Visual vernacular: Rebus, reading, and urban culture in early modern Japan

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In Japan, the image has long been a primary locale for linguistic experimentation and a crucially important site for the localization of language. This article explores the ways in which the rebus, as a distinct form of verbal/visual play, became a platform in early modern Japan for radical language experimentation contiguous with, and a precursor of, the more well-known political reform movements of the nineteenth-and twentieth-centuries (such as genbun itchi unification of the spoken and written and hgen bokumetsu eradication of the dialects). As I show here, the rebus was a key instrument through which the inflection, syntax, terminology, and visual language of the capital circulated in early modern Japan, reaching both hypo-and hyper-literate circles, and inculcating a sense that the witty language of the Edo urbanite was Japanese language par excellence. To understand this movement of knowledge, we need to consider closely the full material range of early modern popular texts, and particularly we need to plumb the depths and terms of linguistic experimentation taking place along the fertile seam between the spoken sound and the written sign. To this end, I provide a brief genealogy of visual play with homophones in classical Japan before moving to the early modern period where I focus on several deep readings of both hypo-literate (illiterate map) and hyper-literate (rebus narrative) forms to examine the creation of what I call a visual vernacular.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)57-70
Number of pages14
JournalWord and Image
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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