The Yoshiwara, the designated pleasure district of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), was one of the most popular subjects of ukiyo-e prints, or “pictures of the floating world.” While the Yoshiwara served as a backdrop for many types of prints, it came to be most closely associated with the genre of bijinga, traditionally translated as “pictures of beauties.” Though bijinga featured women from all walks of life, the courtesans of the Yoshiwara were undoubtedly the most admired.
Creators of bijinga depicted a glittering world of great beauty and refinement, purposefully ignoring the deplorable conditions of a sex trade based on indentured servitude. Just as the Yoshiwara itself offered an alluring yet ultimately false ideal of passion and romance, ukiyo-e constructed a fantasy world endowed with sophistication and grace. The true situation—far less lovely—was subtly and cleverly communicated in some designs through the inclusion of various animals whose symbolism tells a tale that is far different from the picturesque world of bijinga.
This aspect is perhaps hinted at in a print in the Mead Art Museum’s collection by Totoya Hokkei, a surimono (a privately commissioned print) that employs lavish and complicated printing techniques, somewhat at odds with the disheartening reality it reflects.
Because they were working on private commission, printers and illustrators of surimono were not subject to the sumptuary laws of popular publications; the resulting high quality is quite obvious in this print, with its gleaming mica in the figures’ robes and careful embossing throughout the illustration. Yet despite these ornate features and the elaborate beauty of the courtesan’s kimono, one of the two dogs at lower left appears to be dirty and plagued by fleas. Here, perhaps, is a rare representation of the realities of the Yoshiwara that are completely hidden in other prints—the venereal diseases many male customers brought with them into the district. The pure white dog undoubtedly represents the courtesan—courtesans were well known for their white makeup—and the scratching dog, with its impish expression, seems to reflect the man, Sazo, who has approached her. Their furtive glances and steps do not communicate any great love or passion, as was common in the romanticized stories and art of the Yoshiwara.
The incompatibility of reality and art is, in many prints, tempered on occasion by such discrete symbolism. The decision many designers made to include a wide range of animals—from the smallest dragonfly to the most powerful dragon—became more than just a means to show the advancements made in textiles and printmaking. Even as they decorate both the courtesan and the print, these animals can carefully and cleverly reveal the realities of the Yoshiwara.
On view at the Mead in the exhibition Nature, Pleasure, Myth: Animals in the Art of Japan, February 7–June 28, 2015
Written by Siyu Shen, Class of 2015