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International Women's Day

March 8, 2018
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Representation of Women and Femininity in Japanese Woodblock Prints

Samantha Harris
8th Mar 2018
By Samantha Harris

Celebrating International Women’s Day, we are looking at how women are represented through Maidstone Museum’s collection of over 700 Japanese, Edo period woodblock printed images and books. Women and femininity could be interpreted very differently, with an insight into the gender politics of the culture at the time.

In the Japanese woodblock print tradition of ukiyo-e (floating world), women are most commonly represented in the Bijin-ga (beautiful women) genre. These were often courtesans; beautifully depicted with elaborate hair styles, heavy make-up, and decorative clothing. They were considered the ‘ideal woman’; as well as beautiful they were passive, attentive, educated and well-trained in the entertainment of male companions. The famous artist, Kitagawa Utamaro (1753 – 1806), is well known for his works in the genre. In his later years Utamaro became captivated by the courtesans and bijin of the Yoshiwara district.  He made their faces the focus of the print, often picturing them from the side in a bust portrait known as an okubi-e.  He concentrated on expressing the emotion, beauty and character of the ladies portrayed. As he does here:

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) too was inspired by beautiful women. This image shows a courtesan from the pleasure district near Osaka. The brighter colours of the synthetic dyes contrast with the subtle colours of the mineral and vegetable dyes of the earlier 18th century prints. The bolder indigo and prussian blues became available during the 1820s. You’ll note that these don’t feature in the earlier works by Utamaro, such as the image above.

A further genre in which women were rarely portrayed in strong, powerful roles are warrior prints, as this was considered a very male preserve. However, the museum has some prints with female warriors. These woodblock prints by artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) depict the bloody battle fought by rebel samurai women against the new Meiji government in 1877. The women insurgents clashed with government soldiers at Kagoshima in Satsuma Province. These rebels were motivated by a sense of injustice at the corruption within the new governing oligarchy and fought under the slogan New government, high morality (Shinsei kôtoku). It is unusual to see women depicted in battle, even though it is known that women fought in conflicts such as the Genpei Wars (1180-1185), the Shimabara Rebellion (1637-1638), and at the Battle of Aizu (1868) during the Boshin War (1868-1869).

Women were also shown in kabuki (actor) prints, but all is not as it seems. Ladies were not allowed to act on the stage in kabuki theatre, so female roles were played by male actors known as ‘onnagata’. This raises an interesting consideration of femininity in Japanese culture, which was not always expressed by women. This print shows the male actor Segwa Kikunojo III in a female role. Here he is possibly playing Hanazono Gozen (in the drama “Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami”), in a print by artist Toshusai Shararaku (1794-1795). It is often difficult to identify female sitters compared to onnagata in woodblock prints unless the script identifying the sitter can be read, or the actors themselves are recognisable.

Women are represented throughout the museum’s collections, not only the Japanese prints. However, it is important to note that in many museum collections there remains a large disparity between women as passive, in the role of the ‘muse’ or sitter (being represented within an artwork), compared to women as active and dynamic as the creator or artist (making the items in the collection). This is something which museums, including Maidstone Museums, are working to redress for greater gender equality and diversity within the stories they can tell.