Kōdan (講談, formerly known as kōshaku (講釈)) is a style of traditional oral Japanese storytelling. The form evolved out of lectures on historical or literary topics given to high-ranking nobles of the Heian period, changing over the centuries to be adopted by the general samurai class and eventually by commoners, and eventually, by the end of the Edo period, declining in favor of new types of entertainment and storytelling such as naniwa-bushi. It was at this time that the term kōshaku was abandoned and kōdan adopted. Today, after a failed attempt to revive the art in 1974, there are four schools of kōdan and only a very few performers between them.
Kōdan is usually performed sitting behind a desk or lectern, and using wooden clappers or a fan to mark the rhythm of the recitation. This derives from the origin of the art form in cultural, literary or historical lectures given in the Heian period courts.
During the Muromachi period (1333–1568), the form was adopted or revived by the general samurai class for educational purposes. Dramatic readings from historical war chronicles (gunki monogatari) such as Taiheiki and Heike Monogatari were organized. By the beginning of the Edo period in 1600, the form had developed even further and spread to become even more commonplace. Masterless samurai (rōnin) would often support themselves by performing dramatic readings of Taiheiki or other chronicles and tales. It was at this time that the form expanded to include not just the classic standard chronicles but general historical events as well, which were not codified into a set written form. Where readers of the Heian period read directly from classical texts, kōshakushi of the Edo period prided themselves on their knowledge of history and told stories both contemporary and historical. They memorized not the precise words and phrases of a story, but the details of the events themselves, which could then be formed into a story, somewhat different each time it is told. Soon the stories began to center not around samurai and nobles, but around townsfolk, thieves, and vigilantes; the storytellers adapted to their own tastes, their own knowledge, and that of their audience, which was increasingly townsfolk and not nobility.
In 1700, a man by the name of Nawa Seizaemon opened the Taiheiki-ba in the Akasaka section of Edo (now Tokyo), becoming the first professional kōshakushi. Kōdan remained strong for many years, and gained a new popularity after the Meiji Restoration (1868), which, being a quite major event, supplied the performers with much new material. At one point, there were fifty performance halls in Tokyo devoted primarily or exclusively to kōdan. By the beginning of World War II, there were still six or seven.
Though the arrival of movies, records, and other forms of entertainment eclipsed kōdan in the early 20th century, the art form contributed heavily to various forms of Japanese theater and to the development in Japan of the modern popular fiction novel.