Arts and Culture
In 1841, Japan’s shogunal government (bakufu) introduced a series of measures known as the Tenpō Reforms. While most of the new economic policies proved ineffective and were soon abandoned, the reforms also included a number of sumptuary laws and regulations, many of which had a more long-lasting impact. New restrictions on the production of ukiyo-e, for example, remained in force long after the Tenpō era (1830-1844) had come to an end. Indeed, the effects of the bakufu’s efforts to regulate ukiyo-e production during the Tenpō reforms continued to be felt throughout the late Edo or bakumatsu period.
In 1842, the bakufu banned the production of prints depicting actors or courtesans, traditionally the bread-and-butter genres or ukiyo-e. It was not long, though, before both were revived, if at first only discreetly. The return to unabashed yakusha-e featuring named actors in contemporaneous kabuki performances, however, would not be achieved until the early 1860s. This paper examines the process by which producers – i.e. both artists and publishers – continued to exploit the popularity of the kabuki theatre and its star actors in the wake of the prohibitions imposed during the Tenpō reforms. While along the way there was some artful deception by producers and some push back from bakufu officials, the survival and eventual re-emergence of the actor print at the very end of the Edo period, it will be shown, is more a story of small steps and compromise than it is one of an ongoing clash with the authorities.