Foreigners in Shunga: Unexpected Visitors

Throughout the Edo period (1615–1868), the shogunate pursued a policy of diplomatic isolationism (sakoku). Chinese traders or representatives of the Dutch East India Company could embark at Dejima Island off the coast of Nagasaki, and Korean merchants were allowed harbor elsewhere in Tsushima Province, but all other foreign visitors were banned, ostensibly because Christianity and other aspects of Western culture were considered a danger to Japan’s political stability. During this time, depictions of foreigners in Japanese art were referred to as nanban-ga (literally, “images of the Southern Barbarians”) or Nagasaki-e (“pictures from Nagasaki”).

In 1853, Commodore of the U.S. Navy Matthew C. Perry (1794–1858) landed his fleet at Yokosuka Harbor near Yokohama City and forced the Japanese government to immediately open its ports for international trade. As the Japanese populace suddenly found themselves encountering foreign visitors in their daily lives, some artists produced Yokohama-e (“pictures from Yokohama”), which marveled at these visitors, their regal ships, and their curious customs. Many shunga artists, by contrast, fixated upon the ways in which foreign merchants pursued Japanese women. Some artists sought to exploit the public’s curiosity about foreigners in order to sell their work, others saw foreign clients as proof that Japanese courtesans were the most desired women in the world, and still others protested against what they interpreted as a form of sexual colonialism.