City of Bachelors


 His customers, each with his little shop in the family for generations, each as though by some sort of predestination saddled with a shrew who rapped his bald head and made him toe the line, enjoyed no break at all, save for a single trip to a hot spring each year, and the pornographic pictures they wheedled from the bath attendant with an obsequious smile might well have been thought of as their erotic St. Christopher medals. When their eyes fell upon the new material that Subuyan brought, without exception their hands trembled and they were plunged into a dither.— Akiyuki Nozaka, The Pornographers

When Edo Castle was completed in 1651 it was the largest fortification in the world. Forty-eight years in the making, it was protected by a ten-mile defensive perimeter. This enclosed a second wall, four miles long, which in turn shielded more moats and walls. At the heart of the complex lived the man all these battlements were built to protect: the Tokugawa shogun, warlord and de facto ruler of Nippon, land of the rising sun.

The shogun’s capital lay at the end of Tokyo Bay, cold and dry in winter, hot and muggy from May to September. After late summer typhoons the air sparkled, and the snow-covered cone of Mt. Fuji glittered to the southwest. Fifty years previously the city had been an isolated fishing village, set in swampland. But marshes and mountains to the west made the site a perfect military stronghold. Now home to 400,000 people and growing rapidly, Edo was already bigger than London or Moscow. Its growth was lopsided; men outnumbered women by two to one, leading one writer to dub it “a city of bachelors.” Every day more newcomers jostled through the iron-studded gates. Carpenters, tailors, samurai down on their luck, ambitious actors looking for a break — all came to Edo to make their fortunes.

Many succeeded. Under the grim and watchful eye of the bakufu, the Tokugawa government, Edo prospered. The city’s economy was based on consumption, and to those with marketable talents consumption meant opportunity. Feverish moneymaking was in the mosquito-laden air.

The population wasn’t only growing; it was becoming better educated. Thanks to half a century of peace and the Tokugawa shogunate’s encouragement of schooling the literacy rate was rising. The stage was set for a major change in the way people exchanged information.

The first sign of it came not in Edo but in Kyoto, elegant and effete home of the powerless emperor. Soon after the founding of Edo a book was produced in Kyoto and circulated among a small group of wealthy patrons (and their women) Its title was Koso myoron, usually referred to in English as The Marvelous Discourse Between Emperor Huang and the Natural Girl. Koso myoron was a Japanized version of a Chinese sex manual. It had sixty-five leaves, the first eighteen of which contained Chinese shunga, or spring pictures — the poetic term for erotica. The next seven leaves showed more shunga, this time domestically produced. The final section was a translation of the Chinese text. There was nothing new about the content of the book; Chinese or Chinese-influenced sex manuals had been known in Japan for seven hundred years. What was revolutionary was the way it had been made. It was not painted by hand, as all previous such books had been. It was printed.

By 1660 printing had reached Edo, and spawned a new industry. Its rapid growth was helped by Japan’s unrestrained enjoyment of the erotic. And that wasn’t new at all.

imagesDivine Exhibitionism

Easy acceptance of sexual pleasure of all kinds grew out of the Japanese people‘s deepest beliefs about who they were and how their country had come into being. In Japanese mythology, the world was created by two gods, the brother and sister Izanagi (The Male Who Invites) and Izanami (The Female Who Invites). Other deities existed before them, and these earlier deities gave the couple the Jewel Spear of Heaven, which Izanagi and Izanami thrust into the boundless and empty waters that surrounded them. When they pulled out the spear drops of spume dripped off the tip and formed an island called Onogoro-jima.

Izanagi asked his sister how her body was formed.”My body is complete, except for one part which is missing,” Izanami said. “My body is also completely formed, with one part which is superfluous,” said her brother. “Let us put the part that is superfluous in me into the part that is missing in you, and produce more land.” After they did this Izanami gave birth to the islands of Japan, and to the rivers and mountains and trees, and to the kami (gods) that live in them. She produced Amaterasu, the sun goddess, whom they sent up to heaven, and the fierce, cruel Susanowo, god of storms, who was dispatched to the underworld.

Despite their separation, Amaterasu and Susanowo were always quarreling. After one fight Susanowo threw the body of a flayed piebald horse into his sister’s palace while she was weaving with her maids. One maid was so upset that she pricked her vulva with a needle. Amaterasu withdrew into a cave and sulked, plunging the world into darkness. The deities gathered outside the cave and discussed what to do. Ama-no-uzume, the Dread Female of Heaven, lit a fire so she could be seen and started to perform an obscene dance. The gods’ response was so raucous that Amaterasu came to the mouth of the cave to see what was happening, whereupon the others dragged her back out.

And so light was brought back to the world, by an act of divine exhibitionism.

This myth lies at the heart of Shinto, the indigenous folk religion of Japan. Shinto has no ethical code to speak of. Nor does it have many philosophical concepts to guide its followers. It has no idea of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, or of original sin, or of sexual guilt or shame. What is does have, in abundance — or did, until the Westerners came, first in the 1860s and then in 1945 — are rites and festivals.

All over the country, in towns and hamlets and fishing villages clinging to the rocky coast, Shinto shrines housed emblems and symbols of fertility. Phalluses made of stone, wood, straw, or metal were taken out at auspicious times and became the centerpiece of raucous festivals, carried around the houses and fields by jostling, chanting crowds. These rituals could be raunchy affairs. In utagaki, song play, young men and women swapped bawdy repartee and then had sex in the rice fields. By doing so they hoped to attract the interest and participation of the watching spirits, who would cause the crop to germinate. At least, that was the official explanation. Often the proceedings entailed lavish consumption of sake, rice wine. This too had a ritual purpose, since the milky form of the drink was taken to represent both male and female sexual effusions. Sometimes a large wooden phallus was rhythmically rammed into a straw vulva which participants ritually spattered with sake.

images-12Secrets Of The Jade Chamber

In the seventh century Japan came into increasing contact with China. This changed many aspects of Japanese life, from government and architecture to painting and footwear. It also deepened the Japanese way of thinking about sex, changing it from a blind impulse to be used in simple agricultural fertility rites to an instrument that could balance the male and female energies that run through all creation. And by introducing the concept of printing it set the stage for the world’s first mass production of erotica.

China’s own sexual traditions were also bound up with religion. Sex was an integral part of a sophisticated system that explained the world in terms of the Tao, the essence of life. In traditional Chinese thought,the universe is a process of momentum and movement. The Tao is in constant motion, ebbing and flowing between the two polarities of yin and yang. Yin, the female principle, includes everything that is dark, yielding, cold, watery, lunar. Yang is masculine — light, assertive, hot, dry, solar. This duality lies at the heart of all things, and the key to a long and untroubled life is to keep the two parts in balance.

One way to do this is through sex, in which male and female partners exchange the essence of yang and yin . But there is a snag. Male desire (and male endurance) is not the same as female desire. As one sage put it:

The male belongs to Yang. Yang’s peculiarity is that he is easily aroused. But also he easily retreats. The female belongs to Yin. Yin’s peculiarity is that she is slow to be aroused. But also slow to be satiated.

To compensate for the disparity Taoist teachers developed techniques which enabled both partners to attain satisfaction and thus keep yin and yang in balance. For the male, the more sex he had, and the more different partners, the better. The mythical Yellow Emperor was said to have become immortal by having sex with women numbering in the thousands. Circumstances and lack of opportunity must have prevented most men from even a modest double-digit total. Nevertheless, ten sexual encounters in one night — with ten different women — was thought to be ideal.

Pre-dating Masters and Johnson by a couple of thousand years, the Taoists realized that the way to prolong sex was to sidestep the explosive power of ejaculation. Fang Pi ChŸ (Secrets of the Jade Chamber), a book of sexual instruction dating from the Tang dynasty, pointed out orgasm and ejaculation were not the same thing:

“After ejaculation a man is tired, his ears are buzzing, his eyes are heavy and he longs for sleep. He is thirsty and his limbs are inert and stiff. In ejaculation he experiences a brief second of sensation, but long hours of weariness as a result. And that is certainly not a true pleasure. On the other hand, if a man reduces and regulates his ejaculation to an absolute minimum his body will be strengthened, his mind at ease, and his vision and hearing improved. Although the man seems to have denied himself a sensation, his love for the woman will surely increase. It will be as if he could not get enough of her. And this is the true lasting pleasure.”

Each time a man had sex without ejaculating benefits accrued, from increased strength and better circulation through more powerful buttocks and smoother skin to immortality itself. This did not mean that he had to forgo ejaculation all together, but it did mean he had to do it less as he grew older. A robust and healthy fifteen year-old could safely ejaculate two times a day (but a skinny one only once), a strong man of thirty once a day, and a spirited forty year-old once every three days. After seventy it was advisable to give up altogether, although the exceptionally vigorous might still be able to push the boat out once a month without fatal damage. A lot depended on the season, with spring being the safest time.

All this wisdom was passed down in sex manuals, which had been in existence since the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 24) and possibly earlier. These were divided into sections, covering all the bases from philosophical explanations and effects on health to the nitty gritty of foreplay, positions, and movements, all couched in colorful poetic language. One such manual shows that the idea that kissing is alien to the Chinese is far from the truth. A section entitled “The Libation of the Three Peaks” describes how the man can extract yin essence when kissing three parts of the woman’s body. The Red Lotus Peak (the mouth) gives out a colorless liquid called Jade Spring, which comes from two holes under the woman’s tongue. The libation from her breasts, White Snow, is sweet to the taste and good for blood circulation in man and woman alike. The third place is the vulva, known variously as the Purple Mushroom Peak, the White Tiger’s Cave, or the Dark Gate:

“Its libation, Moon Flower, is safely kept in her Palace of Yin (womb). The liquid is very lubricating. But the gate of the Palace of Yin is nearly always closed. It opens only when the female is greatly pleased, to the point that her face turns red and her voice is murmuring. Then the libation floods out. At that time the man’s Jade Peak should retreat about one inch, but he should continue his thrusts and at the same time kiss her mouth or drink from her nipples. These are what we call the libations of the three peaks. The one who knows the Tao sees, but is not carried away by his passion.”

Moon Flower was highly prized, in both China and Japan, as one of the most potent forms of yin. Both cultures had vessels for collecting the overflow of this precious fluid. Unlike semen, Moon Flower could be produced seemingly without end under the right circumstances. This is one reason cunnilingus is emphasized in both Chinese and Japanese erotica. Soran bushi, a fishermen’s song from the north of Japan, indicates it was practiced with enthusiasm:

After sex it doesn’t matter what I eat,
It doesn’t taste as good as a vagina.

Fellatio, which risks spilling the precious male seed outside its rightful place in the woman’s body, is portrayed less. Depictions of male masturbation are almost unknown, for the same reason. But women, with their greater appetite and inexhaustible essence of yin, were frequently shown enjoying delicious solitary delights.

images-13Whirling Books, Flying Money

The Chinese were able to record and pass on this knowledge because of a sophisticated writing system. Three thousand years ago emperors and shamans tried to foretell the future by heating bones or tortoise shells. When these cooled divine messages appeared, in the form of a pattern of cracks. To keep track of these prophecies, some way of recording dates was needed. For records of time, and later of quantity, the Chinese developed a system of knots, with variations in size, complexity, sequence, color, and tightness conveying different meanings. (In Japan, which also adopted this practice, special knots have ceremonial and ritual purposes even today. Appreciation of rope well tied is one reason for the complexity and sophistication of Japanese bondage techniques.)

The need to preserve other kinds of information led to the inscription of the first pictographs, which were incised on bronze bells and cauldrons. At the time of Confucius, in the fifth century B.C, pictographs were written on strips of bamboo or wood, arranged in sequence and tied with leather thongs. These were later replaced by silk scrolls. Then, a thousand years after the invention of writing, Tsai Lun, a court eunuch employed in the bureau of weaponry and inventions, brought news of a useful discovery. The bark of trees, remnants of hemp, rags of cloth, and old fishing nets could be suspended for a time in water, and when the water was drained away through a screen it left a residual felted mat. (Possibly whoever came up with this idea got it from watching wasps make a nest.) This was the first paper, and Tsai Lun became revered in China as the patron saint of paper making — a small consolation, perhaps, for his earlier misfortune.

Paper was used for wrapping, for cutting into decorative designs, for fans, umbrellas, napkins, kites and lanterns. Almost immediately it was combined with another invention: ink. Although the first production of ink has traditionally been ascribed to the calligrapher Wei Tan (a contemporary of Tsai Lun), it had been known and prized in China since long before. Pigments of red and black have been found on objects dating back to the Neolithic period, and a piece of solid ink was left (perhaps as an offering) in a grave dug in the third century before Christ. The earliest use of the character for ink indicates that it was used to tattoo the faces of criminals. As well as lustrous black, there was cinnabar ink of the most brilliant vermilion, prized by Taoists for the extra clout it seemed to lend their spells. Inksticks made from pine soot and glue were one of the treasures of the scholarÕs study, and sometimes so ornately decorated that they were worth their weight in gold.

To make the finest ink was a lengthy and taxing business. Wei Tan’s own recipe — “formula” is too prosaic — calls for soot strained through a silken sieve, juice from the bark of a special tree, five egg whites, an ounce of crushed pearl, and an ounce of musk, all to be mixed in an iron mortar before the second moon of the year or after the ninth, and then pounded thirty thousand times “or more for better quality.”

At first paper and ink were used for writing by hand. But there was already a need for multiple copies of a text. Treaties between states were made in triplicate, with each signatory taking one copy and the third copy being presented to the gods. The forerunner of printing, the seal, had long been used by Taoist sages for magical purposes:

“The ancients, whenever they entered the mountains, wore a seal of the Yellow God, four inches in breadth and bearing a hundred and twenty characters with which they made impressions in clay, in consequence of which, whenever they halted, neither tigers nor wolves ventured to approach. If while traveling they saw a fresh footprint and impressed the seal there in the same direction in which the beast moved they made the tiger proceed, and, if they did it in the reverse direction, they made it return.”

Seals cast in bronze, gold, silver or iron or carved from clay, horn or wood were commonly used for secrecy and identification. When early writings on wood or bamboo were to be transported they were bound with cord and sealed with clay, upon which an inscription was impressed. As silk and then paper became the usual surfaces on which to write — bound accordion-style between endboards and hence known as “whirling books” — the inscription became pressed not on the clay but on the writing surface itself. The earliest examples date from the first century AD. From then on it became common to stamp indications of authorization with red ink.

Chiseling important writings (such as the teachings of Confucius) in stone made them unchangeable. Mistakes in handmade copies were a problem in China as they were in Europe, despite the excruciating consequences for those responsible. But pressing wet paper onto the incised stone so it sank into the shapes of the characters and then inking it made possible quick and accurate white-on-black images of the definitive version. This was particularly attractive to adherents of Buddhism, which arrived in China from India in the second century AD. Buddhism  brought with it what one Western scholar called “a mania for replicating images.” Not only was the religion was starting from scratch in China and obliged to produce a huge number of its voluminous scriptures quickly; making numerous copies of pictures and writing was itself a way to Nirvana.

At first Buddhist priests made rubbings from texts engraved in stone. Then they carved stamps, with which they reproduced small images of the Buddha. And eventually they began to inscribe whole texts on blocks of wood. The earliest printed book that has survived is a copy of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, which is dated “the fifteenth day of the fourth moon of the ninth year of Hsien Tung,” or 868.

In China printing quickly became a commercial enterprise, with merchants producing books on agriculture and medicine. The country made the first printed money, following a copper shortage in the early years of the ninth century. Tradesmen had to hand over their copper coins to the government, and received in exchange certificates of deposit. These were negotiable, and quickly became known as “flying money.” The experiment was not a success. The temptation to print flying money as if there were no tomorrow got the upper hand. The people lost all faith in paper currency, avoiding bank notes even when the government coquettishly perfumed them with frankincense.

The medium also became a vehicle for erotica. Two lavishly illustrated picture albums are known to have been printed — in color — in China, perhaps as early as 1580. These were almost certainly made for a small circle of wealthy patrons in Nanking. Yet at the same time prudishness began to replace the old Taoist veneration of the sex act. The new books were produced not for instruction in the exchange of yin and yang, but simply to please the eye and the imagination. The revival of Confucianism and its rigid moral codes led to a closing down of interest in the old practices.

And in a curious parallel to what was happening in the West, sexual material became linked with social criticism and dissent. The novel Chin P’ing Mei (Golden Lotus) was written at the end of the sixteenth century and describes sexual practices and bureaucratic corruption in equally vivid detail. Legend says the author steeped the pages in poison and gave the book to a powerful politician, hoping the man would become engrossed in the account of the talents of Golden Lotus, a courtesan, and absorb the poison. The central character is the wealthy Hsi-men, who enjoys his power to the full:

“Now Hsi-men’s mind was heated with wine and the chase, and another game occurred to him. It was more wicked than before and suited to the name of his accomplice. He called the maid Plum Blossom to watch, and said, ‘We shall call the game, Hitting a Silver Swan With a Golden Ball.’ Then he took a small plum and asked Golden Lotus to open her mouth. ‘No, not that mouth,’ he said. Golden Lotus understood and laughed, and with her fingers opened the petals of the flower. Three times he tried, throwing gently and failing. Only when Golden Lotus became excited by the sport, and a little snail came out to see the game, did a plum catch in the moist folds. No sooner was it there than Hsi-men replaced it with another plum, larger, more intense in color, and still on the stalk. Golden Lotus closed her eyes in delight.”

One hundred years after the book was written it was banned. But that did not stop the brother of the Emperor from translating it into Manchu.

Iron Fist in an Iron Gloveimages-5

By the eighth century woodblock printing had arrived in Japan. It was an expensive and time-consuming medium. Trees had to be felled, the wood cut and seasoned, the text written and transferred to the block, the paper and ink prepared. For almost a thousand years the only organizations with the resources and the motivation to do this were the Buddhist temples. Then, suddenly and with great speed, a series of changes turned printing into a commercial activity, catering to a newly affluent social class with money to burn and a sophisticated entertainment industry proffering the matches.

Until the start of the seventeenth century Japan was a collection of constantly warring fiefdoms. The emperor’s court in Kyoto was ornate and sophisticated, but politically weak. The emperor appointed governors for the outlying provinces but these official administrators were powerless. The peasants paid taxes not to imperial representatives but to the daimyo, the local warlords. Attempts by the daimyo to increase their power led to an endless cycle of battles, slaughter, and chaos. Then, after a final convulsive battle, one man emerged as more powerful than the rest, and set about unifying the country. This was the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who expelled the foreigners, sealed off the country, and laid the foundations of a new way of life.

Ieyasu began building Edo Castle in 1603 as a symbol of his power and a deterrent to those who wanted to take it away. For the next two hundred and sixty-five years he — and, after his death in 1616, his successors — ruled the country with an iron fist. Ieyasu taxed his former enemies heavily. He also made them and their families and retainers spend part of the year in Edo and part of the year at home. The cost of keeping two homes was ruinously expensive, and the old adversaries were forced to spend heavily to keep up the appearances to which they were accustomed. Stripped of the chance to plunder and forbidden by strict social rules to engage in any kind of business, they were forced to borrow money against the expected value of the rice harvest from their lands.

This left them at the mercy of the moneylenders and the merchants, who flocked to Edo in search of easy pickings as the city’s population mushroomed from 150,000 in 1623 to a million by the end of the century. The chonin, townspeople, were encouraged to come to Edo to help generate prosperity. Originally they were small shopkeepers or artisans, often in the textile industry. Laborers came from the countryside to build the castle, and stayed on when it was finished. Chonin made up half the population of Edo, but they were only allowed to live in about one-sixth of the area. Many had no home at all. Those who did lived in appallingly cramped conditions; an average family of four shared ten square yards of living space. During the frequent times of famine the government would order any chonin who did not have a sponsor or membership in a trades guild to go back to the countryside. Life in the city was tough. But life in the countryside was tougher, and Edo had attractions undreamed of in the villages. With hard work, luck, and ruthlessness the ambitious chonin  could indeed become rich.

Tradesmen of any kind were the lowest of the four levels of society, coming last in status and opportunities after the samurai at the top, then the farmers, and the artisans. Now they began to prosper as never before. The government’s sumptuary laws were supposed to keep a lid on lavish spending by the lower orders, and sometimes purges sprang up like bush fires. But these laws were not consistently enforced. The richest chonin — the financiers and the merchants — acquired mansions, houses, warehouses, farms, and fields, not to mention more immediately convertible kinds of wealth. “It is not plum, pine, and maple that people desire most around their houses,” one writer of the time noted dourly. “It’s gold, silver, rice, and hard cash.

a-shun10A Ruinous Addiction

Yet the merchants’ rise to riches was not accompanied by a rise in political power. Ieyasu and his Tokugawa successors were careful to keep all administrative positions in the hands of the samurai. Even when the bureaucracy was expanded to help keep tabs on every aspect of life — to the extent of setting up a department to supervise the orderly waging of vendettas — the merchants were excluded. Finding themselves shut out from higher positions in society despite their wealth, they fell into the habit of spending their money like water — lavishly, recklessly, and with no thought for tomorrow.

Denied the chance to participate in the political world, the townspeople turned their energies to ukiyo, the floating world of sensual pleasure. An entire sub-culture grew up around ukiyo. Ukiyo-fu  was a term of approval, denoting clothing or appearance that was ukiyo-sugata or stylish and suitable — a look that became increasingly languid and effeminate, pre-dating by centuries the limp androgyny now popular in Japanese young men’s magazines.

A ukiyo-otoko — a man of the floating world, or libertine — could easily fall prey to ukiyo-gurui — a ruinous addiction to the brothel quarters. Prostitution had a long history in Japan, and there are records of families sending their girl children to provide sex at the imperial court as early as the sixth century. Possibly harlotry dated back even further, to the female shamans and the itinerant women who went from festival to festival, selling their skills in dance and storytelling as well as in magic and divination. The trade was put on an official footing in the twelfth century, when the bureaucrats of the day tried to supervise the brothels and tax them. For the next four hundred years civil war undermined attempts at organization. But as stability returned licensed brothels were established in Osaka and Kyoto in the 1580s. Partly this was to limit the spread of syphilis, which appeared in the country around 1500.

When Ieyasu established his new capital he tried to keep sexual behavior under control. It was not sex itself that worried the shoguns, but the relationships that it might lead to. The Tokugawa government did not want to risk new alliances springing up among its enemies, and even tried to arrange the samurais’ marriages for them. Affairs that crossed the rigid class lines were particularly worrying, especially between samurai and prostitutes. The government wanted all relationships conducted where spies could keep an eye on them.

In 1617 an iromachi (literally “city of love”) was built on marshy ground in the northeast of the new city. It was called the Yoshiwara, place of reeds. All licensed prostitutes (kosho) were to be confined to the Yoshiwara. The Green Towers, as the brothels were called, were only open for business in the afternoon. But as the city grew and the population increased, prostitution spilled over into the surrounding areas. This meant a rise in the numbers of shisho (unlicensed practitioners), who were cheaper than their licensed sisters (they didn’t pay tax) and had the additional advantage of being available twenty-four hours a day.

Plans were already underway to extend the Yoshiwara when, in 1657, a fire left the area in smoking ruins. Fire was always a hazard in a city of houses made of wood and paper. But this one was particularly devastating. It raged for three days, whipped on by strong winds. More than 100,000 people died, including 20,000 who were crushed to death at gates that had been closed to prevent prisoners from escaping. In the Yoshiwara, too, many women burned to death because the brothel owners did not want them to get away.

Work began immediately on a new Yoshiwara. This time the area was surrounded by a moat, and could only be reached by water. If visitors declined the offers of funamanju — literally “boat dumplings,” freelancers who sought custom outside the Yoshiwara — they found themselves on an approach road to the pleasure quarter itself. This was lined with shops that sold (or rented) straw hats, under cover of which visitors could enter the Yoshiwara incognito. They had good reason for doing this. Edo was a city of spies as well as a city of bachelors, and the authorities liked to know exactly who was doing what, and with whom.

At the end of the approach a drawbridge crossed the Ditch of Black Teeth — so-called because this was as far as wives and courtesans, who decorated themselves in this way, could go. Across the drawbridge lay the main gate. This was closed at night and opened at dawn, thereby preventing the girls from running away and making it harder for customers to sneak off without paying. At the gate stood willow trees, an old Chinese symbol of the pleasure quarters.

Inside were twenty acres of streets, laid out on a grid pattern. The streets were lined with wooden houses, low and dark, and in the Green Towers some two to three thousand women entertained the visitors. The top rank of prostitute was the haughty tayu, who could pick and choose her clients and made them pay dearly for her exquisite skills. Courting a tayu  required patience as well as money. Three meetings were necessary before the main event. This only took place after a kind of mock wedding ceremony, at which both parties sipped at three cups of sake. A man in a hurry could always pay for all three meetings at once. But by doing so he risked seeming rather oafish. Nobody who had any pretension to class wanted that. And for the moneylender and the rice merchant, pretension to class was what the Yoshiwara was all about.

Most of the women were in no position to be as fastidious as the tayu. The lower ranks usually entertained two or three clients in one night, going from room to room in a practice called mawashi. Clients were not happy about being left to their own devices in the middle of the night. But the numerous skills of the women included diplomacy, and, in a ploy known as Folded Cormorant Wings, they would plead headaches or abdominal cramps and slip away, supposedly to recover.

Nor did the less exalted prostitutes arrange the assignation over lengthy meetings. Rather, they brought custom into the house in a much more direct way, by putting themselves on display in cages. As one later Western visitor recalled,

“The time to see Yoshiwara to the best advantage is just after nightfall, when the lamps are lighted. Then it is that the women — who for the last two hours have been engaged in gilding their lips and painting their eyebrows black and their throats and bosoms a snowy white, carefully leaving three Vandyke collar points where the back of the head joins the neck, in accordance with one of the strictest rules of Japanese cosmetic science — leave the back room and take their places side by side in a kind of long narrow cage, the wooden bars of which open to the public thoroughfare. Here they sit for hours, gorgeous in dresses of silk and gold and silver embroidery, speechless and motionless as wax figures, until they shall have attracted the attention of some of the passers-by, who begin to throng the place.”

Pillow Pictures

images-7Not all the passers-by actually got to have sex; the sheer expense must have condemned many would-be johns to nothing more than window-shopping. But there were other, more affordable pleasures to be had. Some men made do with ukiyo-ningyo, sex dolls (not inflatable, but complete with pudenda). These would have been available from Yotsume-ya, a chain of sex shops which sold paraphernalia of the kind which had already been in use for at least a thousand years. Others bought pictures, which could be found with increasing ease. Erotica was no longer the preserve of the rich. Printing had made it affordable to everyone.

Illustrated sex manuals were customarily put in brides’ trousseaux to prepare them for the pleasures to come. This practice continued well into the present century, with some of the elegant Ginza department stores discreetly placing a volume in furniture bought for a new bride. Gradually, though, erotic pictures lost their educational purpose and became sources of entertainment, or even aids to seduction. The development of the hand-painted emakimono , lateral scrolls, led to the beginning of erotic art for its own sake. Portable and discreet, emakimono usually showed twelve scenes of sexual intercourse, sometimes including the preliminaries and the aftermath. Usually they dispensed with text. Such pictures were originally known as makura-e, pillow pictures, until the more elegant, Chinese-derived term shunga came into vogue.

In conservative Kyoto hand-painted shunga continued to circulate among the wealthy. But in Edo printing made them a mass-market commodity, sold to impoverished samurai and newly-rich tradesman alike. Erotica was not just bought as lovers’ presents, by both men and women; it also retained some of the superstitious uses rooted in Shinto rites. Erotica was thought to bring prosperity (an extension of its association with fertility) and guard against fire. It was even thought useful in getting rid of termites.

Early attempts at selling erotica to the masses led to shikomi-e, black-and-white drawings that were turned out in bulk by anonymous artists and then colored by hand. Often these depicted the prostitutes who plied their trade at the public baths, scrubbing backs and, for a small fee, engaging in more intimate activities. Titillating rather than explicit, shikomi-e and the sweatshop artisans who drew them could not compete with woodblock printing, which offered high quality and the economic advantages of mass production. Over ninety percent of the erotic pictures produced in Edo were printed, not painted.

The earliest surviving example of Edo-printed shunga, Yoshiwara makura-e, Yoshiwara Pillow Pictures, dates from 1660. The technical quality shows that printing was already an established craft. Producing books and prints was a three-step process, with each participant working independently. The artist drew his design on a piece of paper. The drawing was then pasted face down onto a block of mountain cherry, a wood prized for its hardness, and the paper rubbed with hemp seed to make the design stand out. The carver chiseled away the wood around the outline of the image, leaving it standing out in reversed image. The block was brushed off, washed, and allowed to dry. The printer would then apply the ink, using a brush made from the hair of a horse’s tail. Though not as arduous as Wei Tan’s method, the usual way of making ink entailed the construction of a special room using shoji, sliding paper screens. Bunches of burning twigs were pushed into the room until soot coated the walls. This was then scraped off and mixed with a resin fixative.

The first paper made in Japan used hemp, but by the Edo period mulberry, whose tough fibers give strength, was more common. After soaking in water for some hours a sheet was placed on the block and bound in place with damp cotton. The printer rubbed it with a lightly oiled roller, then the finished print was lifted off the wood. Binding was usually contracted out, often to women.

Yoshiwara makura-e is usually attributed to Hishikawa Moronobu, a master of design known for his vigorous compositions and command of fluid line. Moronobu was the son of a dyer and embroiderer, and his familiarity with patterns and textures of cloth can be seen in the way he uses the folds of garments to indicate the softness of the body beneath. The use of clothing is one striking difference between Japanese erotic art and its Chinese counterpart, for while Chinese lovers are frequently shown naked, the Japanese are almost always semi-clothed. Sashes are loosened and kimono opened, but seldom thrown off completely. Possibly this was because nudity, seen daily in public bathing, was not considered sexually arousing. The partly hidden is more exciting than the fully revealed — a principle skillfully used in many products of Japanese culture, from poetry to garden making. And clothing in disarray carries its own erotic message.

There was also a good design reason to show lovers partly clothed. In monochrome prints, a pattern of butterflies or cherry blossom softens the otherwise harsh contrast between areas of black and white. Sometimes prints could be colored by hand, as the shikomi-e were. Color printing was not unknown; mathematical texts with colored diagrams and books of kimono patterns appeared in the mid-1660s. But these used only one color. Polychrome printing was tricky, since each color needed a new block, and the paper had to be aligned perfectly each time. In 1744 the problem was solved by incorporating wooden stops into the corners of the block, which allowed the paper to be positioned accurately. From this time on color printing — like color photographs and color television — took off rapidly, and black and white printing fell into disuse.

Even before the use of color, many of the conventions that came to characterize shunga could already be seen in the work of Sugimura Jihei, one of Moronobu’s students and most successful followers. Unlike his teacher, whose work included kimono pattern books and maps, Sugimura devoted himself to erotic book illustrations. Virtually all artists of the period produced erotic pictures. In most cases these made up from one fifth to one third of the artist’s total output, indicating there was a steady demand. Sugimura was unusual in that he did hardly anything else. His pictures are like Moronobu’s — the fluid, confident lines with which the lovers are drawn contrasting with the angularity of a corner of the room. Unlike many artists, Sugimura signed his work, often hiding his signature in the pattern of a half-discarded garment.

Sugimura’s pictures sometimes include a third party watching the proceedings. Voyeurism is a common shunga motif. This practice, so shocking and shameful in Western cultures, would not have been uncommon in Edo. In the Green Towers of the Yoshiwara the training of young prostitutes included clandestine observation of the tricks of the trade and the eccentricities of the clientele. Since rooms were divided only by sliding paper screens, this was not hard to arrange. Sometimes involvement went beyond watching. Group sex is thought to have been a feature of rural life, and many surviving shunga show a man and two or more women. Sexual activity in shunga in general is unrestrained. Women display themselves to their lovers and paint characters on the man’s penis. Couples pore over the kind of pictures of which they themselves are the subject and watch their own activities in mirrors, the woman’s impending orgasm signified by a curling of the toes. Depiction of sodomy with young Kabuki actors is another hardy perennial.

Genital size is exaggerated to startling proportions. This custom began at least as early as the twelfth century, if not before. In a painting of a phallic contest men with superhuman endowments display them to a delighted group of women, who then exhaust them with insatiable demands. As the shunga tradition developed, sexual parts become larger. Penises are huge and bulging, with heads as big as baseballs. Vulvas with swollen scalloped lips exude effusions in a lava-like torrent. Partly this is an expression of the intensity of feeling concentrated in those parts of the body. Asked why the lovers’ parts were exaggerated in such an extreme manner, Abbot Toba, traditionally credited with painting the phallic contest,  is said to have replied:

“Consider the posture pictures of the older masters. The phallus is always depicted large, far in excess of its natural size. As a matter of fact, if it were drawn in its natural size it would hardly be worth looking at. Thus in its depiction resort is made to artistic exaggeration.”

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Some 375 printing firms were active during the Tokugawa shogunate, which lasted until 1868. Usually these businesses were handed down from father to son, although few establishments lasted longer than fifty years; the clientele was too fickle to make publishing a dependable occupation. Overseeing production and sales was a new kind of communications specialist: the jihon toiya, the entrepreneurial publisher. It was the publisher who commissioned the artist and — depending on how amenable he was — told him what to draw.

The jihon toiya supervised the printing and attended to the distribution. If the finished product was a book, he would sell it from his own shop. In the early stages of the industry many publishers had their premises in or around the Yoshiwara, which guaranteed a steady supply of passing customers. Prints he might also give to an independent salesman, who would display them around the city clipped to the rim of an umbrella (when it wasn’t raining).

Over time distribution became more complicated. Publishers formed trade associations to protect their interests, both among themselves and in dealings with the city government, which required all publishers to be licensed. Sometimes, if an item was particularly successful, arrangements would be made to sell copies to associations in Kyoto or Osaka. The jihon toiya was careful to keep the original blocks in his possession. Pirating — particularly of texts — was a problem, and laws were passed forbidding reproduction without permission. But these were not very effective. Generally, the life of a printing block was two hundred to three hundred impressions. After that it was too worn to be used, although with a popular item most publishers continued to put out copies as long as customers would buy them.

The jihon toiya were, at least in the beginning, mass-market publishers of illustrated books, for which rising literacy created an endless demand. Japan produced The Tale of Genji, the world’s first novel, as early as the eleventh century. Now all kinds of writing came into print, from novels and essays to diaries and short stories. Many of these already-existing works of literature became limited editions, printed with great care and displaying the art of printing at its most sophisticated. The jihon toiya did not neglect quality. But they were more attracted by the commercial possibilities of quantity. If they did publish classic works of literature they would put out edited versions, with parts of the text cut out and replaced by illustrations, pictures selling better than words.

Motivated by the desire for profit, publishers kept a keen eye on the trends and fads that rippled through the city and geared their operations to meet whatever passing whim popular interest threw up. Many of the books they put out were ukiyo-zoshi, stories of the floating world. Often these recounted the amorous exploits of an Edo dandy — exactly the kind of passing customer who was likely to buy them.

Readers, though growing in number, were still a minority. This was not a problem for savvy publishers, who realized that people who couldn’t read would still buy picture books (e-hon) if the subject interested them. (In this the jihon toiya were the forerunners of modern Japan’s billion-copies-a-year comics industry.) And what interested the townspeople of Edo more than anything else was the theater. Their taste for color and spectacle and melodrama led already to the creation of a new genre, kabuki.

Kabuki started as a form of advertising for prostitutes, who would dance Dread Female of Heaven dances of breathtaking lubricity. Now it fused together music, dance, violence, and storytelling. Performances lasted from dawn until the last light of evening and the chonin flocked to them. They would wander in and out of the theater, eating, drinking sake, and gossiping — the latter a favorite Edo activity, known as ukiyo-banashi. They would renew old acquaintances. And sometimes they would make new ones, of extreme intimacy. Actors were in great demand as lovers, both from men and women, and the extended program gave plenty of time for dalliance in a nearby teahouse. A print by Shuncho shows one such backstage encounter in full swing, with a running commentary by the woman:

“The main event gave me an excuse for getting out so that I could meet you here. There’s no one in the world who means more to me. Your staff is thicker and longer than the statue of Buddha in the temple across from here. That’s why I love you even more. Oh! Go deeper and faster! Push, push until you break the floorboards …”

The genre of ukiyo-e, pictures of the floating world, owed much of its popularity to depictions of kabuki actors caught in stylized dramatic poses. This kind of bombastic acting, rich in posturing and scowls, was known as aragoto, rough stuff, and became fashionable around the start of the eighteenth century. The fascination with kabuki encouraged publishers to put out prints as single sheets as well as in books, and it is because of these works that ukiyo-e became known in Europe. The influence of Japanese art on Van Gogh and nineteenth-century French painters came in large part from these single-sheet portraits of actors.

But in fact, shunga were published in sheet rather than book form some thirty years before portraits of actors and other non-erotic material began to appear in any quantity, which was not until the 1690s. Indeed, some of the artists producing shunga looked down on portraying actors with disdain. Actors, after all, were a despised group, looked on with disapproval by the Confucian establishment. Sex was a natural activity, the artists thought, and worthy of their exquisite artistic talents. But actors were … well, actors.


Most of the artists were samurai, no longer warriors and often impoverished, but still intensely proud of their rank. The carvers were artisans — a tradition that started in Buddhist temples, where the job of chiseling the block fell to the lowliest monks. Commercial printing was a revolutionary activity in that samurai and artisan worked under the direction of a merchant, thus overturning the established social hierarchy. For the Tokugawa shogunate, with its strict Confucian ideas about class segregation, this itself was reason enough to regard the printing industry with misgiving.

The shogunate introduced censorship almost as soon as it came to power. First it prohibited the import of books about Christianity, which had been coming in from China. This edict was extended in 1634 to include any book mentioning God, Jesus, or the West. When Ieyasu died he became deified, and anything critical of him or his family was forbidden. All publishers had to be licensed, and by a law passed in 1694 books could only be published by specified publishers. A further edict, put out in 1720 by the shogun Yoshimune, not only forbade books or broadsheets criticizing the bakufu or its Confucianist ideology; it also banned the publication of obscenity.

While these laws sound draconian, enforcement was spasmodic at best. In 1648 an Osaka bookseller was executed for printing a lampoon of the shogun’s family. But the restrictions on erotica, while always a potential threat hanging over the industry, were seldom enforced. For one thing the question of what was obscene was never answered — although this would not have stopped the Tokugawa government, never a fan of legalistic niceties, from taking action if it appeared necessary. For another, as often happens in Japan, the official position and the actual situation were not always the same. Enthusiasm for erotica thrived at all levels of society, and Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa shogun, commissioned a large and elaborate shunga scroll to present to his daughter when she got married. Not only that; shunga also helped distract the Edo townsmen from joining political conspiracies. In this sense they were a forerunner of television, the twentieth century’s electronic pacifier.

Only one shunga artist is known to have come into serious conflict with the censor, and that was Utamaro, the greatest master of all. Utamaro’s prolific output included Uta-makura, an album of twelve prints described by one early Western critic as “a marvel of printing, with a softness, a harmony, which, I repeat, not one European print can rival, and in which the tones of the naked body lift themselves so luminously from the colors of the silk robes, scattered by amorous frolics, and in which the dark, untamed mystery of the Mons Veneris stands out so voluptuously against the whiteness, scarcely touched with the pink of feminine flesh.”

It was not luxuriant sensuality that got Utamaro into trouble, or even rumors about his relationship with his younger sister, who served as his model. (Incest, while hardly de rigeur, was not unknown among the print makers; Hokusai, the self-styled “madman of painting,” is thought to have been intimate with his own daughter, Oei, whose genitalia he detailed so lovingly.) Utamaro’s downfall was a triptych satirizing the shogunate, for which he was manacled and given fifty days’ house arrest. He never recovered, and died soon afterward.

Shunga itself went into a decline toward the end of the seventeeth century, victim of changing public taste and increasing stagnation in a country paying the price of having cut itself off from the rest of the world. When the foreigners returned in 1868 they brought with them a prudishness which stifled the robust and exuberant sexuality of the Edo period. There was a flickering revival in the 1920s craze for ero-guro-nansensu, material that was erotic, grotesque, and nonsensical. But the ruling militarists put an end to that. Not until the postwar Occupation of 1945-52 did the mass media show a significant resurgence of interest in the erotic, with magazines like Madamu and Sei Ryoki (Sex Bizarre) catering to a new appetite among the Japanese for sexual knowledge and adventure.

That appetite persists. Only the media that feed it have changed.


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