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The Laughing Masses: Comedy and Visual Media in Imperial Japan


This dissertation examines the history and discourse of comedic periodicals during the formative period of Japanese modernization, 1870-1910. In the broadest sense, this study argues that comedic publications were key to the birth of modern mass media in late-19th and early-20th century Japan. Comedic periodicals created Japan’s first integrated ‘magazine’ by suturing a division created in early periodicals between political discourse and social life through approachable yet experimental visual and textual modes. As the development of industrial capitalism produced new modes of society, media, and politics in the late-19th century, comedic periodicals drove the creation of mass readership and provided a place of political critique in an environment of increasingly strict censorship. Although comedic genres of Japan’s modernization have been marginalized by intellectual and cultural historians, this study will show they were not only essential in the history of modern print culture, but also their development through the era, gives invaluable insight into the way modernization and capitalism reconfigure modes of representation and communication.

This project analyzes the publications Marumaru chinbun (団団珍聞, 1877-1907), Kibi dango ( 驥尾団子, 1878-1883), Tonchi kyōkai zasshi (頓知協会雑誌, 1887-1889), Kottō zasshi (骨董雑誌, 1896-1899), Kokkei shinbun (滑稽新聞, 1901-1908), and numerous other publications to develop its argument. These publications experimented, synthesizing new methods for reproducing images and content in the era of machine printing and lithography. Although their contribution has largely been subsumed into the history of mass media at large, this study seeks to rehabilitate the significance that comedic critique held in both attracting and educating readers while driving the creation of ‘general interest’ media in the age of industrialization, which is to say, mass media.

By analyzing visual, linguistic, and textual examples within the context of the history of print culture and capitalism, this dissertation shows that the mode of comedy shifted across the period in question from satire and parody, to irony, and finally to absurdism. These shifts indicate the evolution of the political stakes of mass media vis-�-vis people’s conceptualization of their society or the social. The scope of mass media here includes newspapers, magazines, literary works, legal documents, illustrations, broadsheets, and advertisements.

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