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Edo Pop: Japanese prints

26 May to 24 September 2017
Edo Pop: Japanese prints exhibition



man carrying two samurai swords

Detail from 'Samurai Rivals clash in the Yoshiwara, 1827' by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864). Collection: Frank Milner

The Shogun was an unelected military dictator and ruler of Japan. His headquarters were in Edo, whereas the Japanese Emperor was a religious and ceremonial ruler who lived in Kyoto.

Samurai were a military warrior caste, serving lords and the Shogun. Samurai made up 8% of Japan's population. A Samurai wore two swords and was, in theory, allowed to kill commoners who insulted him.

In Edo attitudes towards Samurai were mixed. Their heroic deeds were part of popular history. Their rigorous honour code was celebrated in countless stories, plays and songs. However, haughty Samurai, reluctant to pay tradesmen's debts, and contemptuous of ordinary people, became stock characters in kabuki plays and satirical books.


man with tattooed arms

Detail from 'Fire Brigade Standard Bearer, 1871' by Utagawa Kunichika (1835-1900). Collection: Frank Milner

Edo had a large population and was mostly built of wood so fire was a daily threat to life and property. There were 60 local Edo fire brigades and some private brigades. Each had a carved and tasselled insignia carried on top a pole.

Fireman were urban heroes, with a reputation for courage, heavy drinking, sexual virility and street brawling. Several kabuki plays are about fireman. Their representation was part of a new 19th century naturalism celebrating the heroism of ordinary city people.

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