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Shifting Tides: Japanese Culture During the Azuchi-Momoyama Period

Tammy Droscha, 2006-10-01

The Azuchi-Momoyama period, which lasted from the late 1560s through the early 1600s, brought with it sweeping changes to the culture of Japan. The previous styles of simplicity and restraint gave way to opulence and extravagance. The name of this period comes from Oba Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle and Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Momoyama Villa. Both structures exhibited the aesthetics of the new age, boasting grand stone foundations and interiors that included walls and screens highly decorated with the new ornate gold-leaf painting techniques, along with vivid colors.

During this period, the tea ceremony, imported from China, developed into a highly choreographed ritual, the rules for which were formalized by Sen no Rikyu, at the behest of Hideyoshi. Although the ceremony itself prescribed to the ideas of wabi, the principal of “less is more,” and sabi, the passage of time only enhances beauty, Hideyoshi and Nobunaga tended to enjoy a more ostentatious display. For example, both men collected valuable tea implements, many of which had been obtained through conquest, and displayed them prominently to those they wished to impress. In addition, Hideyoshi often held large, formal tea parties that would last for days at a time, and went so far as to build a golden tea ceremony house. Noh Theater, a highly stylized dramatic form that originated in the late 14th and early centuries, evolved during the Azuchi-Momoyama period. The robes and masks became more elaborate and echoed the splendor of the culture of the time. All of the parts in Noh were played by men wearing masks to represent the different characters, whether male or female. In general, Noh dramas followed the pattern of introduction, development, and climax, and could last for up to six hours.

Kabuki, a new, more lavish form of theater, came into being during the Azuchi-Momoyama period. Originally created by female traveling troupes, Kabuki combined acting with music and dance. Both comedic and dramatic tales were performed. Unlike Noh, which catered to the ruling warrior class, Kabuki appealed to the lower classes, especially the urban merchants. In addition to being highly entertaining, Kabuki had the added benefit of often being performed by female prostitutes. No doubt, this enhanced the new form’s popularity quite a bit, especially in the early days. Later, of course, the Shogunate, disliking the loose morals associated with Kabuki, first banned females from performing, and then young men and adolescents (also often prostitutes), finally stipulating that only adult males could perform.

Another of the new developments in Japanese drama during this time was classical puppet theater, or Bunraku (originally, Ningyo joruri). Bunraku combines the talents of a chanter to narrate the story, puppeteers to illustrate the story with elaborate puppets, and musicians providing accompaniment with shamisen. As puppets could not be imprisoned for saying things the Shogunate would frown upon, Bunraku was used for satire and social commentary, as well ass for pure entertainment. Bunraku, like Kabuki, gained its primary audience from the lower classes.

A form of genre painting known as Namban became popular during the last quarter of the 16th century. The word namban means southern barbarian, and was used to describe all foreigners (considered barbarians) who lived in countries to the south of China. Imported styles were becoming more popular, encouraging some Japanese artists to experiment with Western conventions and formats. Namban art includes not only images of Europeans, mostly merchants and missionaries, but also works created by Europeans and brought to Japan.

The forerunners of haiku, haikai and hokku, first appeared during the Azuchi-Momoyama period. Originally intended as a humorous alternative to the serious renga form of poetry, haiku was modified by Matsunaga Teitoku into a formal style of poetry. He applied rules that included the judicious use of colloquialisms or Chinese words, rather than humor, to differentiate haikai from renga. Over time, however, the rules began to change and haikai morphed into hokku, with the structure of the verse becoming more important than the words. Hokku became a 17-syllable verse divided into three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, respectively.

The Azuchi-Momoyama period was a time of sweeping change in the culture of Japan. Not only was interest in the outside world rising; the merchant class was rising in prominence as well. The somber monotones of the previous era gave way to bright colors and the arts began to thrive in the newly developing urban centers. Entertainment was no longer solely for the ruling class, and the lower classes embraced the burgeoning forms that catered to their tastes.