution, were accompanied by kyôka, but never again would kyôka enjoy the widespread popularity as they had during the Temmei era. Kyôka began a slow decline, and after the deaths of the leaders of the two main competing schools of kyôka composition, Shikatsube no Magao (鹿都部真顔 1753-1829) and Ishikawa Masamochi (石川雅望 Yadoya no Meshimori, 宿屋飯盛 1754-1830), kyôka grew increasingly empty and repetitious. © 2002-2019 John Fiorillo
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