Pop culture. Japan’s today is thriving, vibrant, spreading, turning people the world over into manga/anime freaks and costume players.

It’s a new role for this once introverted, quietly workaholic nation. As recently as the 1980s, “culture” in Japan meant, if not corporate culture, then high culture. Pop culture — culturally if not commercially — was peripheral. Now it is central, one of the few buoyant sectors in a society that otherwise seems to have lost its way.

Four hundred years ago there lived a woman who might have foreseen it. She launched it. Popular culture before her is an oxymoron. Japanese culture was ancient, elegant, stately, nuanced, refined, classical, exclusive.

The rude masses had no part in it. They had their entertainments, circuslike and bawdy, courtesy of wandering musicians, dancers, ballad chanters, puppeteers, acrobats, swordsmen, animal trainers and the like, but if culture implies something transcending mere boisterousness, little of this qualified.

Japan’s popular culture was born in a makeshift semi-outdoor theater on the banks of the Kamo River in Kyoto, then Japan’s capital, in 1604 — not far from the local execution grounds. Experts might balk at so sharp a turning point, but with due allowances made for gradual evolution and unsung forerunners, a dance spectacle staged there and then seems to have been a break with the past and a harbinger of the future. Modern anime fans might have found it right up their alley.

The mastermind was a dancer named Izumo no Okuni (ca 1571-ca 1615). She had grown up a shrine maiden doing devotional dances, and graduated to the river and other venues where she and the troupe she trained and led entertained the masses with songs, skits, flamboyant costumes and sexual innuendo — cross-dressing, for instance. She danced at court too, but her popular performances were described as “kabuki” — meaning “weird.”

A collaborator who may or may not have been her lover was a dashing warrior named Nagoya Sanzaburo, known for wit, grace and a penchant for outlandish Portuguese attire — Portuguese traders and missionaries were then making early inroads. Sanzaburo was stabbed to death in a quarrel with another samurai.

“A few months later,” writes journalist Mark Weston (in “Giants of Japan,” 1999), “in the middle of a performance, a handsome young man wearing fashionable Portuguese garb leapt onto Okuni’s stage and demanded to see her, claiming to be Sanzaburo’s ghost. The audience quickly realized that the actor playing the ghost was none other than Okuni herself, and erupted in cheers. For several minutes ‘Sanzaburo’ danced sensuously with the actress playing Okuni, until finally an angry hunchback drove ‘Sanzaburo’ back to the underworld.”

Heard the one about the woman who cut off her nose? It’s from Japan’s first bestseller — a humor anthology published anonymously in 1615 under the title “Today’s Tales of Yesterday.”

The woman’s husband was ill, dying. The thought she might remarry was darkening his last hours. Remarry? Never, she vowed. She would shave her head, become a nun, pray for the repose of his soul. The husband was moved, but not satisfied. Shaved hair grows back; a woman’s heart is weak. It was a lot to ask, he admitted, but would she cut off her nose? That would reassure him, and he could die at ease.

Very well, said the wife.

To everyone’s surprise, the husband recovered — a happy turn of fortune’s wheel, except that he was now the husband of a noseless woman. “I am ashamed to tell you this,” he said, “but seeing your face makes me wish I were dead. There is no kind way to say it: I want you to leave.”

She protested; he insisted. The case ended up in court. He told his story, she told hers. The magistrates deliberated and reached their decision: “Off with his nose!” And so it was done. “Hand in hand, the noseless man and the noseless woman returned home and lived happily ever after without incident.”

Once upon a time — this is from “Tales of the Floating World” (1666) by one of the first authors from the Edo Period (1603-1867) whose name survives, a onetime Buddhist priest named Asai Ryoi — a certain Hyotaro, scion of a Kyoto merchant house, became a slave to pleasure, specifically the varieties on offer at Shimabara, Kyoto’s licensed erotic quarter.

One courtesan in particular consumed his attention, his energy, his fortune: “Being promised her true love until the end of time, he became so intoxicated with joy as to think less of his own life than of dirt. And all the while he was being fawned on and flattered by the hired jesters . . . ”

His family remonstrated with him: “By her nature, a courtesan is a woman who . . . adorns herself, and so is quite alluring . . . Her lips languorous like a loose-wound spool, the fragrance of her perfume reaching to the skies. And how lovely when she moves, swaying back and forth; truly she could easily be mistaken for the living incarnation of the Amida Buddha! Compared with this creature, a man’s wife can hardly seem to be more than a salted fish long past its prime!”

Well, that’ll kick the nonsense out of the young fool.

“And the thankfulness you feel,” the family elder continued, “just to hear the sound of her (the courtesan’s) voice! What great priest could bestow on you words of enlightenment equal to this? . . . So please,” he concluded, “we beseech you, cease this folly!”

A moral sermon in which the irresistibility of pleasure is emphasized to sound a warning risks going badly astray.

“Truly,” replied Hyotaro, “I am most grateful for your kind advice.”

Whereupon he “hurried out on his way to the Shimabara and, before long, using up all he had, ended up as yet another of those thread-bare bums, to the tune of the shamisen’s ‘te-tsuru-ten’!’

Edo Period Japan made a startling discovery starkly at odds with the grimly authoritarian current of the times — fun.

Fun sounds like something spontaneous; in Japan it had to be discovered, or invented. Prior to the Edo Period, this warrior-based, war-racked, fastidiously ceremonial society “had lived as though in a graveyard,” as the eminent U.S. Oriental studies scholar Wm. Theodore de Bary puts it.

Five developments permitted the rising of the dead that in turn generated Japan’s first ever pop culture — peace, a prosperous and expanding merchant class, mass literacy, money, and printing.

All appeared suddenly, transforming stately old Japan out of recognition — just as, 400 years later, the Japan of militarism and yamatodamashii (Japanese spirit) was transformed by a postwar infusion of American mass culture.

The peace was imposed by a regime whose prime concern was to stifle any threat — real, potential or imagined — to its own supremacy. The ruling Tokugawa shoguns carried conservatism to the extreme of closing the country to the outside world for more than 200 years.

In the resulting hothouse atmosphere, literacy was a veritable explosion. Print was the new medium of the day, the cyberspace of late pre-modernity; it spoke to, for and of the masses, conferring upon them something they’d never had — status, significance.

Prior to the 17th century, most people, samurai included, were illiterate. Warriors at war perhaps don’t need letters; warriors edgily at peace do, if they are not to be ungovernable. Shoguns and feudal lords were accordingly energetic builders of schools. With astonishing rapidity, literacy took hold and filtered down the social strata. By the mid 1650s, almost everyone except the very poor and, for a time, most women, was literate and hungry for books.

A new technology — woodblock printing, better suited than movable type to Japanese writing — churned them out. Urban Tokugawa Japan was awash in cheap, illustrated paperbacks, forerunners of today’s manga. This was a blow to the itinerant lute-playing blind minstrels, traditional entertainers of an earlier day with their epic war ballads (the 13th-century “Tales of the Heike” was a perennial favorite). But all change impoverishes some while enriching others. Writing and publishing became profitable ventures.

As for money, Japan’s economy had long been rice-based. The first native gold and silver coins (Chinese coins had circulated much earlier) were minted at the end of the 16th century, and favored the budding though officially despised merchant class. But the significant date for our purpose is 1636, when the shogunate began minting bronze coins called zeni. This was pocket money, small change.

Pop culture is impossible without it.

Armed insurrection was one perennial Tokugawa fear. Sex was another. The erotic impulse is unruly, anarchic. You never know what people under its spell might do. Early kabuki unsettled the shoguns and aroused their containing instinct. Okuni’s dance troupe was all female; likewise its imitators and successors. They were wildly popular. Fights broke out as men competed for their favors. The spectacles were banned. Boys’ kabuki sprang up to fill the void. Same problem, same solution.

The rumblings of discontent that followed were so ominous that the shogun relented — somewhat. Kabuki was to be strictly adult, strictly indoor and, onstage, strictly male (the leading onnagata, male actors who played women, did more to set female fashions than any woman), with a (theoretically) de-eroticizing storyline to be given prominence over pure dance.

Similar treatment was accorded the numerous and scattered brothels — they were licensed and concentrated in one area of each town or city.

The result, by the mid-17th century, was the development of two urban akusho (bad places) — the theater district and the pleasure quarter. They were the two main venues of Edo Period pop culture. There wasn’t much fun outside of the akusho but plenty of it in them.

In the quarters men loved and were loved, or at least indulged, and in the kabuki and puppet theaters they saw themselves and their passions writ large, frivolity heightened to drama, lovers to heroes, love to tragedy.

True, the courtesans’ favors were bought and sold; true also that the courtesans, however cultured and artistically gifted, were what a later age would call sex slaves. But marriage in pre-modern Japan was a perfunctory, unsatisfying affair, designed for the begetting of heirs. Love, or at least the possibility of it, was a breathtaking discovery. Look what it did to poor Hyotaro.

Licensed quarters sprang up across the country. Even a modest town would likely have one. The three largest were Yoshiwara in Edo (present-day Tokyo), Shinmachi in Osaka and Shimabara in Kyoto. Here men posed, swaggered, strutted, made extravagant fools of themselves. Edo pop literature spoofed the rutting male with gusto. The goal was to acquire and display tsu — sophistication. The role model was the urbane playboy who knew the quarters and their intricate customs, knew how to talk to courtesans and get his way with them.

Sharebon (books of wit and fashion), wildly popular from the mid 18th century, wickedly satirized the “half-tsu” — the self-deluded buffoon whose pretensions to sophistication were ludicrous but also educational, exposing to readers the blunders to be avoided en route to full tsu-hood.

A literary romp through the Yoshiwara titled “The Playboy Dialect” (1770), author unknown, is considered the first true sharebon. A half-tsu character called Man-About-Town, a somewhat down-at-heel samurai, shepherds a rich merchant’s innocent young son to the quarter, his eagerness to impress pathetically endearing. They enter the quarter, Man-About-Town pattering non-stop: “If anybody catches sight of me, they’ll all flock around and kick up a fuss! Tonight I’d like us to amuse ourselves quietly, just the two of us. My, the place looks deserted tonight! What teahouse shall we go to? I know so many places . . . ”

His unawareness that teahouse proprietresses and courtesans of various ranks are laughing at him behind his back is touching; his mortification at being unrecognized in premises where he has claimed a vast reputation reminds us of the timeless nature of human foibles, however exotic the environment.

In style and content, Edo pop culture is everything ancient Japanese culture was not, and much of what today’s pop culture is — raw, garish, bursting with life and disdainful of nuance.

“Grilled and Basted Edo-Born Playboy” — there’s a title to reckon with! It’s a kibyoshi (“yellow booklet,” so-called from the characteristic color of such books’ covers) that appeared in three slim volumes in 1785. Kibyoshi were similar to sharebon but more copiously illustrated (more manga-like), more sharply satiric, less didactic.

The basted playboy is the creation of an acknowledged master of the genre, Santo Kyoden (1761-1816). The hero, or antihero, has the right name — Enjiro, meaning “Sexy.” And he has the right background — only son of a rich and indulgent merchant father, owner of the Wanton Shop, purveyor of Western luxuries obtained via the Dutch United East India Company, one of very few foreign concerns permitted to trade, under tight restrictions, in the otherwise closed country.

Enjiro should have it made, but it’s no use — the girls don’t like him. Still, why should that matter? What a determined man can’t get one way, he can get another. When personal charms fail, money succeeds — doesn’t it? Especially if, as with Enjiro, the quest is more for a reputation as a lover than for a lover’s love.

He has two rather disreputable friends — a playboy named Kinosuke and a jester, Shian. Under their wise guidance, he sets to work. Every great lover, they advise him, has names of women tattooed all over him. That’s the first thing he sees to, gamely enduring the pain in pursuit of his ideal. Via Shian, he pays a geisha 50 gold coins to pretend she’s in love with him. For 50 gold coins she’ll do anything. She sobs, debases herself, threatens suicide. When no one notices, Enjiro pays to have the affair written up in a broadsheet. To no avail. Edo is busy; Edo has no time for Enjiro.

He showers money on a top-ranking Yoshiwara courtesan, hires a “wife” to pretend she’s jealous, pays some street toughs to beat him up (because in kabuki all irresistible lovers get beaten up), persuades his father to disown him (because in kabuki all profligate sons get disowned; the soft-hearted father at last reluctantly agrees to a 75-day disownment), pays geisha to feign distress at his poverty, stages a love suicide with the Yoshiwara courtesan (with Kinosuke and Shian standing by to intervene at the last moment) — and so on.

Somehow, nothing takes. Enjiro is one of those people nobody cares about, and nothing he does makes any difference. He and the courtesan are proceeding with their mock suicide when two masked robbers set upon them and drag them off — home, as it turns out; the robbers are none other than Enjiro’s father and an employee.

Sobered, Enjiro sees the folly of his ways. He and the courtesan marry. In due course he inherits the business and — who would have imagined? — settles down and matures into a shrewd, thrifty, classic Edo Period merchant!

The first Edo writer to treat love outside the pleasure quarters (not that he failed to treat it inside them as well) was the literary phenomenon Ihara Saikaku (1642-93). He was Japan’s first writer with a nationwide readership. His popularity was enormous, his output no less so, though only long after his own time did anyone see greatness in him, and his writing — funny and tragic and hopeful and despairing all at once, sometimes in a single sentence — did much to shape the notoriously flamboyant Genroku Era (1688-1703).

Saikaku wrote of everything he knew, and he seemed to know everything. Born in Osaka of merchant stock, he flung himself and his myriad characters — male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, merchant, samurai, priest, yokel, courtesan, virgin, housewife — into the “endless stream of love, on which (people) might embark with all their cares and float as light as bubbles through the Fleeting World.”

Rules governing conduct in the pleasure quarters were strict in their own way, but the worst a man risked in breaking them — it was bad enough, of course — was ridicule. The shogunate had so far compromised with human passion as to give it these enclosed spaces to play in. Outside the quarters — no compromise and no play.

Love was dangerous. It was criminal. “Item one. Illicit intercourse,” reads a Tokugawa statute. “Persons such as those who have engaged in illicit intercourse with their master’s daughter, or who have attempted such: Death. . . . Persons such as those who commit adultery with their master’s wife, or with their teacher’s wife: Death for both the man and the woman.”

Saikaku’s heroes and heroines — “bodies . . . stretched upon the rack of love” — love feverishly, compulsively, desperately, courting death knowingly and not caring because it’s inevitable, it’s worth it, and when the time comes they die bravely and proudly, teenage plebeian girls no less than adult plebeian men doing honor to the time-honored samurai tradition of “holding life lighter than a feather.”

Thus we have Osan, for instance, one of Saikaku’s “Five Women Who Love Love” (1686). We glimpse her first as a 13-year-old seen through the eyes of a group of young Kyoto rakes lounging about eyeing the women as they pass. “Thanks to large inheritances, they could spend every day in the year seeking their own pleasure . . . Night or day, girls or boys, it made no difference.”

Osan wins their impromptu beauty contest hands down, but shortly afterward marries the local almanac-maker and settles down. She’s a steady and loyal wife — but passion will have its way. She loses her head and elopes with a shop clerk, a rather unappealing figure, seen from outside — but, explains Saikaku, “There is no logic in love.”

Death rears its head from the start. Says Osan to herself, like one swept away by the tide, “I may as well abandon myself to this affair, risk my life, ruin my reputation, and take Moemon as my companion on a journey to death.”

Is this despair, or joy? To make a long and wonderful story shorter than it deserves to be, the couple is discovered in their rural hiding place and hauled back, their sentence a foregone conclusion: “There was no room for mercy in view of their crime. When the judicial inquiry was duly concluded, the lovers . . . were paraded as an example before the crowds along the way to Awadaguchi (the execution ground), where they died like dewdrops falling from a blade of grass.”

The Saikaku of the puppet theater, as we might call him, was Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725). Unlike Saikaku, Chikamatsu was samurai born, but he, too, invested his plebeian heroes and heroines with the ultimate samurai virtue — an indifference to death that sometimes seems almost a courtship of it, though in the service of love rather than a feudal lord.

Love suicide is a recurring theme. What else can a man and a woman do in a world so inhospitable to the deepest human feelings?

“Did our promises of love hold only for this world?” exclaims the courtesan Ohatsu to the merchant Tokubei. Of course not. Tokubei is too poor to buy her contract and prevent a richer, craftier merchant from having her.

And so, “Farewell to this world, and to the night farewell . . . How sad is this dream of a dream!” Tokubei plunges a dagger into the throat of the woman he loves, and — “Must I lag behind you? Let’s draw our last breaths together” — immediately cuts his own throat.

First staged in 1703, “The Love Suicides at Sonezaki” was based on an actual incident and inspired others. Love suicide became an epidemic, one following another. Fashions change, but the lure of fashion is constant, common to pop culture then and now.

How did this incendiary mass entertainment survive the censorship of a censorious, rigidly Confucian regime?

At times, it didn’t.

As the merchant class rose the samurai fell, becoming themselves addicted to the character-corroding, fortune-depleting pleasures proliferating around them. The shogunate responded with what the English historian George Sansom (1883-1965) called “an inky cloud of sumptuary edicts against extravagance of every kind.”

An analogy is the determination of repressive societies today to censor the Internet — sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

In 1722, erotic literature was banned; in 1723, so was the dramatization of love suicides. The bans were effective for a while, until eventually writers and producers found ways around them; the bans were reinforced and the cycle began all over again. Some writers and publishers were arrested, some books suppressed, but in the long run, what are moral injunctions against the passions of an Osan, an Ohatsu, a Tokubei?

Edo pop culture, prototype of our own, is in one sense its opposite. Ours is an escape from dull mundanity into fantasy. Edo’s was a discovery of — at times a desperate plunge into — the once-disdained pleasures of this world.

The scholar de Bary, writing of Saikaku’s treatment of “the search for happiness in love,” observes, “What at first sight seems no more than the universal preoccupation of man is soon seen to have a special quality, an extraordinary intensity akin to religious feeling.”

Love was more than pleasure — it was salvation. The overarching metaphor is the ukiyo, the “floating world” and its twin meanings — floating in the Buddhist sense of ephemeral, and in the pop-culture sense of euphoric.

We come now to the “Floating World Bathhouse” — and would that space permitted us more time here! Edo in the early 19th century had more than 600 public bathhouses. “Floating World Bathhouse” (1809) is a kibyoshi by Edo native, the writer and bookseller Shikitei Sanba (1776-1822).

“Public baths,” he wrote, “are the shortest route there is to moral and spiritual enlightenment. . . . Both master and servant stand naked after they’ve washed away the grime of greed and worldly wants and rinsed themselves with fresh water — and you can’t tell whom is which!

“Naked, the lustiest young bathers feel bashful and hold towels over their private parts. Fierce warriors, washing themselves off before bathing, endure the hot water splashed by others onto their heads and resign themselves to the ways of crowded places. Even irritable toughs with spirits and gods tattooed on their arms say ‘Pardon please’ . . . Where else but in a public bath can such virtues be found?”

Nowhere else, more’s the pity. “The sign at the bathhouse entrance tells bathers, ‘Full payment each time,’ and helps them realize that life is short and comes only once.”

The spirit of Edo pop — and of our pop too — in a nutshell.

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (VBW, 2010). His website is at www.michaelhoffman.squarespace.com

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