Japanese woodblock prints, or ukiyo-e as they are called by collectors worldwide, show a flamboyant world - beautiful women, actors, noblemen, courtesans, busy town scenes and breathtaking landscapes. But not all that shines is gold. Read about the reality of The World of Edo.
Judging life in Japan in the 18th and 19th century from the woodblock prints that were left or kept alive in recarved blocks from famous designs by great artists like Utamaro or Harunobu, would be like judging life in our days in 100 years from now by looking at life style magazines.
Edo is the old name for the city of Tokyo. But it is also the name for the historic period from 1603 until 1868 when Japan was ruled by military leaders, called shoguns, that came from the Tokugawa family. The Japanese name their history periods after the capital in which the rulers had resided.
When Ieyasu Tokugawa, the founder of the Edo period, decided to establish his new capital in Edo, it was a small fishers' village. It soon developed into a busy and overpopulated city in which commerce, arts and crafts and the entertainment business flourished and in which rich and poor lived side by side - with indifference.
The society of the Edo period was the result of a series of strict laws established by Ieyasu and his two predecessors Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Oda Nobunaga had introduced a rice taxation system and Toyotomi Hideyoshi established a strict class system of aristocrats, warriors, farmers and merchants/handicraft people. The latter were on the lowest level of the hierarchy apart from the "untouchables". The membership to a class was defined by birth and could not be changed.
Along with this class system came the establishment of an idle warrior class, the samurai. The samurai received a permanent income in the form of payments in kind - defined in quantities of rice. Historians estimate the number of samurai during the Edo period as ca. 10% of the total population.
Over the course of time, the membership to a class and the actual wealth and economic power of the classes drifted apart. The merchant class, though formally on the lowest level, became affluent and many samurai impoverished.
Other reforms that had a huge impact on the development of the Edo society, were regulations that forced the provincial leaders, the formerly powerful daimyo to establish a permanent residence in the capital Edo that had to be occupied by family members. It was a kind of precautionary family hostage taking.
In addition the daimyos had to show their loyalty towards the shogun, the ruling head of the Tokugawa family, in large and costly procession to the capital with all bells and whistles. It was a clever system to keep these formerly powerful warlords under control. It worked well for more than 250 years.
This system of social and political regulations created a large number of more or less affluent people in the capital who had nothing to do. Needless to say that these idle persons attracted a large number of other persons who strove to make a living - servants, merchants, entertainers, artisans, handicraft people and last but not least artists and book and print publishers.
In the 18th and 19th century Edo grew to one of the largest cities in the world. Historians assume that it was the world's largest city together with London with more than one million inhabitants.
Edo must be imagined as a huge, densely populated area with the typical small Japanese houses made of wood and paper. Fires were a permanent threat to the city. The worst fire disaster happened in 1657 with an estimated death toll of more than 100,000 people. Other major fires raged in 1683, 1806, 1834 and 1872.
In the 20th century, the worst disasters were the fires that burned for three days in the aftermath of the Great Kanto earthquake in 1921, and in 1945 due to the air bombardments.
After the great fire of 1657 many precautions and laws were introduced to get a handle on the threat. Fire brigades were established for each city district and the typical watch towers - to be found on some ukiyo-e of town scenes - were built. Shop keepers were obliged to keep huge buckets filled with water.
The city of Edo was separated into blocks of houses. Each block was surrounded by high wooden walls with gates that were closed at night and guarded by a gate-keeper. Later new roads were constructed as wide boulevards to prevent fires from spreading from one district to another.
A document from 1738 mentions a total number of more than 11,000 fire fighters, called hikeshi. The firefighters capabilities to fight a fire was limited. Their main job was to tear down the neighboring houses to isolate the fire. The Edo firemen had a reputation as both tough and rough guys. Many Edo citizens thought that the hikeshi were more dangerous than the fires they were supposed to extinguish.
Many ukiyo-e show bridges. The city of Edo had a vast system of natural river streams and canals which required several hundred bridges dispersed over the area. During the Edo period, these bridges were entirely constructed of wood and had to be renewed frequently - destroyed by fires or by age.
The best known bridge is nihonbashi (bashi meaning bridge in the Japanese language). Nihonbashi was the starting point of the Tokaido, the most important road connection in old Japan. Hiroshige immortalized nihonbashi in several versions of his famous "48 Stations of the Tokaido" series.
Hokusai with his series "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuiji" (actually 46 designs) and shortly afterwards Hiroshige with "Fifty-three Stages of the Tokaido" (actually 55 designs) made the landscape prints popular in Edo.
On clear days Mount Fuji is well visible from Tokyo/Edo. It is considered a holy mountain by the Japanese - first under the Shinto religion and later, when Buddhism came to Japan in the 7th century A.D. the mountain was simply converted to a Buddhist holy place. Therefore it has been and continues to be a destination for pilgrimage.
Until the 19th century the mountain was off limits for women. For them and for those who were physically not capable of climbing up to the summit, small replicas of maybe 40 or 50 meters height were built. And while ukiyo-e with depictions of Mount Fuji are abundant, those of replicas are among the very rare prints.
Under mountaineering aspects, climbing Mount Fuji is probably not first choice. The Japanese have an old saying:
"He who climbs Mount Fuji once in his life, is a wise man. He who climbs it twice, is a fool."
And there is yet another version:
"Who climbs Mount Fuji once, is a fool. And who climbs it twice is twice a fool."
Mount Fuji was also omnipresent from the old Tokaido, a road leading from Edo to Kyoto, the residence of the Japanese emperor. The Tokaido was not the only, but the most important road system in Japan. It served as a major traffic artery to bring goods into the capital and to facilitate pilgrimage and the frequent processions of loyalty to the shogun in Edo and the emperor in Kyoto.
Ieyasu Tokugawa had begun to build it - also with the intention to have a fast transportation facility to send troops into the provinces.
Along the Tokaido were the stations, small posts comparable to rest stations along today's highways. They offered food and accommodation to the travelers and had government offices where the road toll was collected.
Hiroshige had created his famous series of the Stations of the Tokaido from sketches that he had made when he had the chance to accompany a delegation of the shogun from Edo to Kyoto around 1830/32.
Who would not know the images of beautiful women in luxurious kimonos by for instance Utamaro, Eisen or Eizan? This genre is called bijin prints. Ukiyo-e art books usually describe them as "beautiful women" or "courtesans".
"Prostitutes" would be a more accurate and poignant translation. And the world of glitter and luxury suggested by these images existed in reality only for very few top prostitutes. Under today's moral standards the conditions of prostitutes in Japan's Edo period are better characterized with words like "sex slavery" and "child abuse".
Many prostitutes lived in the licensed quarters. Edo's licensed quarter was Yoshiwara, an area outside the city that could only by accessed by a dam, was surrounded by high walls and a water moat. Access was only possible by a huge guarded gate and only men were allowed to get in and out.
The prostitutes hardly ever received permission to leave the area. The high wall and the water moat made any attempt of prostitutes to flee from this ghetto. If a prostitute managed to escape neverthless and was caught, she was severly punished, often tortured or beaten to death.
The majority of the prostitutes came into the brothels at child age. They were sold by poor farmers or abducted. The child girls, called kamuro were put under the tutelage of an experienced prostitute in the role of an "elderly sister".
The kamuros functioned as a servant and assistant for an experienced prostitute. When a kamuro reached sexual maturity, usually at the age of fourteen, she was inaugurated in a ceremonial procedure to her first night with a client who was willing to pay a horrendous amount for the jus primae noctis.
Another source of "supply" for the brothels were women in desperate need of money to support their families or their impoverished husbands. If attractive and young, a woman could sell herself to a brothel.
The family received a negotiated amount of money, which however was charged to the prostitute woman as an initial debt loan. In practize, the regulations under which a prostitute had to work, were so exploitive that she had hardly any chance to ever pay back her debt.
Most prostitutes died at a young age. Many of these "miserables" committed suicide or died of veneral diseases or after botched abortions by quack doctors.
During its heydays, the Yoshiwara "pleasure quarter" had about 2,500 prostitutes and other estimated 10,000 persons permanently assigned to Yoshiwara - including the exploiters.
The licensed quarters were not the only places of prostitution - there were many more. For instance along the Sumida river banks were the "pleasure boats" - often shown on Edo prints - where clients were served.
And along the river banks strolled the "street-walkers". They were easily recognizable by the mats that they carried under their arms, ready to satisfy a client on demand. They were called tsujigimi, "mistress of the street corner" and represented the lowest class among the hierarchy of Japanese prostitutes.
Sumo, the Japanese form of wrestling has its roots in the Shinto religion and has been practized for more than a thousand years. The popularity of sumo contests has seen ups and downs. During the Edo period, these heavy-weights attracted thousands of spectators.
The woodblock printmakers and publishers eagerly answered to its popularity with designs showing famous wrestlers or contests. For the late Edo period Kunisada Utagawa and Kunisada II had dominated the field for ukiyo-e in the Sumo genre.
The rules of sumo wrestling are simple. Winner is the one who first successfully pushes or throws his opponent out of the doyo - the ring - or to bring him on the floor. Only 40 techniques were allowed. An especially elegant way is to carry the opponent out of the ring - rarely seen. Sumo by the way does not know any weight classes.
One normally does not find much in ukiyo-e art books about the social and economic background or the actual daily life in Edo in those days. One exception is a book titled "Handbuch Japanischer Holzschnitt" (Handbook of Japanese Woodblocks - see the literature # reference below).
The author, Friedrich B. Schwan accumulated a rich collection of information centered around ukiyo-e of more than 800 pages of text. There may be a few mistakes here and there, which is normal for such a tremendous undertaking. But overall it is an astonishing book with a plethora of information.
It has only one small disadvantage - an index grouped by categories that makes it a bit hard to find something the fast way. The second flaw: The book was published in German and not in English.
Friedrich B. Schwan, "Handbuch Japanischer Holzschnitt", 2003, IUDICIUM Verlag, Postfach 701067, D-81310 München, www.iudicium.de, ISBN 3-89129-749-1.
Author: Dieter Wanczura