Humans are ocular-centric and privileging sight over the other cognitive faculties is a common cultural tendency. Japanese culture is no exception: one indication of this tendency is that the most powerful deity of the native Japanese religion, Shinto, is Sun Goddess, Amaterasu. Being the source of light, she bestows the gift of sight upon all sentient beings. Unlike wild beasts with a keen sense of smell, humans have relied on sight, not just as a means of survival, but also for the efflorescence of highly advanced culture. The inventions of writing systems and visual arts are the epitomes of civilization motivated by humans’ desire to learn from and to be moved by visual information.
Nevertheless, it is a mistake to equate the privilege of vision with salience of visual information, since images can be ambiguous, ambivalent, and misleading. Furthermore, viewers themselves may not be equipped with the “visual grammar” to “read” the given images. In the case of visual arts from a distant time and/or place, the challenge is understandably greater. According to Monta Hayakawa (2008), for example, one of the most common misconceptions about the early modern shunga is that these paintings are depicting acrobatic sex, because the lovers’ torsos and limbs are often contortionary. However, Hayakawa explains that this is due to the conventions of shunga, in which the two faces of the couple are drawn adjacent to each other just as their copulating genitalia are. Behind this convention is the idea that one’s genital is his or her “second face,” as a subject’s sexual organ is usually drawn as the same size as his/her face. Furthermore, there are images in Utagawa Kunisada’s Shunshoku hatsune no mume (1842), featuring a man whose face and penis are swapped and a woman similarly has a vulva for her face and a face in her private area (http://tinyurl.com/ksy9wrq).
Should linguistic descriptions of human body, then, be more salient than a picture? Not always. Rajyashree Pandey (2015) writes, the characters in the Tale of Genji (ca. 1000) are “rather than enfleshed, corporeal beings presented in their fullness, … [they are] vaguely defined, elusive, shadowy figures, which hardly registered as bodies,” (p. 1). That is to say, in the eleventh century court, aristocratic ladies were buried under heavy layers of clothing and trailing six feet of glowing jet-black hair. In this context, the robes and hair represented the physicality and sensuality of a woman’s body much more concretely than her skin and flesh.Without this knowledge, readers may misinterpret a scene with a bare-chested woman on a humid summer night as erotic but not an illustration of layered garments peeking from under the curtains.
Beyond shunga and the Genji, it is well-known that Japan boasts a rich history of illustrated texts from ancient scroll paintings tomanga, which now occupies a large section of numerous bookstores in North America, Europe, and Asia. Each of the “Visualizing Texts, Reading Images” workshops will feature a handful of important works and provide a vibrant platform for the scholars from Dartmouth and neighboring institutions to engage in interactive discussions, whether they are presenters or in the audience.
Upon the conclusion of three “Visualizing Texts, Reading Images” workshops, the organizers plan to edit the papers into a special issue of a journal.