Perpetrator Studies Network


Writing Violence: The Politics of Form in Early Modern Japanese Literature

By David C. Atherton.

Edo-period Japan was a golden age for commercial literature. A host of new narrative genres cast their gaze across the social landscape, probed the realms of history and the fantastic, and breathed new life into literary tradition. But how to understand the politics of this body of literature remains contested, in part because the defining characteristics of much early modern fiction—formulaicness, reuse of narratives, stock characters, linguistic and intertextual play, and heavy allusion to literary canon—can seem to hold social and political realities at arm’s length.

David C. Atherton offers a new approach to understanding the relationship between the challenging formal features of early modern popular literature and the world beyond its pages. Focusing on depictions of violence—one of the most fraught topics for a peaceful polity ruled over by warriors—he connects concepts of form and formalization across the aesthetic and social spheres. Atherton shows how the formal features of early modern literature had the potential to alter the perception of time and space, make social and economic forces visible, defamiliarize conventions, give voice to the socially peripheral, and reshape the contours of community. Through careful readings of works by the major writers Asai Ryōi, Ihara Saikaku, Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Ueda Akinari, and Santō Kyōden, Writing Violence reveals the essential role of literary form in constructing the world—and in seeing it anew.

David C. Atherton is an assistant professor of East Asian languages and civilizations at Harvard University.