Kawaraban – A very popular form of entertainment throughout the Edo era, and a precursor of the modern newspaper. Carried information related to fires or natural disasters. However a great majority of those kawaraban sold within Edo specialized in gossip and scandals. The name kawaraban itself was not so commonly used, with people preferring the terms `yomiuri`, `tsujiuri`, and `ichimai zuri`.
The kawaraban themselves were divided into two distinct sorts. The first involved kawaraban sellers who, in the evening, would tie a cloth band around their heads and walk about the streets selling kawaraban whilst lightly tapping the ground with a bamboo stalk. They would be accompanied by around 2 to 3 `entertainers`, who would sing out the most juicy pieces of gossip whilst playing the shamisen. Whenever anyone wanted to liven things up in the izakaya during the evening, they would buy one of these kawaraban.
Of course, the kawaraban could include fairly outrageous stories such as “a mermaid with three eyes emerges in Echigo bay”..." With eyes under each armpit and the third in her forehead, this `mermaid` had a total of 5 eyes. With a body 10 meters long, this mermaid was more akin to a whale." Such kawaraban, printed in two colours, had a good sales reputation, and even though people knew that when they bought such news they were being fooled, they bought it nonetheless. “Heh heh, what about this?” – it was a characteristic of Edoites to delight in being fooled by sensationalist news. A popular saying went... “3 parts (or 30%) of the daily news come from kawaraban”, which prompted most people to think “Doesn`t that mean the remaining 7 parts consist of mere nonsense? ”. The kawaraban sellers would draw in people`s attention by shouting out the headlines, yet sometimes the headlines and the content of the kawaraban were substantially different.
The people who made the kawaraban were those who didn`t want fixed, regular employment. Those who were good at writing and those with a gift for conversation would gather together and create the kawaraban for the day. They may on occasion receive a request from a store to badmouth the store`s competition, hence they might write that `although the perfume says that it will lighten the skin, in reality it makes it darker”. In order for someone to break off relations, the writers would expose a scandal. As such stories carried an element of danger (in that they could invite anger and retribution), those who sold them, once they ran out of copies, would quickly switch to a new location.
The other sort of kawaraban involved a group of sellers who would walk around in an unobtrusive manner selling their wares. The content usually involved current affairs, and as the sellers did not resort to advertising themselves through calling out or song, they were considered to be more reliable, and therefore sold well. In order to get an idea on what was being featured, when asked `whatta ya sellin`?`, the seller would reply “oh, such and such a story”.
As kawaraban were not an officially sanctioned form of print media, the authorities could be severe in the punishments metered out against them. This strictness encouraged sellers to walk around in a nonchalant manner, for `surely there couldn`t be anything particularly interesting (being sold) by such a low-key and unobtrusive salesman?` Whenever a story criticized an official in a particularly harsh manner, this could not be printed on a printing block for fear of reparations should the writers be discovered. Hence an original would be written out by hand and then copied by other writers. Once all copies had been sold, the writers` group would disband.
Things were equally dangerous for the buyers, for if they were caught in possession of such materials, they too would be punished. To offset this, once the kawaraban had been read, it was burnt. Such kawaraban were sold on the understanding that the reader would dispose of them once they had finished reading them. As usual, only the most scandalous of stories would be written out by hand.
The kawaraban that sold more than any other form of news were the “corner news” articles regarding fires (Hōgakubashozuke). These would be printed and sold on the day of the fire, and would show where the fire had occurred. The reason this could be done on the day of a fire was because kawaraban sellers possessed `section maps` of the city which were all ready for printing once such information was received. All they would need to do is fill in the section that had been burned in red. The competition for such kawaraban was very fierce, as Edoites could see for themselves the burnt out areas in question. They wanted to know how any famous stores had fared, or whether their relatives were safe.
If the kawaraban sellers were slow in getting this information out, they would be scolded with comments like “that lot are too cruel and lacking any sense of compassion.” As the situation changed, sellers would issue a second version, and a third, piling one version upon the other as circumstances dictated.
When information on fires or earthquakes was reported, this would be printed in a colour version of the paper. In the case of earthquakes, the title page could bear the headline “numazu (the catfish) shakes his tail”. Using a popular tune at the time known as “shake (your) tail”, sellers would walk about singing out the details of the earthquake while accompanied by the tune. This would elicit laughs, and people would put the disaster behind them.
The price of the kawaraban varied according to the news within it. From a relatively cheap 3 to 4 mon, the price could rise to the fairly expensive 30 to 40 mon. This would put it in about the same league as modern newspapers and weekly magazines. (16-19)