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Sexual, visual politics: from shunga to shojo

by Donald Richie

GENDER AND POWER IN THE JAPANESE VISUAL FIELD, edited by Joshua S. Mostow, Norman Bryson and Maribeth Graybill. Honolulu: Hawai’i University Press, 2003, 292 pp., 7 color plates, 106 b/w illustrations, $36.00 (cloth).

The original impetus for this interesting volume came during the 1994 Kyoto Conference on Japanese studies, which that year put emphasis on shunga, those traditional erotic prints that had been, until then, tidied up or hidden away.

By the 1990s exposure was much more general. Publication was allowed and by the end of the decade, the ukiyo-e section of any major Japanese bookstore was 80 percent filled with shunga.

This victory against censorship was entirely supported by the academic art history community. Their work had long been frustrated: how to write about such an important artist as Utamaro, for example, whose works contained a large proportion of what was later considered “obscene.” Indeed, Japan’s best-known feminist, Chizuko Ueno, said that unless one looked at shunga one could not understand traditional Japanese concepts of sexuality in general and gender in particular.

This is the concept tackled in the first of these collected essays, “Gender in Japanese Art” by the late Kaori Chino. “Femininity” can no longer be linked to “marginality and subjugation” and “masculinity” to “centrality and domination.” Things were never that simple and are today even less so.

From here the remaining 10 papers consider various facets of the subject. Shinobu Ikeda writes about “The Image of Women in Battle Scenes,” and Norman Bryson examines Meiji Era presentations, “Western Bodies.” Doris Croissant turns her attention to “Icons of Feminity: Japanese National Painting,” and Chisusa Kimura-Steven looks to film in “Woman in the Dunes.” The use of political gendering is seen in Kim Hyeshin’s piece on “Images of Women in National Art Exhibitions During the Korean Colonial Period,” and its modern aspects are seen in Gunhild Borggreen’s “Gender in Contemporary Japanese Art” and in Sharalyn Orbauch’s “Busty Battlin’ Babes: The Evolution of the Shojo.”

All of these papers are properly concerned with power — the power that sexuality implies. In all cases, the focus is on how the cultural constructions of gender and sexuality serve the purposes of power, especially as it is organized under state regimes. Here two of the papers, those of Joshua Mostow and David Pollack are of particular interest.

Mostow’s “The Gender of Wakashu and the Grammar of Desire” deals with Edo Period homosexuality. This makes a certain power grid visible. One of the miseries or advantages of sexual experience in general is that someone has to be on the bottom and someone else gets to be on top — that is, one gets to exhibit and exercise power and authority.

This binary opportunity is particularly clearly rendered in the homosexual example. In studying this common phenomenon and its various validations in the Edo of the 1670s, the author is able to say that “the rhetoric of shudo loyalty was hyperbolic window dressing for a phallocratic pansexuality” and to indicate that the affirmation of rank and class was the “masculine” objective.

In his very interesting paper, “Marketing Desire: Advertising and Sexuality in Edo Literature, Drama and Art,” David Pollack focuses his aim on that more specialized domain of advertising — all those representations employed for the purpose of stimulating desire.

This is something we know all about, particularly in Japan, where sexy youngsters are still used to merchandise practically anything. Pollack shows us that this tendency has a venerable history including everything from brothel guides to product placement.

The 1824 “Your Personal Guide to Shopping in Edo (Edo Kaimono Hitori Annai)” told you not only about where to eat and drink, or where to buy this or that, but also which women were available in which brothels.

Such Edo guides were in a way like a newsstand equivalent of those many bijinga print collections, which show beautiful women in typical postures (in the bath, at the well, etc.) and indicate their desirability without going to the extremes of shunga.

And there was, like now, lots of product placement within advertising. Danjuro II was pictured with his favorite patent medicine; the Kuniyoshi beauty advertised her favorite white-base ointment; and later, Yasujiro Ozu, the film director, used to turn the bottle of Suntory around so that the label could be read by the audience.

Advertising, like sexuality, is about persuasion, even seduction. Ideas on gender, concepts of what is manly and what is ladylike, are tools that assist in this sway of power.