Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Introduction to Shunshoku Umegoyomi (春色梅兒譽美)

The ninjōbon (人情本) genre of romance novels came to the forefront of popular Japanese literature during the Edo period (1603-1868).  As the country was under strict orders from the shogunate to isolate itself from the outside world (a policy known as sakoku) due to the belief that interaction with foreigners would lead to the destabilization, and eventual destruction, of Japan, many other forces that were thought to possess similar consequences were also opposed by the government.

The ninjōbon proved to be one such force. During the twilight years of the Tokugawa shogunate, Tamenaga Shunsui (1790-1844) published a series of romance novels that gained great popularity in the capital, Edo (the pre-Meiji Restoration name of Tokyo). The flagship novel in this genre, published in 1832-33, was Shunshoku Umegoyomi (春色梅兒譽美), or Spring Colors: The Plum Calendar. Set in Edo, Umegoyomi tells the tale of two geisha, Yonehachi (米八) and Adakichi (仇吉), who yearn for a beautiful young man (美少年) named Tanjirou (丹次郎). Tanjirou, of course, is already engaged to another woman, named Ochou (お長).

Fig. 1: A page from the character list of Umegoyomi 
in a set of scans hosted by the National Diet Library.

The reason why the ninjōbon genre caught my interest, where works from earlier periods did not, is partly because of its portrayal of the life of commoners. Whereas Heian-era (794-1185) works were written by the aristocracy, for the aristocracy, about the aristocracy, the exact opposite was true for Umegoyomi and other works like it. Tamenaga was the son of a commoner, and his works enjoyed widespread popularity, as is evidenced by the ban placed on them by the 1842 Tenpō Reforms. Whereas plenty of official government writings document the lives of the nobility throughout Japanese history, we must rely much more heavily on works of fiction, such as Umegoyomi, to glean insight into the lives of commoners.

My transcription/translation of Umegoyomi will be based on this scanned copy made available by the National Diet Library of the Japanese government. I will also be referring to this publication by classical Japanese scholar Alan S. Woodhull, although the translation will be my own. Transcription will be conducted in an in-line fashion, so that the kuzushiji (calligraphed characters) will be placed next to their corresponding print-form kana/kanji. This way, readers will hopefully be able to gain some direct insight into how to read kuzushiji, which has, to me, proved much more challenging than translating and interpreting the text (although YMMV). For some more background on the text, take a look at this blog post.

List of Translations:

Vol. 1:


  1. Wow, this is very interesting! Japanese literature has always been something I've wanted to know more about. Keep up the good work!

  2. I've been meaning to practice reading manuscript since forever, and this is just perfect. Thanks!