Images of Men and Women in Japanese Woodblock Prints

Images of Men and Women in Japanese Woodblock Prints

Toshidama Gallery


The current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery shows twenty-four prints of men and women, all of them from the nineteenth century. Immediately obvious is how, despite stylistic and technical development, images of men remain pretty consistent throughout the period; yet women go through a noticeable transformation, stylistic and conceptually, from compliant and decorative beings to bold and active, sometimes threatening individuals. Roles change as well: most female likeness is restricted to the genre called bijin (beautiful woman) during the early part of the century; their roles are principally in entertainment – prostitution or working as Geisha (another type of prostitution). By the close of the century they are not exactly train drivers or politicians, but they are all doing something, and that was very worrying for the men.


Japanese culture was in crisis for most of the nineteenth century. Economic upheaval resulted in redundancy for the samurai class, who nevertheless were able to retain their privileges until the 1860’s. Migration from the countryside and the creation of a road network introduced an explosion in middle and merchant class citizens who were ambitious and anxious to create a place for themselves in the growing urban scene. Women’s roles as peasant wives or prostitutes were also under stress as changing values loosened traditional restrictions on both occupations and domestic activity.


Revolution in 1864 – 1868 finally finished the samurai class as a significant force in society, imposed newly imported western values of trade, probity and morality and released the pent up potential of the merchant middle class. Social and gender anxiety inevitably followed swiftly on these radical upheavals. The change is evident even in this small selection of prints. As previously mentioned, the males held onto their traditional self image of warriors and the descendants of the honourable and noble heroes of past histories. Compare for example, Kuniyoshi’s ideal warriors from the 108 Heroes  of the Popular Suikoden in the 1820’s (above right) with Toshikata’s lonely General standing in the bucolic landscape of the Japanese foothills (top of page) and we can gauge the same sense of defiance, fortitude and strength. How different though is the image from 1843 of the lovelorn Ono no Komachi, seated decorously on a bench (below left) from that of Kunichika’s 1876 Okane from Ohmi, effortlessly carrying a wooden pail whilst stopping a galloping horse dead in its tracks with her foot (below right).


In so many ways, these prints chart Japanese society in its most crucial period of change almost better than any comparable documents. The century begins with images of men and women that reinforce the traditional, feudal roles of people in a society unchanged for hundreds of years. Women are the repository of beauty; and men are the guardians of the mother country – bound by codes of honour (the bushido) and by archaic and seemingly nonsensical laws and duties that demand of them absurd commitments to loyalty and tradition. This position is indeed glorified throughout the first half of the century and reinforced in that other great barometer of social change, the kabuki theatre. As the social climate changes in the 1830’s, there is a surge to nostalgia with both artistic and theatrical revivals of historical epics such as The Chushingura, the saga of the Soga Brothers or the numerous depictions of the Minamoto clan and their martial victories. These great prints served  as a corrective to the rapidly disintegrating fabric of the old shogunate. Resentment becomes apparent in the early 1840’s when, in a bid to hold onto power, the Shogunate introduced strict laws limiting the subject matter not only of kabuki dramas and their associated artwork, but also historic subjects that might be seen as reflexively critical of the current regime.


Artists responded with the invention of new genres that enabled some critique of culture without seeming to break the letter of the law. Mitate, as they are called were a popular way around the restrictive laws (the Tenpo reforms); prints which, like cryptic crosswords, stand in for something entirely different to the thing being drawn. Mitate and other genre prints demonstrate at the least a spirit of popular dissent and importantly, they encouraged artists to look around for subject matter that would be acceptable to the censors. One area of rich potential for the kabuki theatre and subsequently for woodblock artists was the lives of the townspeople. Hence we start to see fewer historic plays from the canon of historic drama and increasing numbers of subjects drawn from the merchant class and the increasingly popular  early versions of newspapers. Plays and prints abound with grocers, noodle sellers, prostitutes, tea house employees and porters as their principal material. A new modernism creeps into representations of women – here are women washing their hair, in wooden pails or on the street, fishing, relaxing in contemporary interiors or else promenading unaccompanied by men. Women’s new found freedoms, especially after the revolutions of the 1860’s, led to a great deal of anxiety in men. Women were now seen as noble, brave, capable and bewitching as shown by nearly all the illustrations in the great collaborative series A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets of 1847. In this extraordinary set of prints by Hiroshige, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi, women are chosen from history and paired tenuously with great poems, the link being set as a puzzle to the reader. What distinguishes this series as opposed to say, a typical series by Eisen, is that the women have been chosen because of their strength, fortitude, loyalty and piety – exactly the attributes normally attached to male heroes. Here we have Iga no Tsubone, exorcising the ghost of a vengeful general, or Tamamo no Mae – a frightful witch who is in reality a fearsome nine-tailed fox – or the pious and loyal Hotoke Gozen, giving up the favours of a retired Emperor out of loyalty to her friend. These are named women… women with personalities and identities, paragons in some ways and something quite new in a previously patriarchal culture.

Of course, it was not all the sisterhood in harmony with men towards the great leap forward. There are still plenty of examples of decorative women and brutal males. As the influence of the west became stronger in Japanese culture in the 1880’s so did the malign hand of western christianity, with its stuffy manners and probity, its constricted morality and misogyny. We start to see women being bound by Edwardian dress codes and, at the instigation of the Meiji Royal family, Japanese culture increasingly adopted the mores of Edwardian Britain or WASP America. By the end of the century, the peculiar hybrid of east – west culture had produced something like the confusion of identity that is still visible in Japan today… the outwardly unusual mix of the extreme and the conventional – a culture underground, as it were. I think though, that we can only marvel at the extraordinary confidence of the great, classical depictions of the floating world… those slender and exotic prostitutes of Utamaro, or the limitless freedom of Japanese shunga. Likewise, the often startling depictions of strong and determined women, carving out a life in the burgeoning pre-revolution of the mid-century is inspiring in its potential… the suggestion of a harmonious, modern culture, free of the crushing twin weights of capitalism and religion. Like all revolutions though, there is in these stirring prints only a hint of what might have been. In the end, trade, as usual, beats joy every time.

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