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Yoshikono-bushi: Booklet for Crooners

(Text and Photos by Peter Ujlaki)


Not too long ago in Japan, when karaoke reigned supreme, only social misfits spurned the chance to croon "My Way" and "Yesterday" at bars and parties. The whole country was gaga over performing in front of a mike, and social commentators applauded the loss of reserve that this implied. What few realized was that the custom of Japanese trying to overcome inhibitions by singing in public was nothing new.

Anyone walking near the window of a teahouse in late Edo or early Meiji (1850-80) would be surprised not to hear love songs, sad airs, and comic tunes emerging from the rooms, a common result of saké-drinking in the presence of a samisen. Though back then there were no music videos with superimposed lyrics to aid the memory, at least in Kansai (Western Japan) amateur crooners purchased little songbooks to practice with and take along to the party. And these songbooks, perhaps needless to say, were printed by the woodblock technique and came adorned with tasteful ukiyo-e.

Singing a different tune: Obscure ukiyo-e amplified, Vol. 25

Yoshikono bushi was the name given to the popular songs in Kansai of this period, and that is how the booklets are called, too. Identifiable by their narrow horizontal format, they can occasionally be spotted in piles of ephemera at old book fairs. Though they are typically well-thumbed and in wormy condition, every so often one finds pages in an uncut state, as pictured here, suggesting that the product was originally sold in individual sheets of hosoban size (17 x 38 cm), the format that would soon become popular for landscapes and children's prints in Meiji Osaka. Buyers returned home with these sheets, the thinking goes, and performed their own cutting, folding and simple binding.

Such an arrangement makes sense, since new hit songs had to be added and older ones discarded, plus this left room for customization. Still more good luck for the McCartney wannabes: each page of lyrics sported its own charming little drawing that was keyed to the song. The main artistic effort, however, was reserved for the cover and first pages, ukiyo-e images that established an overall mood for the collection.

Shown here is the uncut cover, frontispieces and preface to a songbook entitled "A Flower Basket of Songs: Snow". It was one of a trilogy of booklets (the others were subtitled "Moon" and "Cherry Blossoms" — a common grouping) illustrated by Sadanobu I (1809-79).

Like other Osaka ukiyo-e artists, Sadanobu was willing to work on various kinds of woodblock products besides the familiar single sheet kabuki prints, and yoshikono commissions must have helped fill in some slack time in the early 1850s. Curiously, and perhaps simply for the novelty, his cover girl here (a geisha entertainer, herself perusing a songbook), is portrayed in a manner totally uncharacteristic of Osaka beauty prints.

A triumverate of working girls

"Courtesans" (prostitutes), generally working out of an "oki-ya" or brothel; "teahouse beauties," the regular employees of an ocha-ya, an eating and drinking establishment; and "geisha" (special entertainers, recognizable by the numerous hair ornaments), hired out to an age-ya, or party room, all co-existed in the pleasure quarters of Edo-period Japan. The lines of demarcation between these professions changed from decade to decade, moreover, further confounding modern efforts to properly decipher and label classic prints of beauties.

For reasons not at all clear, although Osaka had more than its fair share of brothels and age-ya, virtually all prints of women in the second city seem to be of teahouse beauties. Why was the Osaka print publishing environment so different than the one in Edo, where courtesans and geisha fill reams of prints? For that matter, why were portable song booklets an exclusively Kansai phenomenon? Yet more ongoing mysteries, for collectors and scholars alike.

This article originally appeared in Daruma, no. 25, Winter 2000. Copyrighted © text and pictures reprinted with permission.

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