Kitagawa Utamaro 喜多川歌麿 (1753-1806)
Picture-book: The Laughing Drinker
(Ehon warai jōgo 絵本笑上戸), vol. 2

Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), c. 1803
Woodblock-printed book; ink on paper with hand-coloring
Purchase, Richard Lane Collection, 2003

In addition to his sanitized depictions of life in the Yoshiwara, Utamaro also published several works of shunga in which he describes the sexual lives of courtesans. These explicit works are far more light-hearted in tone, and the degree to which the narratives faithfully represent a courtesan’s experiences is doubtful. Unlike his ōkubi-e portraits of courtesans, these erotic texts by Utamaro were not meant to be consumed by the residents of the Yoshiwara themselves nor even, one could argue, by occasional visitors to the pleasure quarters.

Utamaro’s audience was primarily comprised of those who, due to financial, geographical, or ethical reasons, would never have any direct insight into the lifestyle of courtesans. Utamaro had a prime opportunity to exploit the women that he himself had popularized and to produce myths about their sexual lives that, due to his reputation as a cognoscenti of the Yoshiwara, many readers likely accepted at face value without question.

Here, an oiran sits astride one of her customers, simultaneously pleasuring him sexually, chatting with him about the joys of sex, and serenading him on a three-stringed shamisen. This imaginative scene differs considerably from the rather mechanical, time-efficient way in which courtesans were instructed to deal with customers in bed:

…first encourage him to drink much sake in the parlor; as soon as you retire to bed, let him have his way. If, afterward, he tries to withdraw, pretend to get angry a little and force him to make love to you again. He will probably do it. At that time, tighten your buttocks and grind your hips to the left and right…. This will make him climax quickly. He will be exhausted…. Then you can relax and sleep…

-Okumura Sanshirō, Secret Teachings (Hidensho), c. 1640-1655
(Translation by Cecilia Segawa Seigle)

View this book in its entirety on museum database (enabled through support by the Robert F. Lange Foundation)