|Toshikata, Samurai and Landscape, 1887|
|Kuniyoshi, 108 Suikoden: Ryuchitaisai, 1827|
Japanese culture was in crisis for most of the nineteenth century. Economic upheaval resulted in redundancy for the samurai class, who nevertheless were able to retain their privileges until the 1860’s. Migration from the countryside and the creation of a road network introduced an explosion in middle and merchant class citizens who were ambitious and anxious to create a place for themselves in the growing urban scene. Women’s roles as peasant wives or prostitutes were also under stress as changing values loosened traditional restrictions on both occupations and domestic activity.
Revolution in 1864 - 1868 finally finished the samurai class as a significant force in society, imposed newly imported western values of trade, probity and morality and released the pent up potential of the merchant middle class. Social and gender anxiety inevitably followed swiftly on these radical upheavals. The change is evident even in this small selection of prints. As previously mentioned, the males held onto their traditional self image of warriors and the descendants of the honourable and noble heroes of past histories. Compare for example, Kuniyoshi’s ideal warriors from the 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden in the 1820’s (above right) with Toshikata’s lonely General standing in the bucolic landscape of the Japanese foothills (top of page) and we can gauge the same sense of defiance, fortitude and strength. How different though is the image from 1843 of the lovelorn Ono no Komachi, seated decorously on a bench (below left) from that of Kunichika's 1876 Okane from Ohmi, effortlessly carrying a wooden pail whilst stopping a galloping horse dead in its tracks with her foot (below right).
In so many ways, these prints chart Japanese society in its most crucial period of change almost better than any comparable documents. The century begins with images of men and women that reinforce the traditional, feudal roles of people in a society unchanged for hundreds of years. Women are the repository of beauty; and men are the guardians of the mother country - bound by codes of honour (the bushido) and by archaic and seemingly nonsensical laws and duties that demand of them absurd commitments to loyalty and tradition. This position is indeed glorified throughout the first half of the century and reinforced in that other great barometer of social change, the kabuki theatre. As the social climate changes in the 1830’s, there is a surge to nostalgia with both artistic and theatrical revivals of historical epics such as The Chushingura, the saga of the Soga Brothers or the numerous depictions of the Minamoto clan and their martial victories. These great prints served as a corrective to the rapidly disintegrating fabric of the old shogunate. Resentment becomes apparent in the early 1840’s when, in a bid to hold onto power, the Shogunate introduced strict laws limiting the subject matter not only of kabuki dramas and their associated artwork, but also historic subjects that might be seen as reflexively critical of the current regime.
|Hiroshige, 100 Poets Compared: Iga no Tsubone|
|Eisen, The Courtesan Nagadaydu, 1830|
Of course, it was not all the sisterhood in harmony with men towards the great leap forward. There are still plenty of examples of decorative women and brutal males. As the influence of the west became stronger in Japanese culture in the 1880’s so did the malign hand of western christianity, with its stuffy manners and probity, its constricted morality and misogyny. We start to see women being bound by Edwardian dress codes and, at the instigation of the Meiji Royal family, Japanese culture increasingly adopted the mores of Edwardian Britain or WASP America. By the end of the century, the peculiar hybrid of east - west culture had produced something like the confusion of identity that is still visible in Japan today… the outwardly unusual mix of the extreme and the conventional - a culture underground, as it were. I think though, that we can only marvel at the extraordinary confidence of the great, classical depictions of the floating world… those slender and exotic prostitutes of Utamaro, or the limitless freedom of Japanese shunga. Likewise, the often startling depictions of strong and determined women, carving out a life in the burgeoning pre-revolution of the mid-century is inspiring in its potential… the suggestion of a harmonious, modern culture, free of the crushing twin weights of capitalism and religion. Like all revolutions though, there is in these stirring prints only a hint of what might have been. In the end, trade, as usual, beats joy every time.