Japanese Woodblock Themes and Subjects

Marriages were arranged and there were few outlets for adventures, much less romantic ones. At the beginning of the 17th century, the country was ruled by a military dictatorship that lasted 300 years. After 1630, foreign travel became a crime punishable by death. A strict class system curtailed social mobility. All that was left was pleasure.

Licensed pleasure quarters, home of courtesans and the Kabuki, were to be found in every city. They were the principal inspiration for ukyio-e, pictures of the floating world. The most famous was Yoshiwara in Edo.  According to the 1869 census, there were 3,289 courtesans working in 153 brothels. Girls were either bought from poor families or sold into prostitution by noble families because of some disgrace. The only escape possible was being bought by a rich man. A courtesan's career was over by 27. If she were clever she could move on to brothel management, but most were turned out on the streets.

Courtesans didn't have to entertain any man who came along. They were selective and the ceremonial courtship of a courtesan is often depicted. Their private world was also shown, e.g., adorning themselves in a mirror, reading love letters. Portraits of famous courtesans were sought after but they were never painted nude. The body is always partly shrouded by a town or gown. The ideal of Japanese beauty concentrated on the face, hair and dress.

Around 1750, the geisha was introduced. She was employed in order to entertain a man during dinner with singing, conversation and dancing. The geisha was not a prostitute and only low-class geishas extended sexual favors. The everyday pleasure of Edo was a constant theme of the Japanese print- street festivals, fireworks displays, regattas, processions and pageantry. Yet the pleasure quarter was also the center of intellectual life. Under the repressive shogunate, it was one of the few places men could talk freely.

The Kabuki Theater was part of this pleasure world. Stripping the classical Noh theater of its stiff costumes, actors had new freedom of movement.  The plots are simple but their melodrama isn't. Actor prints usually show a single man or perhaps two in dramatic composition.     

Abstracted from The Art of Japanese Prints,Nigel Cawthorne, Hamlyn Publishing,1991  SiteMap