Misfits. Oddballs. Bohemians. In Tokugawa Japan? Yes indeed, a veritable plethora of them. The Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867) was hardly the first repressive regime, or the last, to throw nonconformity out the front door only to find it creeping in through the back door, through the window, through cracks in the walls.
Rebellion takes many forms, from revolution to art. Our business is with art. At certain moments in history, “strangeness bursts forth,” writes American Japanologist W. Puck Brecher in this fine study of how and to what effect it does so. In this connection, there is a laugh I would convey to the reader if I knew how. It animates a self-portrait by the artist Okada Beisanjin (1744-1820). He is not widely known — typical of the poets and artists Brecher features and a measure of the credit he deserves for resurrecting them. Beisanjin is a rather disreputable character. (Aren’t they all?) He’s a drinker, and if anyone objects he doesn’t much care. He goes his own way, laughs his own laugh, knows what he knows. His motto: “Having sake, I cannot fail.”