Shikijo: eroticism in Japanese photography
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”
In discussing ideas for an exhibition of Japanese photography Mimi Chun and I discussed the work of several Japanese photographers. Subsequent to that Mimi proposed that the exhibition have the theme of eroticism. I`d like to thank Mimi for that insight, but it is also a reflection on the nature of several of the photographers that I have worked with at Zen Foto Gallery and of those whom I discussed with her, that they have this connection for me.
Of course, the photographers with whom we have made exhibitions and books in Tokyo reflect my own preferences, likes and obsessions. In the current exhibition at Blindspot Gallery these include Tokyo Rumando, Hideka Tonomura, Emi Anrakuji and Eiki Mori, as well as the established Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki. It is not only their work that appeals, but also the character of the artists, which always and inevitably shines through the completed works, be it passionate or cerebral, whimsical or intense, romantic or sensual.
As a foreigner long-time resident in Japan and coming to the world of Japanese art and photography in the second half of my life, I cannot hope to do more than scratch the surface of the cultural and historical strains that underlie the works. I grew up in a city in the north of England, with an inevitably strong influence of protestant Christianity. Looking back on my first experiences of Japan more than 30 years ago, perhaps the strongest impression at that young age was the difference in sexual mores and attitudes. Sexuality is at the essence of our psyche, and so this collision of two very different cultural attitudes has remained with me to the present day.
To put Japanese eroticism in context, it has been influenced as in many other aspects of society, by Japan`s long isolation and then late emergence from agrarian society. Japan`s modernization began quite recently. Perry`s Black Ships arrived in 1853 to trigger the opening up of the country, and the Meiji restoration of 1868 began Japan`s embrace of modernism. Before this, we might simplify Japanese society for our purposes into two layers; the peasants and the aristocracy. Rural life had its own village-centric world of sexual relations which we might assume was earthy and relatively primitive. We hear of the rural tradition of “yobai” which survived into relatively recent times, in which young men of the village would sneak about (“-bai” = crawl) at night (“yo” = night) from house to house in search of sexual experiences. Yoshiyuki Kohei`s work follows the men sneaking about in the dead of night to watch the night time sexual encounters taking place in Tokyo`s parks.
At the same time the aristocratic courtly world had developed a highly cultured sensibility towards sex, which has become accepted as great literature and art. We have literature such as “The Tale of Genji” and “The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon” on one hand and, on the other, woodblock prints of famous courtesans and the erotic “Shunga” of explicit sexual activities. The attitudes to sexual relations and eroticism in the two strata of society are poles apart, but the influence of both can be seen even today in the work of Japanese photographers such as Nobuyoshi Araki and Hideka Tonomura, and even perhaps discernible in the use of colour that we find in the work of Eiki Mori.
The opening up and modernization of Japan in the 20th century saw the demise of the traditional pleasure quarters such as Yoshiwara, which sound so tragically romantic to us nowadays. The walled district of Yoshiwara was surrounded by a moat with carefully restricted entrances to prevent escape by the girls, many of whom had been sold into prostitution by their penniless families.
In the 20th Century art and literature looked toward the demi-monde. Ichiyo Higuchi was Japan`s first prominent woman writer of the era. She lived near to the Yoshiwara district at the entrance to Tokyo from the north and wrote of life in the area. Shuji Terayama was a son of the far north of Japan who came like many others to the big city, and worked in and wrote about Shinjuku, which was the great western entrance to the city. It is no coincidence that Araki himself was born in the district of Minowa, which is a short walk from Yoshiwara. In our exhibition, Tokyo Rumando is another artist who has come to Tokyo to find work and excitement. Her first major work “Rest 3000, Stay 5000” is a series of self-portraits in the love hotels of Tokyo`s pleasure districts, which are the seedy heirs of Yoshiwara. Her second series “Orphee” also explores many of these themes that she has encountered in her life and brought out in her work, both consciously and otherwise.
We have chosen the Japanese word “shikijo” for the title of the exhibition. This word has been used by Araki and can suggest eroticism, while reversing the characters suggests more carnal activity. We cannot define eroticism, because each person finds it where they will and when they will. As David Hume wrote of beauty, also for eroticism: “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.”
We hope that the viewers may find in our selection of Japanese photography some aspects that they will also find erotic.
Mark Pearson 6 April 2016
About Mark Pearson
Mark Pearson has been intimately connected with Japan since his first visit in 1980. He has built a collection of Japanese and Chinese photography, opened Zen Foto as a photography gallery and photobook publisher and founded shashasha to bring Asian photobooks online to the world.