People have always wanted to know about what's going on in the world; they like a nice bit of gossip too. So, in the days before our modern printed newspapers, how did the Japanese hear about the latest execution, double-suicide, fire, celebrity marriage or sale at Echigoya department store? Well, there were yomiuri to sing the news to them. Sometimes working from temporary roadside stalls, but more often than not wandering through the streets in pairs and performing wherever there were enough people around to form an appreciative crowd, yomiuri sang sections from their latest news broadsheets, hoping to inspire those in their vicinity to fork out the cash for the full printed news article. By the end of the seventeenth century the sedge-hat-wearing news singers were already all over the place, touting for business. They'd started out in Edo (now Tokyo), but eventually made their way all along the Tōkaidō Highway and spread through every province of Japan. The print below, from 1684, shows a pair of yomiuri performing to the accompaniment of a drummer. Some sang the news to the sound of a shamisen, others did without music altogether.
Generally speaking, the news reports provided by these itinerant vendors were far from accurate; in many cases they were based on hearsay or completely fabricated. In 1684, the authorities attempted to curtail the activities of these news singers; yomiuri were to be arrested and questioned if found singing in the streets, and the production of their printed news sheets was banned. The government made similar attempts to put them out of business in 1698, 1703, 1713, and again in 1721. In 1722, the law was tightened further still, but the news singers went on plying their trade regardless.
No event was too insignificant for the yomiuri; they reported on everything from mild changes in the weather to the outbreak of devastating fires - they even included maps to show exactly what had been destroyed in the latter case. They reported on the latest affairs of renowned beauties, goings on at the theatre, changes in fashion, vendettas, suicides, and all manner of other subjects, and all in an entertaining fashion. They delivered just enough information through their singing to snare their punters, then came the all important sales pitch. For just a few coppers you could have all the news, and sing it at home to your heart's content.
If the local greengrocer took a fancy to his neighbour's wife and enticed her to run away with him, and just so happened to take an equal fancy to his neighbour's best china and most of his cash, the yomiuri would be good enough to let you know. They'd stop short of telling you how the story turned out though, and who wouldn't want to know if that greengrocer got his come-uppance? If a famous courtesan gave birth to quadruplets, a cart overturned and flattened Mr Hambei's prize turnip, or water sprites were running rampage around Nihonbashi Bridge, the yomiuri would be singing about it five seconds after it had happened - or five seconds after it hadn't happened (nudge nudge, wink wink) - and they'd throw in a dash of drama and a ditty you could sign along to. And if the yomiuri played his cards right, he'd have a queue of people lining up, with shiny coppers in hand, eager to get their hands on the news sheets on offer. Inaccurate for the most part and regularly defamatory, they put more effort into stirring up and maintaining a paying audience than informing the public. When you think about it, our modern news reports on television are not so far removed from these yomiuri performances... though the TV reports do lack music.