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San Francisco Asian Art Museum: shedding light or lies on historical Japanese prostitution?

Under the misleading title “Seduction – Japan Floating World”, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum presents (February-May 2015) an exhibition about prostitution in Tokyo from 1600 to 1900. Two dimly-lit galleries display artworks ranging from woodblock prints and kimonos to erotic booklets advertising prostitution to men who paid for sex in those days – much like the pimps’ cards handed on today’s Las Vegas Strip.

The art is beautifully exhibited and the brothels’ operations explained in great detail. For example, the visitor learns that many women were recruited as early as age eight, that they were often caught in a vicious debt cycle and bound to their pimps for ten years. However, the exhibit avoids describing the women’s lives in Tokyo brothels, the health risks they were exposed to or the violence they must have faced daily.

Next, the visitor is shown ornaments offered to so-called elite women in prostitution and paintings ordered by brothel owners and wealthy sex-buyers. A caption reads “other arrangements for the guests’ comfort include (…) a mosquito net for protection during sex.”

As the exhibition homepage acknowledges, the artworks played a major role in the economic success of the prostitution system in the 17th-19th century. By failing to include a more critical perspective on the exploitation that happens in prostitution, is the San Francisco Asian Art Museum tacitly endorsing prostitution and encouraging visitors to see it mainly as an inspiration to artists rather than the business of sexual exploitation?

Isaline Jaccard

1 Comment

  1. “Seduction.” The insinuating title of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s show trumpets its intention to draw viewers in by promising a peek into a secret world of exquisitely subordinated living sex dolls. Other possible titles – “High End Japanese Call Girls” or just “Peep Show” might have seemed a bit crude, so the museum went with a classier alternative. Nevertheless, despite its surface beauty,the intended appeal of the Ukiyo-e show is identical to that of an earlier acclaimed museum show of “artistic” photographs of prostituted Asian women seated in dreamy repose on their business beds. Museums play a key part in the age-old effort to disguise the mean realities of prostitution.

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