Muda-zukai (wasting money), muda-ashi (making a fruitless visit), muda-guchi (making meaningless conversation)—Japanese phrases with the word muda (wasteful, meaningless, useless, etc.) usually mean something bad, which gives muda a negative connotation. Actions, behavior, and speech should have a positive impact or some benefit, and we should certainly be indignant over wasted taxpayer money or other behavior that is detrimental to our welfare.
Along these lines, the poem below is a senryu (a Japanese traditional style of humorous poetry) piece, created in the Edo era:
Aisatsu ni onna wa muda na warai ari [When greeted, a woman replies with a meaningless smile] (Yanagidaru, Vol. 2)
From a utilitarian point of view, a smile exchanged in a greeting does not have a significant meaning. It might be muda, indeed. The point of this senryu, however, is that it redefined the value of something everyone had never thought as meaningless—rather, something people actually considered as pleasurable—from a different and ironic perspective. In short, the poem points out a muda whose existence is delightfully accepted by a fundamental social consensus.
Ooeyama kaeri wa tabo to muda wo ii [Saying useless things to a women on the way back from Mt. Ooe] (Ibid, Vol. 40)
Tabo is a slang word meaning woman. On the way back to the capital after exterminating demon-style robbers and rescuing a confined young noble lady, even heroic Minamoto no Yorimitsu and his four great vassals might have indulged in the delight of the accomplishment and relief, cracking jokes toward the lady, the poem guesses. While one of this poem’s features is that the lady is cheaply referred to as “tabo” just like an ordinary girl, the poem also says the jokes were “muda.” Edo people called this kind of jokes or nonsense, primarily word play, muda.
Kami yori wa muda wo yuunoga ooi nari [People do joking more than their hair] (Senryu-Hyo Manku-Awase, 1777)
So, countless puns would fill a barbershop, which was a popular spot for older men to gather for recreation and relaxation. The following two poems are also about a scene in a barbershop:
E wo kaita shoji wa muda no kaisho nari [A shoji (paper slide screen) on which pictures are drawn is in a place to get together meaninglessly] (Ibid, 1777)
Muda no kai abura shoji no uchi de suru [A useless club meeting is held behind an oiled paper slide screen] (Ibid, 1785)
Kai is a club of people interested in the same thing. We can imagine the older men creating puns as they riposted, as if they were competing with each other. Shikitei Sanba’s Ukiyodoko vividly describes scenes such as these.
Along with barbershops, such muda that people enjoyed with the knowledge of its meaninglessness and uselessness used to penetrate various aspects of daily life throughout the town of Edo. Read some popular literary works created in the Edo period and you will find that most of them consist of muda, which would make you think that muda was just like breathing for Edo people— incorporated in their deep mental and physical makeup. This was not limited to the world of older men. Not only kusazoushi (entertainment picture books in the Edo era) but also books for children such as Douke Hyakunin-Isshu, a parody of the Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets [Hyakunin-Isshu], were full of muda. There were books collectively called nazo no hon, or riddle books. The most common style shown in them is the three-step riddle: (A) to kakete (B) to toku, sono kokoro wa (C) [How is (A) like (B)? The answer is (C)]. This generally utilizes the similarity of pronunciation, i.e., the technique of making a pun.
Word puns were called jiguchi in the Edo period. Many collections of those jiguchis, collectively dubbed as jiguchi-bon, were also published. The most popular and circulated ones had a style in which pictures were associated with text so that they were accessible for children. From the modern point of view, however, the Edo era was practically indifferent about the differentiation between books for adults and for children. With only a low barrier between them, people were not so reluctant to let children see books that are supposed to be adult-oriented from the modern perspective. Adults could also grin and read nonsensical books ostensibly published to entertain kids (though adult men also enjoy the popular comic magazine Shonen Jump today, as well).
Society in the Edo period had arrangements to train children so that they would not have difficulty in adapting to the adult society. Those books full of muda must also be considered as part of such arrangements. If the daily life of adults relies on muda to reduce friction, they are required to master muda. The skill for saying witty things at a right occasion is the fruit of sophisticated culture.
Meaningless conversation by politicians who fail to distinguish between public and private, for example, cannot be overlooked as muda. It is not only shameful in exposing cultural immaturity, but it also deeply injures our national dignity. Let us reconsider the fact that puns and other word-play jokes were called muda in Edo. This term represents the responsibility and discretion of the Edo people. When something could only be described as muda according to the outward mores of the public, it was preserved as what people truly thought deep inside their private world, while respecting the outward mores just as outward mores—this was the wisdom of Edo people and the very cultural maturity of the time. If you clearly define the line between the public and private, sense the atmosphere around you, and produce muda, then it runs life smoothly. Fortunately, this culture of muda still survives today. We need to polish and pass it on to the next generation. Older men’s activities are not muda.
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of specialization: early modern Japanese literature
Born in Hokkaido in 1956. Graduated from Faculty of Letters, Chuo University in 1979, and the Master Program, Graduate School of Letters at the same institution in 1981. Withdrew from the Doctoral Program at the same institution in 1985 after completing the required course work.
Assumed the current position in 1998 after serving Kokushikan Junior College as a full-time lecturer and Faculty of Letters, Chuo University as a full-time lecturer and Associate Professor.
Currently studies the culture of publishing in general in early-modern Japan, primarily in terms of the distribution of publications in order to understand the time from the foundation of the Japanese culture. Awarded the Japan Society of Publishing Studies Award in 2005, and the Gesner Award in 2008.
His publications include Love of Reading in Edo: Self-Instruction Readers and Distribution of Publications [Edo no Dokusho Netsu: Jigaku suru Dokusha to Shoseki Ryutsu] (Heibonsha Sensho, Heibonsha, 2007); Bibliography for Studies on Early-Modern Publications, the augmented and revised version [Zouho Kaitei Kinsei Shoseki Kenkyu Bunken Mokuroku] (Perikansha Publishing, 2007); Illustrated Story Book Stores: Shops of Wood Block Prints in Edo [Ezoushiya: Edo no Ukiyoe Shoppu] (Heibonsha, 2010); Full of Edo Books: The Context of Publishing in Edo Shown on Yellow-Covered Books [Edo no Hon Zukushi: Kibyoushi de Yomu Edo no Shuppan Jijou] (Heibonsha, 2011); Juzaburo Tsutaya, the new edition [Shinban Tsutaya Juzaburo] (Heibonsha, 2012); and Introduction to the Theory of Historical Materials on the Distribution of Publications [Shoseki Ryutsu Shiryo Ron Josetsu] (Bensei Publishing, 2012).