Japanese Modernism Across Media

The Nude

The culture of Japanese printmaking did not fully blossom until the Edo-period (1603-1868) with ukiyo-e or the prints of ‘floating world’. However, the nude was never its own genre within ukiyo-e prints, but instead only appeared in the shunga (the term used for erotica in printmaking, painting, and book illustrations). More specifically full nudity was an exception and when any form of nudity did appear in prints or paintings, it was nearly always within an erotic context. Nudity also appeared in a few other subjects such as female abalone divers, the mountain woman of Japanese folklore (Yamauba), and scenes relating to the bath. Although these images did not portray the same overt sexuality as the shunga, their sexual underpinnings were clearly present. However, along with the government’s endorsement of Western-style painting came the larger role of the nude in art.[1]

The nude as a subject in high art had a long tradition in Europe, but had never been a part of Japan’s historical artistic traditions. The turning point occurred when the Western artists who favored nude models were brought to Japan by the Japanese government to teach Western painting techniques. The government hoped an acceptance of the nude image as a legitimate art subject was a sign of not only Japan’s modernity, but also in the eyes of the Western powers, its civility. Nevertheless, although the government and much of the artistic community had accepted the nude as legitimate subject matter, the public did not as easily accept it. For example in 1895 at the Fourth National Exhibition for the Promotion of Industry in Kyoto, Kuroda Seiki’s nude entitled morning toilette, prompted public outrage. As Nihon No Hanga writes, “The incident shows that despite a long, but officially illegal, tradition of erotic art, the general audience in Japan had not yet embraced the nude as a legitimate genre.”[2] With this public opinion in mind, it is somewhat surprising that any nudes were created. However, capitalism began its reign, and shin hanga prints were driven by the publishers who were driven by profit. Wantanabe Shōzaburō, one of the publishers at the heart of the shin hanga movement, discovered that by embedding his nudes and semi-nudes within the context of bathing or applying make-up, he could avoid controversy, still manage to appear modern, and most importantly, cultivate the lucrative Western market. His work and the works of other shin hanga artists/publishers caught the eye of foreigners, mainly Americans, who became seriously interested in these prints and were willing to pay higher prices for them than for traditional/classical works from the ukiyo-e tradition. With this lucrative confluence of modernity and simultaneous avoidance of censorship, it is no surprise that, with the exception of Ishikawa Toraji’s work, most of the resulting images of nudes and semi-nudes made and displayed in this exhibit are set within the acceptable contexts of bathing or applying make-up.[3]

[1] Chris Uhlenbeck, Maureen De Vries, and Elise Wessels, Emerging from the Bath: The Nude in 20th Century Japanese Prints (Amsterdam: Nihon No Hanga, 2010), 8.

[2] Uhlenbeck et al, Emerging from the Bath, 3-17.

[3] Uhlenbeck et al, Emerging from the Bath, 3-17.


Torii Kotondo (1900-1976)


Kobayakawa Kiyoshi (1889-1948)

Hasegawa Tatsuko ?-?

Public Bath



Ishikawa Toraji (1975-1964)

'Ten Types of Female Nudes' 1935

For further information about this series as well as Ishikawa Toraji, please visit The Female Image in Shin Hanga Prints: Visual Essay