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To What Extent are the Narratives of Femininity Represented in the medium of print in Japan during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) and Meiji period (1868-1912)?

Lucy Cairns, BA (Hons) Production Design for Stage & Screen Alumni

This discussion will explore the narratives of Japanese femininity during the Tokugawa or Edo period (1603-1868) and how this was portrayed in woodblock print and text. This inquiry was influenced by my interest and research into Japan, which came about due to studies on gendered ideals, and the exploration of Japanese arts, whilst in Material Culture lectures. My aim is to reveal the ideal of the Japanese woman in the Tokugawa period and whether the representations of femininity in print were true. Therefore, correlation between femininity and the medium of print will be explored by examining the actions of women, objects and settings. Conclusions will be drawn by investigating how women are portrayed through print by analysing whether influences, such as the artist and society, have an effect on the representation of femininity. 

The time period the discussion will focus on is the Tokugawa or Edo period (1603-1868). The contextual background of the Tokugawa period or Edo (period) will be briefly outlined, as this was a patriarchal, feudal society where women were limited. The genre of art named Ukiyo-e that emerged during the Tokugawa period will be explored, as Ukiyo-e woodblock prints depicted many aspects of Japanese culture including pleasurable activities and beautiful women (Bijinga). Furthermore, the different types of femininity during the Tokugawa period, such as domestic and pleasure, will be explored. The aim is to examine how women were portrayed through the genre of Bijinga and whether they were an illusion constructed by socio/cultural or artist ideals. The discussion will consider whether the Tokugawa prints were based on the artist’s own opinion of femininity or if additional influences effected this, such as values. Moreover, femininity is constructed through values of sexuality, which will be explored to show how both domestic and pleasure overlap through Tokugawa representations of beauty. Therefore, the narratives of representations of femininity through print may be an illusion, as they were not based on true aspects. There are also many other influences that construct and affect representations of femininity, such as family, which can lead to the commercialisation and categorisation of women in Tokugawa print.

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The commercialisation and categorisation of women through print will be explored, as this explains how women were used as tools to demonstrate Japanese norms and traditional values. Moreover, the theory of the male gaze will also be questioned, as this is a western theory that may not apply to Tokugawa print. While this may seem a valid argument it is not necessary, as the objectification of the male artist and the erotic can be viewed as a Japanese norm of illustrating beauty.

Furthermore, the Meiji period (1868-1912) will be outlined to explain the breakdown of Japanese femininity which was influenced by western society, as this was an era of political, economic and social change. Again the narratives of femininity will be examined, looking at what made a Japanese woman during the Meiji period and how the west began to influence and change Japanese culture.

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