I guess it is to be both anticipated and regretted that the women of Japan who were once the great writers and poets and priestesses, not to say robbers and warriors of their culture, should have been reduced by the middle of the nineteenth century to the status of ornament and prostitute. They became ritualised and mimicked, exploited and feared, bound by convention… however, strong women – or at least the illusion of strong women – are still evident in the art of ukiyo-e; the Japanese woodblock prints of 18th and 19th century Japan.
More often than not, real women, powerful women, make an appearance in ukiyo-e art only as cautionary tales, or else as paragons of feminine virtue and piety. I’m thinking here of Kunichika’s series 36 Good and Evil Beauties… women to be revered as saints or feared as demons. But by far the most common depiction of women of the time is either in prints of the kabuki stage or as prostitutes… geisha or courtesans if you prefer. Both these models remain insincere. In the first instance because there were no kabuki roles for women and these prints, beautiful and seductive as they are, depict onnagata or female impersonators representing the female characters.
In the second case, the activities of the courtesans took place within the walled city of the Yoshiwara, a pleasure quarter not subject to the normal rules of society and living its own life, by its own clock and with often brutal consequences. The Yoshiwara, a sort of cross between the Vatican and the Reeperbahn had for centuries catered to the desires of men for mistresses, for theatre, for indulgence of any kind… it was only here and even then within strict codes of behaviour, that women could find leverage in an otherwise male society. In the art of ukiyo-e, as in so much Western art, real women are really only an illusion.
Illustrated here are Kunichika’s portrait of the “Evil Omatsu” from 36 Good and Evil Beauties; a woman who poisoned her wealthy husband. Below is Yoshitoshi’s “Thirty-Two Aspects of Customs and Manners: Looking itchy – The Appearance of a Kept Woman of the Kansei Era (1789-1801) Number 16.”