Video Podcast No. 3: "The Barbarians Arrive," Narrated by Stephen Salel

One of the defining characteristics of Japan’s government during the early modern era was its policy of diplomatic isolation. In order to limit the influence of other cultures and their potential for inspiring political disorder within Japan, the shogunate banned foreign merchants from all ports other than a few in the southern island of Kyūshū.

Nanban-ga – literally, “images of Southern Barbarians”– rose to prominence as a genre of Japanese painting and printmaking during the 17th century. At the intersection of nanban-ga and shunga could be found the prints of Yanagawa Shigenobu I, who imitated the appearance of copper engravings imported from Europe in order to speculate about the sexual lives of Westerners. Similarly, he produced images of Chinese nationals whose esoteric religious practices apparently included surprising techniques for absorbing the sexual energies of their partners.

In 1853, Matthew Perry, Commadore of the US Navy, landed his ships in Yokosuka harbor and demanded that the shogunate immediately open its ports for international trade. Suddenly images of foreigners pervaded works of shunga. Did these artists view the arrival of Americans with curiosity or xenophobic dread? The answer is surprisingly complex.