Alex Suginaka

Yurakucho Yearning: Pleasure in Contemporary Japanese Culture

The Japanese word for amusement and pleasure is yuuraku.  And when it comes to Japanese culture, there are certainly some amusing things to be found.  From the luscious, raw sushi to the steamy, relaxing onsen (hot springs), the ways of this eastern civilization are endlessly intriguing.  Much can be learned from the artistic expression of Japanese culture, and we will specifically look at the Yoshida family prints as a demonstration of cultural values.  Noboru Sawai, taught by Toshi Yoshida, did a series of prints including Fisherman’s Dream and Yurakucho.  His print work exemplifies a pornographic motif, striking a major cultural element in Japan today—pleasure.  The ideas of pleasure can be found in a variety of art and business, and we will examine how modern society is pictured through those such as Sawai.

Born in Takamatsu, Japan, Sawai quickly developed into a highly respected contemporary woodblock print artist.  He studied under the second generation Yoshida printmaking master and graduated with a B.A. from Augsburg College, MN.  Currently Sawai is a professor at the University of Calgary, Canada and his works range from the late 1960’s to today.  The print entitled Yurakucho exhibits the pleasure culture that defines contemporary Japan.  Sawai uses a rather Western abstract style and dark colors to illustrate a subway station, with the focus on a colorful, nude female body billboard display.  Simplicity of the train track markings, the silhouette of the trees, and the geometry patterns on the background create a nice contrast to the busy lines and bright colors of the billboard.  The print subject itself is Yurakucho, a district of Tokyo found near Ginza, where a JR subway station and several Japanese-style bars and restaurants are found.  Once the sun sets, Yurakucho is a popular stop for businessman after work.  The pornographic element in Yurakucho (and other Sawai prints), along with the pleasure district setting appropriately depicts modern-day Japan.

Historically, pleasure as a business practice always existed around the world.  Prostitution has consistently been present in the streets, and not until the past few centuries has the problem been addressed.  After careful regulation during the Shogunate and Meiji eras, prostitution escalated during the War era.  The comfort women of World War II were forced by the military to work as sex slaves in brothels of Japanese-occupied countries during that time.  Though most of the women were Japanese, other Asian countries represented almost half the comfort women.  Once occupied by the US immediately after the war, the Japanese government offered comfort women to the allied troops, stirring much controversy felt yet today.  Finally in 1956, the Prostitution Prevention Law prohibited prostitution for the first time, though current businesses find ways around the law.  Commonly found sex industry works include streetwalking, soaplands, love hotels, and entertainment work in bars, etc., which target the stereotypical sarariiman (salaryman).  Much surrounds the culture of the sarariiman, and after a hard day’s work, they frequent the pleasure districts like Yurakucho.  At a nopan kissa one will find underwear-less waitresses serving beverages, and at some places sexual favors, while at a soapland one can enjoy a nice bath with prostitutes.  The sex industry has rapidly grown in these areas especially in Tokyo, and has become fundamental in the pleasure entertainment aspect of Japanese culture.

Unlike pleasure businesses in Japan, the artistic forms are much more common and accessible; the extensive pornography industry today owes a lot to the long history of traditions, tales, and images.  The first expression of pornography was shared through stories and images, dating back to the earliest collections of Japanese myth and folklore.  Most notably, early pornographic themes exist in the famous Tale of Genji novel with its many sexual references.  Pornography, along with most things in popular culture, flourished during the Edo period, where art forms such as manga (comic books) and shunga (erotic art) made an immediate impact to the pleasure facet.  The legendary woodblock artist Hokusai coined the term manga to describe the popular comic woodblock images during the Edo.  Artists including Hokusai created pornographic prints to make easy money off of a growing market, which lead to the widespread circulation of pornography.  Later forms developed to please the patrons of pleasure districts.  The shunga prints represented a vast range of sexual fantasies with heterosexual, gay, lesbian, and masturbatory imagery, and they came in poster form, so for those who could not afford a prostitute would be content with an erotic poster.  It was also apparent that shunga were an advertising tool, and cooperation probably existed between the print shops and sex suppliers.  Not until the Meiji period was pornography restricted, with the influence of Western moral standards.  Censorship laws were passed, which limited sexually explicit art by prohibiting pubic hair and genitalia in all forms.

In the late 1960’s, erotic images made a comeback into manga form, which lead to rapid innovation by the artists.  The popular bishonen (beautiful young boy) comics brought stories of homosexual lovers, and opened up a whole new genre that broke the taboo of sex in manga.  Lesbian stories also followed, and heterosexual sex representation became increasingly explicit.  Censor laws did not prohibit buttocks, so they were common in manga.  In the words of Sandra Buckley, “the stories themselves and the fluid, often unframed images that are so characteristic of the genre open up a fantasy landscape onto which each reader is free to map his or her own topography of pleasure” (Buckley 503).  Outside of manga we see pornography in anime, video games, movies, and art.  Sawai’s Yurakucho is a great example of the modern pornographic style, and the survival of erotic art over time demonstrates the strength of pleasure in contemporary Japanese culture.

Now let’s take a final walk through the Yoshida family exhibit, and stop to take a glance at Noboru Sawai’s collection.  His print work exemplifies a pornographic motif, striking a major cultural element in Japan today—pleasure.  The subject matter of Yurakucho illustrates the type of pleasure found in a variety of art and business, and Japan has a rich history of those elements in popular culture.  Although pornography, manga, soaplands, etc. found in Japan may amuse the generic foreigner, behind their explicit and provoking imagery lies cultural significance.

(Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture; Tanaka; Buckley; Allison; Fagioli; Dompierre and Franks)



Allison, Anne. Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Buckley, Sandra. “‘Penguin in Bondage’ a Graphic Tale of Japanese Comic Books.”  The Visual Culture Reader. Ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff. London; New York: Routledge, 1998.

Dompierre, Louise, and C. E. S. Franks. “Songs of Spring: Noboru Sawai 1972-84.”

Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture. Ed. Sandra Buckley. London; New York: Routledge, 2002.

Fagioli, Marco. Shunga: The Erotic Art of Japan. New York: Universe: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Tanaka, Toshiyuki. Japan’s Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery and Prostitution During World War Ii and the Us Occupation. London; New York: Routledge, 2002.

Back / / Gallery