Kubota Hiromichi
Head of Intangible Folk Cultural Properties Section, National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo

In Japan, etoki, or picture deciphering, is a centuries-old form of performing arts that involves telling stories about Buddhist principles and historic events while using emaki (illustrated scroll) or kakejiku (hanging picture) as a visual reference. Other related performances are called sekkyou, or sermons, and they are distinguished from etoki in that sekkyou includes narration without any visual references. The stories for both arts, which were originally performed by monks and nuns, may explain the history of a shrine or temple, a pilgrimage, a biography of Shakyamuni, Buddhist sutra, or any other related topics. The origins of this heritage element is unclear, but some evidence indicates that it arrived in Japan from Southeast Asia through China and Korea, and historical records do tell us that monks were performing etoki for aristocratic audiences in Japan by the tenth century.

During the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, which correspond to Japan’s medieval period, etoki steadily became a performing art for commoners. So instead of monks, lay storytellers, including women, began to perform, and some of these new performers introduced the use of musical instruments, such as the biwa, a Japanese short-neck fretted lute, and the sasara, a small percussion instrument. In the medieval period, sekkyou also became increasingly more prevalent as an art. A common topic for both etoki and sekkyou at this time was shrine and temple history, which often described a hero wandering in pain and sorrow. For example, the Origin of Kitano Tenjin Shrine provides a mythological structure describing how the hero, Nichizo, is cast into the underworld and endures a series of trials and tribulations before establishing the Kitano Tenjin Shrine. The stories of medieval etoki and sekkyou have been called the original form of modern Japanese melodrama, and many these stories later became part of kabuki and bunraku repertoires.

By the early modern period (seventeenth to nineteenth centuries), etoki further developed as a form of entertainment, even developing in some parts as a street performance art. Toward the latter part of the period peepshows, where viewers see a sequence of pictures through a lens or hole set into a box, and magic-lantern performances (storytelling with pictures projected on glass) made an appearance. Furthermore, the nature of the tradition also made it a natural form for silent movies and picture-story shows with audiences listening to the narratives while viewing the stories on screen.

Etoki’s long history started to fade away from the late modern period onward. While extinct as a form of entertainment, etoki barely remains viable in a few Buddhist temples by a few monks and some volunteers. In terms of traditional etoki and sekkyou stories, only few remain, such as Shoutoku Taishi E-Den (Pictorial Biography of Prince Shoutoku) as told in Zuisen-ji Temple of Inamicho, Toyama Prefecture, and Karukayadoushin Ishidoumaru Oyako E-Den (Pictorial Biography of Karukayadoushin Ishidoumaru Parent and Child) as told in Saikouji Temple and Oujouji Temple of Nagano City, Nagano Prefecture. However, the true status of etoki and its situation, such as location of practice and the number of traditional elements being kept, remain largely unknown.