The man who popularized the Edo pleasure district

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

The Yoshiwara pleasure district of Edo (old Tokyo) has often been immortalized in word and image for the exquisite carnal pleasures it offered.

It was also considered the center of Edo Period (1603-1867) cultural life. If anyone could be said to have put Yoshiwara on the map, it was the bookseller, publisher and visionary Tsutaya Juzaburo. The Suntory Museum of Art’s latest show in Tokyo, “Juzaburo, Publisher who discovered Utamaro and Sharaku,” celebrates this entrepreneur by bringing together more than 250 Edo Period artifacts, the vast majority being ukiyo-e woodblock prints with which Juzaburo made his name.

Born in 1750, in Yoshiwara, which was located near what is Asakusa today, Juzaburo grew up immersed in the life and atmosphere of the area. By the age of 24 he was using the front section of his cousin’s teashop at the entrance to the district, which was located near what is Asakusa today, to lend and sell books. Among these were various illustrated guidebooks to Yoshiwara that Juzaburo starting out licensing and went on to produce himself. The innovations he brought to these “Yoshiwara Saiken” illuminate how he soon became a savvy businessman and a cultural force.

As well as the names and locations of the area’s establishments and the prices of the services of the women there, he added commentaries by popular writers. These included the musings of Kyoka comedy poets, whose witty and sophisticated humor was immensely popular with the public. Within a decade he had cornered the market.

Juzaburo’s shop, in addition to being recreated as a life-size model, is depicted at the Suntory exhibition in a small print that shows how the premises really was a hub of culture and ideas. Beneath the store’s indigo curtain, samurai are seen perusing stacks of the latest publications, while shop staff prepare batches of prints. The work was made by Katsushika Hokusai decades before he created the prints that sealed his reputation (and is one of a small number of prints the artist made for the publisher).

More closely associated with Juzaburo were artists such as Kitagawa Utamaro, Isoda Koryusai and Toshusai Sharaku, and the exhibition opens with a key work by the latter. Sharaku focused on actors from the Kabuki theater, one of the two main subjects for ukiyo-e at that time, the other being beautiful women (often those from the licensed quarters). In “Actor Arashi Ryuzo II in the role of Ishibe Kinkichi the Money Lender,” Sharaku depicts the mean-spirited usurer with a sleeve rolled up and one arm outstretched out of the frame to take a repayment he is demanding.

There is more conjecture than hard fact surrounding the identity of the mysterious Sharaku, whose output, all produced by Juzaburo, spanned less than a year — from mid-1794 to early the next year — before he disappeared from records. However, connoisseurs of his actor prints (the bulk of his work, except for a few sumo portraits) heralded them for the way they express the essence of both the character depicted and the actor performing the role. Works on display are in the okubi-e (closeup portrait) format, which shows the subject’s face and torso, allowing attention to be focused on the actors’ vivid facial expression.

Bijin-ga pictures of beautiful women, on the other hand, more commonly showed full figures so as to display the beauty and magnificent colors of the kimono worn. These prints were the glossy magazines of the day — a way for young women to keep up with the latest trends in fashion and hairstyles, and a visual treat for men. A number of such pictures are on display at the Suntory Museum, many by Kitagawa Utamaro, who depicted courtesans from various establishments.

Utamaro soon began to revolutionize bijin-ga by adopting the okubi-e format, which brought out more of his subjects’ emotions through the face and added to their beauty. They were big hits. One of particular popularity, “Ohisa of the Takashima Tea-Shop,” depicts the famed daughter of the owner of several Edo cake and teashops. She gently glances slightly sideways out of frame — as do many of the young women in this type of picture — and holds a fan emblazoned with her family crest to identify her. Also included in this show are several of Utamaro’s finely observed studies of insects.

Successful as he eventually became, it didn’t always come up roses for Juzaburo. In 1791 he ran afoul of the authorities and had half of his property confiscated. He soon fought his way back to the top but died in 1797, leaving behind a devastated Utamaro — for whom Juzaburo had been a mentor and friend — and a remarkable legacy of Edo culture and art.

“Tsutaya Juzaburo: The Publisher who Discovered Utamaro and Sharaku” at the Suntory Museum of Art runs till Dec. 19; exhibits are rotated during the exhibition period; admission ¥1,300, open Wed.-Sat. 10 a.m.-8 p.m., till 6 p.m. Mon. and Sun. For more information, visit www.suntory.com/culture-sports/sma