Tuesday, 9 August 2011


I am very excited to introduce my first guest post on narrow roads. It is written by my brother who is spending a year teaching English in Japan. His enthusiasm for the country and its culture has inspired me when writing this blog and I am delighted to be able share a post from him.

A memorial print of Hiroshige by the contemporary artist Kunisada via Wikimedia

My first intimation of falling in love with Japan, as it were, was the woodblock prints of the artist Hiroshige, particularly his masterpieces depicting the Tokaido Road, the famed Eastern Sea Road from the military capital Edo to the Imperial court in Kyoto. Ukiyō-e had become popular for the prints of great beauties and stars of the kabuki stage, but around the 1830s a combination of factors led to the runaway craze of landscape prints. The Tokugawa shogunate had started to view the licentious actors and courtesans with suspicion, believing the ‘floating world’ to corrupt morals with its message of easy life:

Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…

Asai Ryoi, Tales of the Floating World (浮世物語 Ukiyo Monogatari, 1666)

This easy lifestyle was clearly incompatible with the strict code of Bushido that the government promoted. In 1842 the shogunate introduced the Tenpō reforms, in response to earthquakes, famine and external pressures. This restricted decadent urban life, especially the kabuki theatre and ukiyō-e that showed any aspect of courtesans, geisha or actors. It also banned, among other things, such dangerous habits as gaudy signboards and decorations on smoking pipes.