Although Kunimaro relied on diverse sources as discussed in the previous articles (Part One & Two) that varied from ancient plays to foreign myth for his visual narrative, his depiction of the Island of Women’s tangible culture was inspired on the popular Ryukyu Islands.
The Ryukyu Kingdom had been a servant of Satsuma since 1609, but it also was a subordinate of the continental Qing dynasty, and was considered a foreign state. Ryukyu sent regular tribute missions accompanying their Satsuma lords to the Tokugawa government in Edo, one of which occured in 1850 around the same time this book was published and so might have been an inspiration for it.
These missions provided Edoites with a rare opportunity for exposure to a foreign culture, and consequently depictions of them were exceedingly popular.
According to Kunimaro’s sources, the Island of Women was somewhere to the east of China and the west of Japan, and Ryukyu culture, with its blend of Chinese and Japanese influences, was at once both familiar and exotic, making it the perfect source of inspiration for the artist.
Accordingly, the interiors of Chidori’s palace are filled with distinctive Ryukyu-style lacquers, ceramics, and metalwork. The women are dressed in textiles with vaguely Chinese designs, the rooms are divided by both Chinese-and Japanese-style screens. Unusual (from a Japanese perspective) carpets adorn the floors, in one case going so far as to be decorated with pseudo-Dutch writing (Fig.3) and the chair in which Naritsune and Chidori have sex (Fig.4) is a Ryukyu variation of a Chinese prototype, covered in characteristically Ryukyuan red lacquer and fitted with a Chinese brocade silk cushion.
While the Ryukyuan elements of Kunimaro’s illustrations provide a sufficiently exotic sense of “otherness” to his imaginative recasting of the Isle of Women, several decades earlier shunga artists already had expanded the conceptual space of their designs to include the even more alien “others” of Dutch and Chinese traders.
Check out the video for the complete sensual journey to the Isle of Women (features all double plate designs):
Source: Shunga: Stages of Desire published by the Honolulu Museum