Literacy and the Popularity of Erotic Texts

One of the great accomplishments of the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled the country throughout the Edo period (1615-1868), was its education of the general populace. At the beginning of the 17th century, only the most wealthy samurai families were able to read and write. However, within the following 250 years, the establishment of over 11,000 public schools (terakoya) caused the literacy rate to soar to roughly 40%, rivaling that of many Western nations. Students were trained to read, write, and use an abacus. The literature to which they were exposed was mainly limited to Confucian discussions on morality and classical poetry.

It is not surprising, therefore, that novels and other recreational texts that began to circulate publicly during the early Edo period often referred irreverently to tales from the Heian era (794-1185), particularly those samples of classical literature that readers had at one time or another been begrudgingly forced to memorize, such as excerpts from Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji) by Murasaki Shikibu (c. 973-c. 1014). In enpon (erotic texts), familiar aristocratic figures were portrayed in a far less flattering (but perhaps more realistic) light than they were in textbooks, and well-known poetry, such as the Collected Works of the 100 Immortal Poets (Hyakunin Isshū), was spiced up with copious amounts of ribald wordplay and amusing illustrations.

The advocates of education within the shogunate must have been delighted to witness the commoners’ newfound passion for reading, but, as attested by the Kyōhō Reforms of 1722 and the Kansei Reforms of 1790, sumptuary laws that banned erotica and other forms of expression deemed a threat to public decorum, these officials were less appreciative of the public’s choice of reading material.