Morality and censorship

By William Wetherall

First posted 24 August 2004
Last updated 24 August 2004

Women and children

The cliche "children and women" (yodo fujo cw) was extremely common as a pretext for publishing almost anything in the adult world of late Tokugawa and early Meiji Japan. In 1868, Fukuchi Gen'ichiro, who had been abroad and seen many European and American newspapers, used an expression like this in the very first issue of Koko shinbun, in the course of explaining that the new paper would feature lots of illustrations and more furigana than usual so that even women and children would be able to read it. (Huffman 1980:50).

In 1874, a similar for "children and women" (domo fujo ֕w) was used in the inaugural issues of the nishikie editions of both Tokyo nichinichi shinbun and Yubin hochi shinbun (see the prints themselves, transcriptions of their texts, and comments in Ono 1972:9-10).

In ads publicizing the startup of Hiragana eiri shinbun in 1875, Tokyo nichinichi shinbun stated that the new paper, as its name implied, would generally use hiragana rather than unfamiliar kanji expressions, and would feature illustrations in every issue, for the benefit of women and children. (Tsuchiya 1975:22-24)

Kanzen choaku

Ono explains the women-and-children appeal in the inaugural nishikie editions of Tonichi and Hochi as follows (Ono 1972:9).

According to this [inaugural issue of nishikie edition of Tonichi], the aim was to teach the path of moral judgment to children and women (domo fujo ni kancho no michi o oshiuru), but this was a cliche (kuchiguse) of small and illustrated papers at the time, and we should understand they were actually aimed at adults.

The expression "kancho" () is, as Ono insinuates, pure smoke in the publishing culture of mid-19th century Japan. It is short for "kanzen choaku" (P), meaning literally "encourage good and chastise evil". The short form is used attributively to qualify something as morally didactic, as in the term "kancho shosetsu" () or "didactic novels".

The didactic pretext of news nishikie is most clearly seen in Osaka prints which bear the masthead Kanzen choaku nishikiga zukai [Nishikie illustrations encouraging good and chastising evil]. The prints in this series, a number of which are featured on this website, were drawn by Sasaki Yoshitora and written by Fujii Kokuzo and his alternate persona Jishusha.


Ono put his finger on the most important lesson we learn when studying human motivation. The reasons people give for what they do are seldom truthful. Promotional statements are especially apt to be multifaceted and self-serving. There is always a fictional gap between pretense and truth, and understanding the truth requires understanding the fiction.

Ono didn't speculate why writers and drawers of the day felt they needed to invoke cliches like "kancho". Publishers constantly lived in the shadows of the guardians of public morality, who had to approve all publications, and they felt a need to constantly justify their works, which often pushed the limits of acceptability.

Consider adult magazines that draw attention, on their covers or tables of contents, to their socially redeeming qualities. Their stories or photographs are said to be erotic art, not pornography. They are intended to edify, not titillate, to convey the beauty of sexual love, not drive a reader to masturbate, molest, or rape.

Sashimi murder-suicide

Censorship was not an empty threat for woodblock publishers. Sashimi murder-suicide is a case in point. Perhaps a sleepy censor let it pass. More likely it was never screened in the first place, for there is no censor's stamp to tell us the date of approval. The masthead says "Meiji 8" (1875), but only the Yomiuri shinbun article which reported the controversy over the print tells us that it had to have been published in early June if not May that year.

Shunga, which depicted sexual intercourse, were often the target of censors. When published in booklets that showed 48 positions, their pretext was to instruct the beholder in the arts of carnal love. Otherwise we have to assume they were mastubatory, which wouldn't have been acknowledged.

Whatever shunga were to their consumers, most well-known drawers drew them, and they were circulated. And many were preserved, hence their existence in collections around the world, and their popularity and prices in the woodblock market today.

The Sashimi murder-suicide nishikie was not a shunga. But was it was just another attempt to warn the sexes what can happen when one does something that provokes rageful jealousy in the other? Was it merely a warning, as much to "the other woman" as to the man who steps out? In the manner of "Take notice: This is what can happen if you get caught trespassing on someone else's sexual territory!"?

Possibly. But it also had to mean something more. Otherwise it would not have been banned.

Inverted Abe Sada

Sashimi murder-suicide can be seen as an inverted version of the 1936 case of Abe Sada, who deprived her asphyxiated lover of his organ with a knife, then carried it around in her purse until she was caught and convicted of murder. Imagine a news nishikie showing Abe right after the cutting, holding her bloody trophy in her palms, and you get an idea of what Sashimi murder-suicide represents in the history of illustrated true crime.

How would someone seeing this print respond to explicit sexual violence? One imagines that most people would say the contemporary equivalent of "kimochi warui" and, in some cases, want to puke. In a general exhibition today, a print like this would likely be in a small room off to the side with a sign at the entrance saying something like "This gallery contains work of an explicit and violent nature. No unaccompanied children will be admitted."

Except for the words "and violent", this is the statement that was posted (also in Japanese) outside a small room of explicit Japanese and Indian art at a large exhibition related to "happiness" held at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills from mid 2003 to early 2004. What sort of discussions went on among the organizers? What did the producers of Sashimi murder-suicide discuss with respect to the drawing if not the story?

And what of the contributors to this website? Did they bat an eye, or otherwise hedge a bit, when it came to deciding whether to post this absolutely one-of-a-kind story? For the benefit of students of Japanese culture? And to promote mutual understanding and peace? Only their attorneys know. And maybe their consciences.