Yoshiwara Courtesan

It has been more than eleven years now since I started making prints in sets of ten each year, and every one of those sets has a bijin-ga ('beautiful woman picture') as the second print. This seems to have become a tradition for me, and as most of the collectors seem to enjoy this kind of design very much, I suppose it's one that I will continue! The image you see here is one leaf taken from the book Seiro Bijin Awase Sugata Kagami (Collected Beauties of the Green Houses). This famous book was published in 1776, and was a joint production of two Edo publishers and two well-known artists: Katsukawa Shunsho and Kitao Shigemasa (the page I have reproduced is one of those designed by Shigemasa). The book is a kind of guide to the Yoshiwara district, with each double page layout depicting a scene at one particular 'house', and featuring some of the women who worked there.

I have rather mixed feelings about including such a print in my Surimono Album series. It is of course, just a piece of paper with an attractive image on it, so perhaps nothing more needs to be said, but I can't help thinking about just what it is that we are looking at here - basically an advertisement for a house of prostitution and one of the women there (in the original book, the names of the houses and the names of the women are featured prominently). Whether or not the brothels paid the publisher to be included in the book I have no idea, but one suspects their business certainly wouldn't have been hurt by such exposure!

Are you upset because I am sending you such an 'advertisement' this month? If I made a print of one of the girls currently working in a red-light district near my home, you would probably not feel particularly comfortable with it, but does the age of this design (from more than two hundred years ago) make it acceptable? Perhaps this is a question I shouldn't ask - because if I were to disqualify myself from making prints related to life in the Yoshiwara, there wouldn't be much remaining for me in the world of ukiyo-e!

I was discussing this with one of the collectors who visited my workroom recently, and she explained that the Yoshiwara was one of the main places in Edo society where men of culture could meet and enjoy their discussions - that to think of the Yoshiwara wasn't simply to think of sex. In other words, she pointed out that it wasn't such a 'bad' place, and it was no matter of shame for a man to be going there. It is never a good idea to judge behaviour of one era by the standards of another; and I am certainly not going to do so now ... not after more than two hundred years have passed. And it would certainly be meaningless to think of the young woman depicted in this print as a 'bad woman' - she probably had very little control over her situation; it seems that many of those women were sold into that kind of life by their family.

Speaking of Yoshiwara ukiyo-e ... the image I have presented here for you is certainly not problematic, but a great many other images dealing with Yoshiwara 'activities' are rather more 'dangerous' ... I have read estimates in research books indicating that somewhat more than 50% of all ukiyo-e books and prints produced in the Edo-era were pornographic. Most of these are raw and ugly, and bring no pleasure in the viewing, but a small percentage of them are indeed images of astonishing beauty and excitement. But I think I can guess the reaction of many of you collectors if I started to include such prints in these Surimono Albums, so don't worry ... you don't have to be afraid of opening your package every month - I promise only to choose designs in which everybody keeps their clothes on!

April 2000

David