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Reviewed by:
  • Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field
  • Elizabeth Lillehoj (bio)
Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field. Edited by Joshua S. Mostow, Norman Bryson, and Maribeth Graybill. University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2003. xiii, 291 pages. $36.00.

Described by one of its editors as the first volume of essays in English devoted exclusively to feminist analysis of Japanese visual arts, this book is a valuable contribution to Japanese cultural studies. It brings together eleven essays by an international group of authors with backgrounds in art his-tory and literature. The majority of chapters explore modern or contemporary art, forms as diverse as illustrated handscrolls, woodblock prints, oil painting, film, and video games. Despite the minor need for theoretical clarification and contextualization, the chapters demonstrate how useful critical gender theory can be in illuminating the many levels at which images function.

In his introduction, Joshua Mostow traces the trajectory of feminist art history and explains that an original goal of the volume was to write against the recent valorization of early Japanese erotica (shunga) among Japanese art historians in Japan. The "boom" in shunga scholarship occurred in the [End Page 453] 1990s, just after the Japanese government lifted its ban on images showing pubic hair. Rather than merely contest the uncritical approaches of 1990s shunga scholarship, however, editors of this volume decided to widen their scope and address broader feminist concerns.

The volume is dedicated to a leading contributor to feminist art history in Japan, Chino Kaori, who died suddenly in 2002. Chino's exposure to the explosion of theory at North American universities in the early 1990s convinced her that objectivist, universalizing approaches to art, which Japan had inherited from the West, were based on the values of an elite minority and that the time had come for greater pluralism in Japanese art studies. Her chapter in this volume launches an assault on the edifice of postwar Japanese art history. Venturing far beyond discussion of style and iconography, she formulates a "dual binary model" for understanding Japanese cultural forms wherein the masculine is associated with attributes of public/unified/Kara (China), while the feminine is associated with attributes of private/diverse/Yamato (Japan). Historically, Japan assumed a positively construed feminine character in contrast to a masculine China, but, for Chino, "the gravest situation of the modern era arose when Japan assumed a 'masculine' identity and attempted to subjugate various countries in Asia, imprisoning them in a 'feminine' role in relation to Japan's 'masculine' role" (p. 33). Chino sets the stage here for other contributors to expose inequities within Japan as well as injustices in Japan's relations with neighboring countries.

Chapters three through five deal with premodern images. Ikeda Shinobu examines gender and class relations in a segment of painting from the thirteenth-century Heiji monogatari emaki (Illustrated scrolls of the tales of the Heiji era), showing an incident of 1159, when Minamoto soldiers stormed the retired emperor's residence. Illustrators editorialized the scene, picturing among the victims a large number of court women; some have their breasts exposed, "violated by the rough barbarity of the Other—the warriors—in images not unlike those of rape" (p. 43). Joshua Mostow explores rules of sexual/gender combination in shunga, focusing on explicit illustrations in a book printed in 1675. A preface relates that the book was intended for those who follow the "way of youngmen" (shudō), particularly those who profess purity of love for young men (wakashu); however, several scenes suggest instead that the intended audience is adult men with varied sexual appetites. Mostow concludes that the book not only advocates inequitable relationships in the homosexual realm, but that it allows women limited sexual options. David Pollack looks at advertising practice of the seventeenth through mid-nineteenth centuries, a practice that "forms the context for what are usually now seen as the more remarkable manifestations of the erotic life of the Edo period" (p. 88). Erasing distinctions between high art and marketing design, Pollack shows how urban artists advertised brothel women in ukiyo-e prints, just as popular authors promoted goods from fashionable shops in their novels. [End Page 454]

Moving to the modern...


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