Explicitly Erotic

“This Section Contains Explicit Material. Young visitors should be accompanied by an adult.” A sign, elegantly placed at the entrance of the gallery, warning visitors that they were about to step into Japan’s most intimate world. Ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world), flourished as an artistic genre during the Edo period. Catering to a clientele drawn from the rising middle classes, ukiyo-e artists focused on subjects closely associated with the fashionable, worldly pleasures of Edo itself, rather than the prescribed themes of Japan’s classical painting schools, traditional patronized by the nobility and samurai elite. The woodblock print, more affordable than paintings and easily reproducible, proliferated in concert with the rise of the ukiyo-e genre. Beauties, wrestlers, actors were typical subjects of ukiyo-e prints, as were erotic scenes known as shunga.

Most master printmakers designed shunga. Varying in style and explicitness, these prints were appreciated privately rather than being displayed on walls.

The examples on view here, by the artist Koryūsai, portray a variety of sexual pairings.


Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770)
Two Couples in a Brothel, 1769-70

Two separate encounters in a brothel are staggered across this skillfully composed print by Harunobu. In the background, an adult man with a fully shaved pate is having his moustache tweezed by a female prostitute, an act of intimacy. In the foreground, a slightly more mature prostitute attempts to woo a coy young wakashu who fiddles with a folded fan and diffidently resists her embrace.


Attributed to the Utamaro School
Woman and Wakashu, ca. 1790s


Pages from an unidentified Utagawa-school erotic book, ca. 1850s
Two half-sheets glued together from a printed book with colour illustrations

In this illustration, a prostitute sporting the shaved sot and forelocks of a wakashu takes charge with a male client. Her display of aggressiveness – conventionally gender-coded as a male prerogative – would have been typical of female sex workers, like haori-geisha, who sported the wakashu hairstyle.


Attributed to Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671-1750)
A Prostitute with a Man, late 17th century


Women Using a Dildo, ca. early 1800s

The two women in this print appear to be ladies-in-waiting of a daimyō’s (feudal lord’s) household. Sequestered in inner chambers where men were not allowed, such women were required to be abstinent but encouraged to engage in self- and mutual-pleasuring for their health.


”A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints”, has been an enlightening exhibition and a very interesting look into the erotic life of the Edo-period Japan. Multilayered, complicated and, in many ways, much more progressive than one would have thought.

Japan Society, May 19th 2017

Who is Who

Bunrō (active 1801-1804)
A Wakashu and a Young Woman with Hawks, ca. 1803

The only way I could distinguish between the two was to read the accompanying tag. The Wakashu is wearing a kimono with Mount Fuji motifs.

From”A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints”, an exhibition that ran on Japan Society until June 2017.

May 19th, 2017

Merry-Making in the Mansion

Six-fold screen, gold and pigment on paper (detail)
Attributed to the Kan-ei Era (1624-1644)

“In this pansexual wonderworld, many beautiful women and wakashu are in the service of only a few men. The boat rowing in from the right carries one such man, who drinks sake while both a wakashu and a woman serenade him on shamisen. A group of wakashu frolic in the water, observed from above by other youths and some female prostitutes. On the gilded expanse to the left, a prostitute and her girl-servant (kamuro) chat up two wakashu while the multistoried pavilion above buzzes with music, drink and conversation between female prostitutes, wakashu and some men. To the right, a Buddhist monk topples over as a group of wakashu playfully hold down his hands and feet and ply him with wine; during the Edo period, monks were supposed to abstain from sex, even though nanshoku – sex between men and wakashu – was considered less karmically precarious than sex with women.”

From ”A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints” the first exhibition in North America devoted to the portrayal of wakashu, or beautiful youths—a “third gender” occupying a distinct position in the social and sexual hierarchy of Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868).

May 19th, 2017

The elephant in the room

Simon Starling: At Twilight (After W. B. Yeats’ Noh Reincarnation), is a multimedia project in which the artist explores the influence of Noh on Western Modernism. It was displayed in the Japan Society’s galleries starting with a dimly lit room where a modern interpretation of At the Hawk’s Well, W.B. Yeats’ one-act dance play was showing alongside masks created by Noh Mask maker, Yasuo Miichi. The play was inspired by Yeats’ close collaborator and friend, the poet Ezra Pound who at the time, was translating Japanese Noh plays.

The installation continued in the ”mirror room”, a place Noh performers would traditionally use to change into their characters and, finally, concluded with an exhibit of photographs, prints, masks and other archival material – all related to Mr Starling’s project.

Bronze portrait of the dancer Michio Ito, who performed as the Hawk in the original 1916 staging of ”At the Hawk’s Well”, conceived as a Noh mask and created in the mid-1920s, around the time when Ito was collaborating with New York-based choreographer Martha Graham. Isamu Noguchi, 1904-1988.
W.B. Yeats, 1913 by Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966). Digital print.
The hawk costume seen in the film.
The elephant in the room.
The Bamboo Gallery was converted into a mirror room (kagami-no-ma), traditionally used by Noh performers to change into their characters. Costumes reproduced based on archival materials from Yeat’s original play were displayed here.
Rock Drill, 1913-14. Bronze by Jacob Epstein. One of the Modernist works that inspired the creation of the Noh masks…
… and the creator, Jacob Epbstein. Photogravure by Alvin Langdon Coburn, in 1914.
Kumasaka in the Misty Moonlight, undated. Polychrome woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892).
Noh Mask, Edo period (1603-1868) by an unknown artist.
H.H. Asquith, 1914. Photogravure by Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966). H.H. Asquith was Prime Minister of England between 1908 and 1916. Known for his indecisive leadership during the initial stages of WWI, he was a regular guest at the home of Lord and Lady Cunard and was among the intimate audience gathered at the premiere of ”At the Hawk’s Well”. Prior to this, Asquith met the Japanese dancer Michio Ito, who played the Hawk.

Ito later recalled: At supper, Lady Cunard, a refined, white-haired gentleman and I, all sat at a table together. The old man tried to carry on a conversation with me. However, it was in English, so I didn’t follow very well… I began to get frustrated, and interjected in halting English: ”If you allow me to speak in German I can answer a little more intelligently.” Hearing this, the old man let out a hearty laugh: ”I am an Englishman and can’t speak Japanese. You are Japanese and can’t speak English. If German mediates between us, then by all means let’s speak in German…” The person I had spoken to in German – the language of his enemy – had been the Prime Minister of England.”

Noh mask by an unknown artist. Edo period (1603-1868).
Nancy Cunard, 1916. Digital print by an unknown photographer.
Eeyore. Ten years after the first performance of ”At the Hawk’s Well”, the trees of Ashdown Forest that surrounded W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound’s wartime retreat, Stone Cottage, were immortalized in Ernest Shepard’s illustrations for A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books. Milne based Pooh’s One Hundred Acre Wood on Ashdown Forest, where he lived and where, at the time Yeats and Pound were there, he was writing wartime propaganda articles for the MI7b. Eeyore is the pessimistic, old grey donkey from the story.

Pessimistic, downward facing Eeyore concludes the three-part series about Simon Starling’s project shown at the Japan Society. For more inspirational views connecting the pieces, please click here and here.

January 6th, 2017

“Whenever people see birds flying through the sky, it is said that they get the urge to go on a journey”

”At the Hawk’s Well”, W.B. Yeats’ dance play premiered in 1916 with Michio Ito at the role of the hawk. In its 2016 re-incarnation, the dance was co-choreographed by Javier de Frutos.
Noh no Tenkai (The Evolution of Noh), 1954. By Jiro Nan’e (1902-1952).

Simon Starling: At Twilight
(After W.B. Yeats’ Noh Reincarnation)

A multimedia installation by Simon Starling to mark the centennial of W.B. Yeats’ staging of the Noh-inspired dance play ”At the Hawk’s Well”, in 1916. The project aimed to illustrate the influence of Noh on Western Modernism by pairing newly created masks, costumes and a video (from which the above stills) with Modernist works and archival material connected to Yeats and his circle.

It was on show at the Japan Society until mid January 2017.

*Title from Kino no Tabi – the Beautiful World anime series (2003)

January 6th, 2017