It is a curious show. Curious even for me who was born & grew up in Japan & knows its culture. VERY curious for a non-Japanese who knows little about it. It is an Edo era (1603-1868) Ukiyo-E print show. Naturally, it is visually fascinating, but it is not a show on aesthetics alone. Ukiyo literally means “the floating world”. “Floating”- unstable & uncertain like a leaf on the water or clouds in the sky. This sense of Mujo: impermanence comes from Buddhism teaching. Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the 9th Century & merged itself with the indigenous religion Shinto creating a unique hybrid spirituality that still prevails even now in modern Japan. Ukiyo-E: “Pictures of the Floating World” was one of the most beloved graphic art forms in Edo era when mass culture flourished under the isolationism that was set up to prevent Christianity & western colonialism from coming into the country in 1639.
From the beginning, Ukiyo-E was a popular art, attracting the masses with Zoku: common & low charms, unlike Nihon-Ga (Japanese Painting) that was aimed at the elite class connoisseurship with its high art aesthetics of Ga: elegance, grace & beauty. With the technical development of woodcut prints came the ability to make colored & detailed pictures in multiple editions, it became one of the early forms of mass produced popular culture publications. Along with Ukiyo-E, Kusa-Zo-Shi: paperback books (some with graphic art; some without it) were also cherished as mass entertainment.
The main theme here is Wakashu. Wakashu literally means “Young Ones” or “Young Males”. At age 15, a young male went through the Genpuku ceremony to celebrate his coming of age. A boy changed his hairstyle & costumes & was allowed to carry a sword to infuse a sense of responsibility in him as a male in society. At that time, the country had a strict caste system with the divisions & ranks of a social hierarchy called Shi-No-Ko-Sho. With Samurai/Warriors on top, followed by farmers, artisans & merchants at the bottom. The Genpuku ceremony only applied to the elite class of aristocrats & Samurai but not to the lower class.
Although the Samurai class was set at the top of the hierarchy, Edo society was experiencing an unique class upheaval caused by the weakened financial power of the Samurai class due tothe lack of “jobs” caused by the long sustaining internal peace of the country that the Tokugawa Shogunate brought in. The Samurai class still held the highest rank, but the merchant class at the bottom held the real power because of their increasing financial gains. In this environment, Edo culture flourished with the pouring in of merchant money & their tastes. Some merchants supported high art, but the basic flow of culture was set in the popular mode.
There was plenty of erotica: Shun-Ga (Spring Pictures) & Shun-Pon (Spring Books) displayed. The words: “spring”, “colors” & “pink” are euphemisms used to describe sex & Eros in the Japanese language even now. The scenes from the famous pleasure districts, Yoshihara & Sumiyoshi, were one of the most popular subjects. Prostitution was legal & well accepted as part of normal social activities. The high-end courtesans were praised as “celebrities” & “fashion-trend-setters” although they were “outcasts” in the caste system society. The same with Kabuki actors. As Kabuki became one of the most beloved theater entertainments of the era, so oppositional to Noh that was an elite theater art form, Kabuki actors, also outcasts, became “stars” akin to our movie/TV culture. Especially, Onna-Gata, female impersonators who gained super star status cherished by both male & female audiences.
It is fascinating to see so many detailed renditions of the floating world of Edo society: lives of ordinary people, pleasure district workers & entertainers, some with explicit sexual content. Wakashu: young samurai class males with their androgynous beauty & their freewheeling gender transformation by cross-dressing & make-up; their interchangeable sexual roles expressing desires of both men & women; female prostitutes cross-dressing to look like Wakashu to attract customers of both sexes…, it is mesmerizing to see this level of outrageously open attitude toward sex & Eros. Why did Wakashu: beautiful young males become such desired sexual objects?
Interestingly, Japanese culture has a unique gender consciousness all through its history. Although patriarchal elements were highly regarded during the Sengoku-Jidai: War Nation Era (mid 15th Century to mid 16th Century) & the totalitalian military war time regimes in the early 20th Century, its basic elements have always been matriarchal. From the genesis story of the Sun Goddess; Himiko: the first Queen of the nation; its feminine written language that developed from masculine Chinese language; feminine literature represented by masterworks such as Tale of Genji & Pillow Book, the art of tea ceremony & flower arrangement founded by male masters to teach it to both women & men… the history of Japan is threaded with feminine elements. The adjective “beautiful” is commonly & equally used for both sexes in Japanese culture even now. So, to appreciate the beauty of the androgynous quality of Wakashu: young males that stimulate sexual desire was a part of the normal sensitivity shared by the people.
Although the focus is on Wakashu as “a third gender”, one that does not belong to either male or female but to its own androgenious particular self, the show is more about the total affirmation of sexual pleasure i.e. anything that is beautiful & fun. The laymen’s life philosophy for the Joy of Life & hence enjoying all available delights life brings forth in Konoyo (this world) = Ukiyo (the floating world) before moving to Anoyo (the Other World) after death is openly demonstrated here. What could be more enjoyable than having great sex & fun? The Edo culture embraced sex & sexual pleasures wholesomely with no psychological restrictions or prohibitions. This tendency was propelled further by the underlying long history of folk culture of sex worshipping as the symbol of fertility & prosperity. Wakashu with gender transformation & inter-changeable sexual roles was just a part of this endlessly open-mindedness toward sex & sexual pleasure that prevailed in society.
What made the sense of freedom & appreciation toward sex & Eros such as this possible? Why did it stop existing suddenly when Japan was forced to open itself up to the rest of the world? What caused this immense behavioral shift? These are curious questions to think about. Unlike the west, Japan managed to escape any type of religious oppression of life’s pleasure. Sex & Eros were accepted from the beginning. The original Japanese religion Shinto openly embraced the animistic male/female elements in nature. The imported spiritualities such as Buddhism & Confucianism never denied or made comments on sex or Eros. Without being influenced by Christian doctrines & western ideas under the isolationism policy, Japan had developed its unique culture devoid of sexual oppression, open & free, unlike western culture where sex was condemned & prohibited & people often tortured.
This total openness ended abruptly in the late 19th Century. In 1853, America demanded that Japan open its doors for trading, sending Commodor Perry in his black ships with cannons to physically threaten the Japanese. After an intense civil war-like conflict over the pros & cons of the matter, the long history of Edo ended in 1867 when a group of young progressive samurais overthrew the old regime. All the power of the country was taken away from the Shogunate & given back to the Imperial Family. That’s how the Meiji era, my grandparents’ era, began. Meiji-Ishin: Meiji Restoration quickly reformed the feudal society foging it into a modern democratic country. The westernization of Japan wiped out the old world with new technology, ideas of social & military structures, education & culture. When Christian doctrine & Victorican ethics were introduced, the innocence of sexual freedom in Japan died almost instantaneously as the idea of “sex as sin”, “something prohibitive, shameful & dirty” got woven into the fabric of the new society.
Although there are many stunning works by great Ukiyo-E artists such as Torii Kiyonaga, Suzuki Harunobu, Hishikawa Moronobu, Utagawa Toyohiro & Kitagawa Utamaro, the show is more about a social phenomenon, rather than about visual aesthetics. Each Ukiyo-E accompanies a panel to explain the content. In a way, you are required to read the captions in order to fully understand & appreciate the work in a socio-cultural sense. Interestingly, the show ends with a print of 2 women having sex with a dildo. The caption explains that having sex was recommended in order to have a “healthy” life. What a difference between the sexual oppression of western culture & the freedoms of Edo culture! This is a brave exhibition that sheds light on a world of total sexual freedom & fluid gender-transformation that stimulates thought on our current awareness of gender politics & related topics.
The exhibition will be @ Japan Society (333 East 47th St., NYC) till June 11.