First off, the original artwork (as opposed that of the postage stamp - see HERE) is titled “Young Woman Blowing A Glass Pipe”.
What the hell does that mean?
Was she blowing it as an artisan does to create it? No… there were no female glass blowers, more than likely, in Japan during the period of 1792-93 when this artwork was created.
So… why is she blowing a glass pipe?
At first I thought it might be some sort of Edo-era, feudal sex toy. My reasoning for that revolves around the fact that ukiyo-e artists frequently depicted prostitutes as their bijinga (vision… beautiful woman) subject.
But, would a country’s post office ever depict a prostitute playing with a sex toy in her mouth? No, sadly, not even Japan would do something like that. I’m pretty sure, anyway.
Yes… Japan’s first ever stamp honoring prostitution… it costs ¥80 , but ¥10,000 if you want to lick it.
But no, despite the lower societal level of the woman in the print—the higher the rank, the more and glitzier looking the hair pins become—the fact is sold by the glass toy.
If this is a toy, one could hardly expect a higher-ranking society woman to be seen playing with a toy in a kimono that may not be as hoity-toity as one becoming her high rank. I mean, it’s pretty, but it hardly grabs a man’s attention by the shakuhachi (straight wooden flute).
So… I say a low-level woman… and I don’t mean that as an insult. I’ll explain further as WHY else she is probably a prostitute.
Now, before we delve deeper into what the heck Utamaro was doing in this painting, allow me to edumacate you on just what this lovely specimen of now-dead womanhood is doing.
The print is usually captioned within the print (translated to English) as “A beauty blowing a bidoro”.
Bidoro is a term used in glass blowing, which she is hardly capable of doing, what with all of the selling of sexual favors and all.
No… this is a kid’s toy called a “pekopon” or “poppin”—which I think is an English bastardization implying the type of sound it makes—a poppin’ sound.
The pekopon is a thin glass object that looks similar to a wine cup minus the base. The bulb is covered with a thin diaphragm, with a pipe at the other end that is sucked or blown (there is a difference) causing the diaphragm to make a soft poppin’ sound.
So… unless our beautiful woman is simple-minded to be playing with such child-like toys; IS a child (many girls were sold into geisha houses and brothels by poor parents; or she’s a beautiful adult woman playing with a sucking and blowing toy because it is a euphemism for sex (unless you are former president Bill Clinton); or she's an adult woman being whimsical—always possible.
Hmm… ukiyo-e when originally created back in the Edo-jidai, were done so by geisha houses et al to advertise the latest hot-tamale girl in their stable of beautiful woman just waiting to pleasure their many paying customers.
They were advertising fliers and were actually created to draw in the rich Merchant Class who were still looked upon with derision by damn near everybody else except the Peasant Class.
“Ugh… a salesman.”
So... the ukiyo-e helped advertise the wares and charms of the women men could attempt to hire at brothels, or be charmed by at geisha houses (not brothels - usually.)
It's not like they had those late night television commercials with sexy women claiming they are home alone waiting for men to call then up to chat...
Hi. I’m Suzuki-san, and I’m ready to show you how well I play the biwa with my feet while I pour warm sake down your throat while feeding you fresh unagi—and if you should be able to feel my breasts pressed up against your back through the multiple layers of fabric that are wrapped around my very pale body, then your sense of touch, o man, is truly greater than any other man I have ever been with - even though I swear you are my first.
Come visit me at the Sakura no Go-Go-Go, and ask for Suzuki-san. Better bring the flier so they know which Suzuki-san.
I am sure after two meetings where you try and impress me with gifts of money and (I like money), we will come to an agreement where I allow you to become a person I will date. Did I mention I like money? Well I do like money. Paper. Those coins are cold, and we wouldn’t want me to become cool to you, would we?
On our third date, perhaps magic will occur, as I know many tricks, and I will tell you one where I pop in and out a glass toy from somewhere in my body… perhaps on our fifth date, I will show you where that toy lays. Patience, young samurai… perhaps on our eight date, you can search for the toy—no the kimono stays on… do you know how difficult those buggers are to do up? Don’t tell me you do.
Anyhow, I could go on…
The original ukiyo-e’s sheet size is 388mm x 257 mm, and the series title is: Fujo Ninso Juppin (Ten Types in the Physiognomic Study of Women) - implying that there are a total of 10 prints of women in this series.
Utamaro actually used the image of a woman playing with a glass toy in a total of TWO prints. The image above is from the SECOND series.
The first series was entitled: Fujo Ninso Juppin (Ten Physiognomic Aspects of Women).
See the difference? Series one: ASPECTS; Series two: TYPES
… of women.
For Utamaro, it is obvious that he wanted to categorize women according to ‘aspect’ and/or by ’type’.
Aspects in Japanese is ‘hin’, which is a classification of things.
Type in Japanese (in this context) is ‘tai’, which means ‘bodies’.
There, clear as effing mud.
As for ‘physiognomic’ - that was Utamaro describing himself as a ‘professional reader of character done by observation of the face and/or form of the body.’ He actually signed his prints utilizing that self-describing moniker: “Painted by the physiognomist Utamaro.”
In these two ukiyo-e series, Utamaru did indeed wish to show distinction of the female character: via the refined woman, the ordinary woman, and the vulgar woman—but perhaps how each also possessed different characteristics.
So… look at that beautiful young woman in the ukiyo-e above, playing with a glass toy, wearing a comfortable but hardly expensive kimono, adorning her hair with just two hair pins. She’s a looker, all right. Damn Auto-Correct.
Then again… some people feel that the image depicts a young middle-class woman showing off her youthful charms by playing with a kiddie toy.
Sometimes, Mr. Joseph, a cigar is just a cigar. Smokin’!
Critics point to the fact that her kimono is dotted with sakura no hana—cherry blossoms (in blue)—and that the airiness of the pink checkerboard pattern shows her playfulness. Plus… her hair is very neatly coiffed.
Yes… for a geisha or a brothel prostitute, to a high society woman or a ordinary middle class woman, one’s hair would be done up neatly. It might not be the case in low-level prostitutes or those working in some manual labor job, like farming.
I still look to the hairpins. I was told that little gem by an art dealer in Nikko, and after examining prints depicting a high-level princess and her retainers, there is an obvious difference in the quality and number of hair pins in their respective coifs, with the number of hair pins rising relative to one's social rank.
I would imagine people liked this ukiyo-e art print because they believe it shows a beautiful young woman doing something unusual - being childish.
For me... look at her neck—you can see separation between it and her kimono. Perhaps in 1793 Japan, this was considered ‘sexy’, like seeing bottom boob is today.
If indeed this is a middle-class young woman, I would expect her name to be associated with the artwork, rather than to be a model in a series of art prints. But, artists being artists, who knows what the real answer is.
I still say it's a mid-range prostitute seductively blowing a glass kiddie toy. While Utamaro's art is NOT an advertising leaflet, and is merely him doing a study on the Japanese woman, I think he was captured by his model's charm, because she had no qualms about playing with her toy as he drew her.
Note, why these Utamaro art series are supposed to depict various social classes, does one think he was really able to get an upper-class woman to sit for him? Ooh... maybe?