japonisme: what does lola want?

17 June 2008

what does lola want?

why, i began to wonder, were depictions of sexuality so different, japan, france, new york, et al. so as usual i went to look it up, and there was an interesting variety of answers, some of which i was reminded that i already knew, and some were entirely new to me, and some disagreed with each other, and so what else is new.

we've talked about the censorship that happened and some effects on the ukiyo-e artists, but i hadn't realized the methods used to go behind the backs of the censors. when forbidden to portray kabuki actors they labeled actors' portraits as portraits of "loyal heros," or the "immortal poets"; they even put their faces on turtles, cats, and fish.

courtesans might be portrayed as wait- resses, but were still recognizable to all. instead of explicitly portraying seductive or overtly sexual images, the populace knew exactly what was being said when a maiden became completely wet while holding an umbrella. whereas if she's offering a cup, of tea maybe, or a clam- shell, to a gentleman, one would also know just what was being offered in fact.

but there's another whole perspective as well. "In Japan, a high degree of nudity was common in the daily life of most ordinary people (during the warm months, of course). Skin was no big deal, but splendid silk clothing was rare and expensive. In Tokugawa Japan, prostitutes, especially the elite courtesans, advertised their sexuality not by displaying skin but by parading through the streets in multiple layers of elegant clothing.

To touch and feel such exquisite cloth was something only the rich could do on a regular basis. For most Japanese, the fondling of such cloth might take place only in their fantasies. Thus, elegant, finely-woven, brightly colored cloth, not skin, became sexually charged in Tokugawa-era erotic art."

furthermore, "Because Tokugawa-period Japanese tended to regard the overall body shapes of men and women as nearly the same, the only significant physical marker of difference were the sex organs themselves.

In Europe at this time, by contrast, the bodily shapes resulting from secondary sexual characteristics were thought to be so distinctive in marking gender that no man could pass as a woman or vice versa, and attempts to to so usually took place only within the context of comedy or farce. Indeed, depictions of men, and, especially, women often exaggerated these secondary characteristics unreal- istically. Probably the most common example was exaggerating the width of the pelvic bone and hips."

i think i am beginning to understand my original question. "The main point of con- trast here is that in the Western world, at least by the nineteenth century, gender differences were regarded as hard-wired products of biology first and foremost, and social markers of gender were typically regarded as following "naturally" from these biological differences. In Tokugawa Japan, it was the social markers of gender that were most prominent in people's imaginations." 1

"Prints were a form of commun- ication about current political or social situations, especially in Edo (present-day Tokyo). Although the shogunate would not permit any military incident, military or governmental figure, or current event to be shown in a print, artists circumvented these limits by hiding taboo subject matter under layers of parody. Print designers were constantly subject to government restrictions, the policies of which tried to impede townspeople from spending their time and money on frivolous or salacious entertainments.

Because prints often promoted these types of enter- tainment and because all prints designs had to be approved by government censors prior to manufacture, prints became a focus for these government constraints. Publishers were limited in the quality of paper, the number of color blocks used on a single print, and the types of pigments. At times, they were even forbidden to portray actors or courtesans. As a result, print artists were constantly inventing creative solutions to maintain their customer base." 2

we've already looked at what happened to utamaro (his version is from 1804); is kunisada's 1865 version a tribute, or merely a celebration that the restrictions had by then begin to be released. (oh and you know, i had to put in lola! she walks like an egyptian!)

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Blogger here today, gone tomorrow said...

Fascinating. I had no idea there were all those restrictions placed on Japanese printmakers, either.

20 June, 2008 04:46  
Blogger Liza Cowan said...

Fascinating. I'm always interested in seeing how different cultures create gender difference. And then insist that those differences are natural.

I'd love to see more of the prints of women offering clamshells or whatnot as symbols of, well, offering other things.

20 June, 2008 05:14  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

yeah, htgt--there are stories of jailing, handcuffing for an amount of days, etc. as i reported earlier, the punishment broke utamaro and he is said to have died of it.

the tragedy is overwhelming and not unexpected.

think meese commission.

and liza--okay--i'll find those.

meanwhile, from the same article:

Another distinction that had become common (i.e., common sense) in the Western world but which was absent or very weak in Tokugawa Japan was that of homosexuality versus heterosexuality. Many Japanese history textbooks point out that homosexuality was common in Tokugawa Japan and widely accepted. While this statement is roughly correct in terms of modern categories, a slightly deeper look at the situation is necessary. Specifically, we should question the very existence of categories like "heterosexual" or "homosexual"--at least in their modern sense of fundamental orientations. In Tokugawa Japan, there was only one category: sexuality. This category included a variety of erotic behaviors, which could further be distinguished by two general flavors joshoku 女色 (sexual activity between men and women), and nanshoku 男色 (same-sex sexual activity). Significantly, these flavors were not categories of people but categories of behaviors. These two flavors of sexuality were available for anyone, and partaking of one did not necessarily exclude the other. Indeed, a sufficiently wealthy or influential person might combine them both at the same time and place.

20 June, 2008 07:18  
Blogger Liza Cowan said...

In Europe as well, and of course in Ancient Greece, same sex sexuality did not account for a fixed identity. That didn't come about until the late 19th Century.

Also true in Europe and Asia, there was only one sex. Male and female were the same (social gender was another matter), but males were hotter, females cooler, and either could potentially morph into the other. Female and male organs were the same, even had the same names. One kind presented on the outside, the other on the inside, but were the same thing with almost the same functions. For instance, testies and ovaries were both known as stones. This paradigm only started to change in the 17th century and took a couple of hundred years to become a fixed idea.

I did my Master's thesis in Anthropology on this. Rather fascinating.

20 June, 2008 09:29  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

did something happren in the late 19th cent to seal the deal, so to speak? (and i must say that all of this somehow confirms my own sense of my sexuality; it gets talked about but not often.)

20 June, 2008 09:46  
Blogger Liza Cowan said...

a confluence of many streams, so to speak.

20 June, 2008 13:27  
Blogger Roxana said...

this whole discussion is so fascinating. and interesting how the japanese words are formed: in joshoku 女色 (sexual activity between men and women), the kanji used is "woman", in nanshoku 男色 (same-sex sexual activity), they use "man". I wonder whether they have the same meaning in japanese today, I have to check this with my friends.
and I loved the part about the eroticism of the clothes as opposed to the banality of nudity, ha.

20 June, 2008 15:42  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

interesting, roxy! please report back!

20 June, 2008 16:33  
Blogger Roxana said...

my friend - who asked other friends, among them older well-educated people, says this: these words are not known anymore, nobody has ever seen or heard them, but they could guess the meaning because of the kanji "iro", 色, which means "colour" (flavour in your translation) which relates always to sexual/erotic attraction. however, the dictionary says that 男色 is not same-sex sexual activity, as the article seems to argue, but only man-to-man sexual activity. I don't know, but I told you I found this strange, why they would use the kanji for "man" if the word really meant "same-sex", that means including woman-to-woman also. the japanese are very keen on details and distinctions so it made me wonder a bit.

but it was funny talking to my friend about this - because more interesting than the answers in themselves was her reaction. she has never discussed such topics with any other person, in japan they don't talk about homosexuality, it is as if it didn't exist at all. and my friend was ashamed to ask other friends (of course only female acquaintances) about this, so I told her: just tell them it was a gaijin (foreigner) asking, and it will be ok! :-) as a gaijin you can even walk naked in the streets, nobody would wonder because you are an alien and to some extent you are still a barbarian who cannot understand or follow the rules of civilized society. even if they secretely admire you for your freedom :-)

27 June, 2008 15:47  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

oh that is fascinating. thank you so much for following up, roxy

27 June, 2008 16:16  

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