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The Printer's Eye: Ukiyo-e from the Grabhorn Collection

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INTRODUCTION by Laura W. Allen

If one looks through this latticed partition (magaki) or that latticed wall (kōshi), the ornamented, uncommonly showy kōshi courtesans seated in a row talk gaily, asking about their night engagements with visitors and chatting with their acquaintances. Customers draw near, fascinated just to hear whatever they can.

A Guide to Love in the Yoshiwara (Yoshiwara koi no michibiki), 1678 [1]

Token Gonbei
Latticed showrooms (harimise) were a common sight in the Shin (New) Yoshiwara, the famous licensed pleasure quarter of Edo (modern Tokyo). Peering through wooden partitions, Yoshiwara visitors could eye the courtesans lined up in their finery, judge the most nubile or experienced, flirt, or chat up old favorites. Paintings and prints of the pleasure quarter, or kuruwa, served a similar role for voyeurs and armchair travelers, calling up fantasies of limitless options for sex and play. "Join us," the pictures call, "inspect the goods, spend some money (outspend your rivals!), eat, drink, and carouse in the company of an attractive partner. Remember the fun you had before? Come back and let us cater to your every desire."

Enticement, in its many forms, is at the heart of the exhibition Seduction: Japan's Floating World. Drawn from the John C. Weber Collection, the exhibition focuses on cultural products of the "floating world" of Edo-period (1615–1868) brothels and Kabuki theaters, celebrity courtesans, actors, and patrons. The "floating world," or ukiyo, is a concept familiar to many readers, but it is worth reviewing its meaning in relation to this exhibition. Ukiyo has its origins in Buddhist texts, where a homophone combining characters meaning "sorrow" or "grief" and "world" was used to imply the suffering caused by desire, the chief impediment to enlightenment. In the seventeenth century, this somber term was given a playful twist: by substituting a character meaning "to float" for the one meaning "sorrow," the sense of ukiyo changed to the more easily embraced notion of a "floating world" where desires were fulfilled instead of denied. As Melinda Takeuchi points out in her essay in this volume, inhabitants of Edo imagined the "floating world" as a "universe of wit, stylishness, and extravagance—with overtones of naughtiness, hedonism, and transgression." To some, ukiyo connoted an attitude of carefree pleasure-seeking, an escape from the constraints of a highly regulated social order. One could experience the "floating world" in many places, but Edoites gravitated especially to the Kabuki theater district, located in Nihonbashi at the city's center, and to the more remote realm of the Yoshiwara. In these entertainment zones, the mostly male population of Edo found an outlet for its leisure time and sexual appetites.

A visit to the Yoshiwara
The Yoshiwara was formally instituted in 1617 in the heart of Edo, the newly established seat of the shogunal government. [2] Following the Great Edo Fire of 1657, the quarter was relocated to the northern outskirts of the city, on a larger plot of land just north of the popular Asakusa Kannon Temple (also known as Sensōji). Called "New Yoshiwara" (Shin Yoshiwara), the district covered some twenty acres. Seeking female company, Edo men traveled more than two miles from the city by boat, foot, and/or palanquin, entering the moated compound through a single gate at the quarter's north end, the Ōmon (Great Gate). Once inside, they could arrange to meet a high-ranking courtesan at an assignation teahouse along the main street, Nakanochō; visit the latticed brothels on several cross-streets; or head for the cheapest prostitutes in hole-in-the- wall establishments, often found on the Yoshiwara's margins. By one account at least 987 women lived in the quarter in 1642, [3] and the numbers rose by the mid-1700s to a population of 3,000 female workers. The largest brothels had forty to fifty women each, [4] plus maids, kitchen workers, supervisors, and other personnel. This density made the Yoshiwara a bustling, crowded place, dedicated to servicing the needs of a metropolis that numbered a million inhabitants by 1700. In the Yoshiwara, sexual partners were available in variations to suit every taste and budget. But sex was not the only attraction: singing, dancing, parlor games, food, and wine all enticed men to linger in the quarter.

With the Yoshiwara's fame came an astonishing outpouring of artistic production in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as paintings, woodblock prints, and printed books vied for attention from customers hungry for new stories and images of the quarter and its inhabitants. This explosion of popular art, much of it ephemeral, has been widely celebrated in the West, with the result that many rather humble commercial artists have since been elevated to the status of great masters. Others, such as Hishikawa Moronobu (d. 1694) (cat. no. 1) and Katsukawa Shunshō (d. 1792) (cat. no. 7), were highly regarded by their contemporaries and at times created works on commission for daimyo and other members of the military elite. This exhibition includes work by a range of artists, from anonymous to famous, all of whom contributed to the success of the city's brothel and theater districts.

In Part I of the exhibition, the "floating world" is brought to vibrant life in A Visit to the Yoshiwara (cat. no. 1), a masterpiece by the foremost seventeenth-century painter of floating-world pictures (ukiyo-e), Hishikawa Moronobu. At just under 58 feet in length, this richly detailed handscroll painting offers a comprehensive view of the licensed district in the late 1680s, its arcane etiquette, customs, and fashion. Through a sequence of fifteen episodes, viewers are invited to approach the Yoshiwara's main gate, to view the street life of the quarter, and to visit brothels for prostitutes of the tsubone, sancha, and kōshi ranks, as well as a lavishly decorated ageya, or house of assignation, where wealthy samurai are entertained by highly skilled courtesans. The exhibition situates the scroll within the material culture of these ageya parties by pairing it with porcelain serving vessels, kimono-shaped bed covers (yogi), and men's costumes from the Edo period (cat. nos. 51–52, 54–55, 29–30, and 38–41). Contemporary woodblock-printed guides to the Yoshiwara, also included here (cat. nos. 58–63), offer detailed commentaries on the world depicted in Moronobu's scroll.

Part II of the exhibition focuses on a single theme that encapsulates the values and ideals of the "floating world": the top-ranked Yoshiwara courtesans known as tayū until about 1760, and oiran thereafter. These celebrity prostitutes were heavily promoted through artistic means, and much admired throughout Edo, where they were the subjects of poetry, literature, paintings, and countless woodblock prints. Though they were "known" to the public, top courtesans were physically accessible only to the wealthiest patrons, at great expense, after a carefully scripted set of initial meetings. Their high price was justified on the basis of years'-long training in a variety of refined arts. This description of the woman known as Segawa III, based on an account by Baba Bunkō (1718–1758), gives a sense of the top courtesans' talents:

Born into a poor peasant family, she was brought for training to the Matsubaya at a young age. There she learned all the arts desirable for a high-ranking courtesan, such as shamisen (a three-stringed instrument), singing, tea ceremony, haiku (poetry), go (chess), backgammon, kickball, flute, all extremely well. Her superb handwriting, painting, and haiku skills were acquired from great masters. [5]

In reality, while the tiny minority of elite courtesans may have led relatively comfortable lives with fancy clothes and access to teachers, most Yoshiwara women were not so fortunate. All abided by a strict set of rules. Kept in perpetual debt by brothel owners, they worked out contracts of some ten years' duration unless bought out by a wealthy patron. Yoshiwara prostitutes were subject to daily quotas, which doubled on special "holidays" known as monbi; unwanted pregnancies and venereal disease were endemic. Girls were purchased at age seven or eight from poor farmers, often far from the city. Torn from their families, they could be forced to work long hours, open to abuse by cruel sister-courtesans or customers. From today's perspective these women were sexually exploited, and few of us would condone the system that kept them employed. Lacking our prejudice against child labor and prostitution, however, the Edo populace might have seen the situation differently. Some Edo writers justified prostitution in terms of filial duty, which imposed a responsibility on the family, even to the point of supplementing its fortunes by participating in the sex trade. A recent study of Edo prostitution by Amy Stanley emphasizes the fluctuating moral and legal status of sex workers and examines the economic value of their labor. [6] For many girls, prostitution may have been the only means of escaping and potentially assisting impoverished families. Against the forced servitude of the sex worker was balanced the prospect of regular food, clean clothing, and a shot at celebrity.

Sadly, the courtesans of the Edo Yoshiwara left behind very little in the way of personal records to tell us how they felt about the circumstances of their lives. What survive are literary descriptions and visual representations, most created by men. With some exceptions, these pictures, prints, and books were commercial products, made for sale in shops and by itinerant vendors (some paintings were made to order, as private commissions). They constituted essential tools for marketing the Yoshiwara, in the process perpetuating the system of prostitution, with its elaborate ranks and etiquette. Not surprisingly, then, most of the pictures gloss over the more sordid and sad truths of Yoshiwara life. They deliver artfully constructed fantasies of courtesans on parade or at rest in the quarter's brothels and teahouses—carefully sanitized, idealized, and glamorous.

Throughout the Edo period, courtesan pictures served a variety of purposes: to arouse interest in the "wares" available in the quarter; to console men for the absence of a lover; to celebrate the attainment of a favorite courtesan's favors; and to advertise the most up-to-date fashions of the time. One important goal of such pictures was to cultivate a connoisseurship of women, the Yoshiwara's best-known product. They do so with documentary flair—exactingly rendered hairstyles and clothes that change from year to year—but their allure is highly symbolic and artificial, not realistic. This exhibition acknowledges that artifice and sets out to examine the paintings' seductive power, in particular the use of gorgeous clothing, implied intimacy, and disguise to summon desire.

Often overlooked in considerations of ukiyo-e painting, clothing stimulated the passions of men who judged a woman's value partly on the basis of what she wore. (Courtesans received new garments from favored patrons four times a year, and the wearing of those garments signaled the status of both wearer and patron alike.) In works by Kubo Shunman (1757–1820), Katsushika Hokuun (active ca. 1800–1844) and others, the display of expensive, up-to-date robes is as important a focus of attention as the courtesan's highstepping pose and attractive features (cat. nos. 12 and 17). The clothes worn by courtesans scarcely survive today, but as vibrant evidence of the beauty and variety of Edo fashions, we include many exquisite examples of robes made for samurai-class women and wealthy merchant wives (cat. nos. 31–37).

Promised intimacy and romance are also avenues for seduction. Paintings from the Weber Collection offer a spectrum of approaches, from Katsukawa Shunshō's "behind the scenes" look at courtesans relaxing or reading love letters and a couple with their limbs entangled in a close, deeply sensual embrace (cat. nos. 9, 8, and 7, respectively); to Teisai Hokuba's (1757–1844) courtesans waiting on a hot evening for the arrival of their clients (cat. no. 20); to Utagawa Toyokuni's (1769– 1825) view of a courtesan arising from bed after sex (cat. no. 18). These paintings employ a variety of subtle and overt cues to convey the message that women of the pleasure quarter were available for unimpeded and exclusive access.

Other works in the exhibition use crossdressing, costumes, and disguise as aspects of their seductive power. Included here are Kabuki actors costumed for the stage and contemporary beauties disguised as the faithful lovers of an ancient courtier (cat. nos. 10–11 and 15). The exhibition concludes with the imposing portrait of the Hell Courtesan (Jigoku Dayū) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. She wears a dramatic costume that brings us full circle to the Buddhist sense of ukiyo as suffering prompted by desire (cat. no. 21).

We are deeply indebted to the scholars who contributed a set of fine essays to this catalogue. In "Seduction: Japan's Floating World," Melinda Takeuchi provides an engaging introduction to the floating world, describing the etymology of its key terms and outlining the history of the sex trade and its epicenter, the Yoshiwara. Her close reading of the bijin (beautiful person) theme sheds new light on the intersection of desire and constantly evolving notions of beauty, fashion, and style. Eric C. Rath's fascinating excursion into Edoperiod food culture, "Sex and Sea Bream: Food and Prostitution in Hishikawa Moronobu's A Visit to the Yoshiwara," reveals how depictions of food preparation and consumption in the Moronobu scroll stand in for the sex act, which is not otherwise explicitly rendered. His analysis of the culinary ingredients and techniques in the scroll's kitchen scene show that "dining was a central part of the program of seduction in Yoshiwara." Finally, in "Kuniyoshi and the Hell Courtesan," Julia Meech summons myriad original sources to weave an absorbing account of how this flamboyant beauty was transformed into a popular icon in the late Edo period. Meech's encyclopedic treatment of a single theme in ukiyo-e sets a new standard for the field.

The six illustrated books included in the exhibition appear here with highlights skillfully translated and annotated by Alfred Haft (cat. no. 58) and Kristopher Reeves (cat. nos. 59–63). Helen Nagata graciously agreed to let us revise and adapt her translation of the woodblock-printed book A Guide to Love in the Yoshiwara, which originally appeared in her doctoral dissertation. We are delighted to be able to include these translations, which offer unexpected insights into the customs and codes of conduct of the pleasure quarter, enhancing our understanding of the world depicted in Moronobu's scroll.

A book of this complexity and scope requires the cooperation of many individuals. First and foremost, we wish to thank John C. Weber for his unfailing support of this project and his generosity in sharing these prized works from his Japanese art collection. We were especially fortunate to have the assistance of Julia Meech, Curator of the Weber Collection, who worked tirelessly to help guide this catalogue to its present rich form. Lori Van Houten, Collections Manager for the Weber Collection, provided critical assistance with photographs and other documentation. We are indebted to all the catalogue authors and translators, who deferred other important projects in order to participate in this effort. The many colleagues and specialists who assisted us along the way include John Carpenter, Joseph Chang, Julie Nelson Davis, Sebastian Izzard, Chen Lian, Shiyee Liu, Andreas Marks, Nagasaki Iwao, Naitō Masato, Pamela Parmal, Nicole Rousmaniere, Midori Sato, Cecilia Segawa Seigle, and Sharon Takeda. I would also like to express my deep appreciation to Alexander Hofmann and Melanie Trede, who generously agreed to allow us to re-use material from The Arts of Japan: The John C. Weber Collection (2006) in this catalogue. Well-researched and beautifully written entries by Hofmann, Rousmaniere, and Terry Satsuki Milhaupt informed my understanding of many of the objects in this exhibition and were adapted for the brief entries included here. Jane Oliver was kind enough to edit and comment on the essays and catalogue entries, offering her assistance under a tight deadline. At the Asian Art Museum Mikka Stifler, Sunny Endo-Benus, and Yuki Morishima rendered invaluable help, including research and assistance for the entries, bibliography, and Japanese checklist. Our Deputy Director of Art and Programs, Pedro Moura Carvalho, selected the catalogue cover and gave many helpful suggestions about the layout. The dedicated efforts of Tom Christensen, head of Publications, and Christine Taylor, at Wilsted and Taylor Publishing Services, brought the project to fruition, with copyediting by Nancy Evans, proofreading by Melody Lacina, and art management by Jennifer Uhlich. Yvonne Tsang is responsible for the beautiful design you see here.

1. Trans. Helen Mitsu Nagata.
2. Yoshiwara was originally written with a compound meaning "reed field," but the first character of the pair was soon changed to a more felicitous homophone meaning "good luck."
3. Matsuba, "Shunga and the Floating World," 410. The number is based on a list of women in the 1642 courtesan critique Tales of the East (Azuma monogatari).
4. Hockley, Inside the Floating World, 18.
5. Seigle, Yoshiwara, 123. Note 37 lists the source as Buya zokudan (Secular tales in the martial field) by Baba Bunkō, 1757 (Tokyo: Yūhōdō, 1932), 381–387.
6. Stanley, Selling Women.

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