Monday, January 2, 2012

Murakami Side Trip: 19th Century Erotic Japanese Woodblock Prints

Among other things that we pondered during our last meeting of Murakami’s book is the Japanese view of sexuality.  Steve proposed that Japanese society is probably open about sex.  “Look at 19th Century erotic Japanese woodblock prints.”  I corrected him with a know it all authoritative voice,  “But the buyers for these types of prints were exclusive.  There were government bans on erotic prints.”  We know of their existence, but exactly who was buying erotic printmaking of this time? Was it a small niche of buyers?  Was it an exclusive upper class?  I decided to explore the topic further.

I have many books on Japanese printmaking. One example is a survey Japanese Prints, from the Early Masters to the Modern by Michner, published in 1959, once considered a staple of survey books of Japanese printmaking. The inside jacket cover explains the book as a “tour so carefully arranged as to give a deep understanding of the history of aesthetics of Japanese prints….so far as consonant with his aim at presenting a full survey, Mr. Michner has illustrated the book with lesser known masterpieces rather than with those few prints that have been reproduced almost at Nauseam.”  Among other illustrations, the book includes dainty courtesans, often with attendants, with fans or musical instruments “representing the beauties of Edo.”

Utamaro: The courtesan Imose of the Yoshiwara House Akatsuta-ya parading with her Kamuro

Another book, The Japanese Print, a Historical Guide, by Munsterbeg, 1982, is a survey, and points out the three main genres for Japanese woodblock prints: Kabuki actors, glamorous courtesans of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters, and heroes and heroines. The informative book outlines the masters, their students, and the genre they specialized in.  Examples of courtesans depicted in the book show women in beautiful flowing costumes like a fashion plate. Some illustrations show courtesans with a “companion” serving tea or entertaining with music. There is a notable inclusion of an explicit work by Utamaro, Lovers, 1790.  The book is published with a black line through middle of the illustration.  In two paragraphs, the book admits the existence of erotic printmaking. The book explains that the prints are Utamaro’s “ supreme achievements” (he is probably considered the greatest master of this genre). Production was made with the best craftsmen of the day.  “It is probably no exaggeration to say that these Japanese woodblock prints of the 1790’s are the most perfect works executed in this medium in any age or during any civilization in the entire history of art.”  The second paragraph gives insight, “although the portraits are often said to depict specific women such as the celebrated tea house waitress Okita….they all look very much alike, for they embody the ideal of feminine beauty envisioned by the artist rather then the actual women themselves.

 Utamaro Lovers

Both of these books were bought at library book sales in Lawrence and were former public library books. 

A book I picked up years ago when browsing the stacks at the Murphy Art History Library included another genre of prints from the floating world, the sexual shunga. The prints show couples in the act of sex with graphic depictions of insertion. Although most of the figures represented in shunga are heterosexual couples, prints include women masturbating with objects, women with women, men with boys, and women with animals. The prints often show the “it girl” courtesans and actors of the day who appear glamorous, and the subjects desirable.  However, the book points out that this is an idealized portrayal for what was probably in reality a difficult life for prostitutes.

For my quest, I interviewed Kris Ercums, curator of the Spencer Museum Asian art collection. I knew of their existence, but who was purchasing the erotic prints of 19th century Japan? According to Kris, the answer is “Everyone.”  The floating world represented the sanctioned entertainment district of Edo.  Although there were government restrictions, erotic art in the form of printmaking was extensive. All major artists created this genre of work because it sold well. Although I could never again find the book I had looked at when browsing, Kris told me the name of the book is Sex in the Floating World: Erotic images in Japan 1700-1820 by Timon Screech, 1999.  It is frequently checked out at Murphy, so I ordered it on Amazon.

My incorrect assumption that erotic 19th century Japanese printmaking was a niche was based on incomplete reporting from former public library survey books that ignored an important genre because it was viewed as inappropriate. I was pondering Japanese views of sex through information from survey books of art, but the lack of inclusion of shunga by publishers and editors reveal, instead, a prudish American view.

More: From WikiShunga was probably enjoyed by both men and women of all classes. Superstitions and customs surrounding shunga suggest as much; in the same way that it was considered a lucky charm against death for a samurai to carry shunga, it was considered a protection against fire inmerchant warehouses and the home. From this we can deduce that samurai, chonin, and housewives all owned shunga. All three of these groups would suffer separation from the opposite sex; the samurai lived in barracks for months at a time, and conjugal separation resulted from the sankin kotai system and the merchants' need to travel to obtain and sell goods. It is therefore argued that this superstition was euphemistic, and ownership of shunga was not superstitious, but libidinous.[2]
Records of women obtaining shunga themselves from booklenders show that they were consumers of it.[1] Though not shunga, it was traditional to present a bride with ukiyo-e depicting scenes from the Tale of Genji.[2] Shunga may have served as sexual guidance for the sons and daughters of wealthy families. This has been disputed since the instructional nature of shunga is limited by the impossible positions and lack of description of technique, and there were sexual manuals in circulation that offered clearer guidance, including advice on hygiene.[2]


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  2. It's my personal mission, as a public librarian, to normalize smut in public libraries! Only half-joking. Smut is a Very Important Cultural Resource. Love this example of information in different contexts -- Murakami would be proud :-) Very intrigued by this "celebrated tea house waitress Okita."

  3. Thanks for the further digging. Karen. I, too, wonder why Okita was so celebrated. I'm also curious how the manuals referenced in the Wiki info would read today, "including advice on hygiene."

    The idealizations of "beauty" in those puzzle me some - there must still be some cultural or historic barrier I'm not quite aware of.

    Very interesting that its use was that widespread, and I wonder what kind of arc can be drawn culturally from then up through now (or least 1984).