8. What other sources could you use to understand these prints?
Theres a broad literature on these woodblock prints. Ever since the late 19th century, American and European collectors were fascinated with these prints. They were not recognized as being worthy of the title art in the minds of the Japanese artists themselves, because they were common and vulgar. And they depicted the commoner world. And they were by artists who were not necessarily part of the official art schools. But they were the picture of exoticism in the minds of western collectors.
During the Tokugawa period, there were a number of texts, one in particular called The Greater Learning for Women, which depict a very rigid ideal for female behavior about submissiveness to husbands, modesty, loyalty, diligence, and other kinds of characteristically female virtues. When Westerners first begin going to Japan in earnest in the late 19th century, this was a document they were very interested in. From that document, they painted a picture of womanhood in the Tokugawa period as being incredibly oppressive and confining. And the reality is very different.
What I do in a womens studies course would be to read that document and talk about the ideal of womanhood as conceptualized by Confucian intellectuals, and then move directly into these prints. Theyre really useful because, on one hand, they contain an element of that moralistic, oppressive cultural ideal of womanhood in the commentary. On the other hand, they seem to convey a very different message. The fact that these prints are directed at an urban, mass audience suggests that the audience themselves knew of women who behaved like this. So it provides an ideal teaching moment to talk about how historical documents need to be read carefully and in a nuanced fashion.
The existence of such a document does not necessarily mean that thats how women actually behave. A document like The Greater Learning for Women, which details what women should not do in minute fashion, is evidence of the fact that there are lots of women who were doing those things. After reading documents like that, then we can come to these images which capture the complexity of the situation and reveal that deviant women can be celebrated and at least be seen as objects of desire.
One of the other sources that I use to accompany these prints is a short story from this time period that depicts women within this urban commoner milieu. A woman who is married has an affair with an accountant whos taking care of her husbands finances while the husband is away. The story in the literature from this urban commoner milieu is salacious and titillating at one level. On another level, it seems to take a moralizing stance towards the behavior of the women and the people in the story. On still another level, its mere entertainment that tells an exciting story and talks about the growth of a celebrity culture and the emergence of a cultural integrated society with a shared set of assumptions. That shows it from multiple perspectives, from the perspective of art and from the perspective of fiction, and then also from the perspective of officials who condemned this behavior and who were very suspicious and wary of the activities that took place within this floating world.