Utagawa Kunisada 歌川国貞 / Toyokuni III 三代歌川豊国 (1786–1865)
The Floral Road to the Capital
(Hana no miyakoji), vol. 2 of 3

Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), c. 1820s–1840s
Woodblock-printed book; ink and color on paper
Purchase, Richard Lane Collection, 2003

In Kunisada’s artwork, a woman who lacks access to a toilet urinates into a stream as a farmer spies upon her from behind a haystack. Are images such as this examples of sexual fetishism? An analysis of the images reveals them to be far less transgressive than we might otherwise assume.

As part of the national government’s attempts to improve Japan’s international image and to promote Japanese culture as civilized and enlightened (bunmei kaika), cities such as Yokohama outlawed public urination (tachi shōben) in 1873. Until that time, however, public urination by both men and women was relatively common throughout Japan, and though unusual, a depiction of tachi shōben was probably far less shocking to 19th-century Japanese viewers than it is to us.

The prevalence of voyeurism as a theme in shunga since the 17th century was a strategy through which artists addressed their readers’ conflicting feelings about sexuality and the experience of viewing erotica. Strict Confucian rules about social propriety prevented some viewers from appreciating the artwork, so by depicting couples carousing (or, in this case, individuals relieving their bladders) in front of others without fear or shame, viewers were assured that their own voyeurism was entirely welcomed.

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