In commemoration of the 55th anniversary of Singapore-Japan Diplomatic Relations, the Asian Civilisations Museum has organised a joint exhibition of Edo-period prints and Singaporean photographer Russel Wong’s series that focuses on life in Kyoto.

Two Exhibitions Reflecting Japanese Life – Now and Then

Presented in two parts, each spotlights different periods and themes of Japan. The first, Life in Edo, explores the lifestyles and fashions of the later Edo period (1603-1868), often thought of as the final era of traditional Japan, through a display of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The second is the display Russel Wong in Kyoto, a selection of photographs of the former imperial capital, which looks at the beauty of nature and architecture, as well as documenting the vanishing traditions of the geisha in the city.

Japanese Ukiyo-e Masters Portray Life in Edo

The Japanese ukiyo-e masters provide a window into everyday life in Edo through their prints, explores how people lived – exploring ideas of beauty, festivals, travel, food, entertainment and their favourite beauty spots. Bursting with life, the pleasure quarters, or ‘floating world’, seen in these prints is an expression of the new economic and social ambitions of the Japanese people as the nation became increasingly urbanised.

This joie de vivre and desire stylishness and extravagance was manifest in the subject matter chosen by woodblock print artists of the period. The group of 157 prints in the show is the largest collection to be shown in a single exhibition in Singapore to date and features works from the great masters, including Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Hiroshige, Kitagawa Utamaro and Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

Dawn of a New Period in Japan – Life in Edo

This new period in history started with Tokugawa Ieyasu’s defeat of the Toyotomi forces in the Siege of Osaka (1614-15), when a new reign name of Genna (1615) was declared and the turbulent era of war experienced during the Momoyama period (15680-1600) ended. The Tokugawa rule, which lasted until 1867, also resulted in a shift of power to Edo, although the capital remained with the emperor in Kyoto, with that city remaining the bastion of traditional Japanese culture. The portrayal of life in Edo in prints had begun.

However, the change of power to the Tokugawa’s city of choice, along with the rapid urbanisation of the population – and importantly the development of trade – created new social classes, hobbies, and customs as the townspeople (chonin) gained wealth and broke away from the older, more rigid, feudal system. Artists and publishers, seeing this desire among the burgeoning merchant and middle classes for the pleasure quarters, created works that satisfied this demand, selling prints of popular kabuki actors, or famous courtesans of the day, and mementoes of pilgrimages to important shrines. Travelogues also extolled the scenic beauty, or historic interest, of spots in distant provinces.

After the Great Meireki Fire in Tokyo

After the great Meireki Fire of 1657 in Edo, the licensed pleasure quarters of the city moved to a new location called the Shin Yoshiwara. At the same time, another new area, the Yanagibashi was created whilst the Yoshiwara district was under construction. This district eventually became known as Shimbashi and gained prominence from 1867, when the Meiji emperor established himself in the Imperial Palace and the nearby area became the Ginza district we know today..

Russel Wong’s Photographs of Kyoto

To complement these prints, a display of the photographs taken in Kyoto by Russel Wong, featuring the lives of geisha in Kyoto. The images catch rare glimpses of the world of the geiko (as geisha are commonly called in Kyoto) and maiko (apprentices) in Kyoto. The photographs have never been previously shown in public.

Images of Geisha

Images of geisha appear across many media and are some of the best-known images of Japan today. The fascination with geisha and their portrayal has, for centuries, been an important subject for Japanese artists. Geisha have been part of society in Japan for centuries, dating back to at least the Nara period (710-794) and their traditions probably grew out of dance.

The art of the solo dance has been kept alive through continuous performance with records still existing today from the classic Heian period (794-1185) of the ancient court dance known as bugaku. Solo dance is also an important part of other ancient Japanese performance traditions, such as in noh and kabuki theatre.

The Traditional Life of a Geisha

These images of geisha in ukiyo-e usually portray the subjects wearing their heavy distinctive makeup, luxurious kimono, seen playing the shamisen or koto, attending to their elaborate hairstyles, performing dances, singing, or on parade in the latest fashions, at the popular beauty spots in the city. The subject matter rarely changed as the life of a tradition geisha changed little over the centuries. Indenture to a geisha house (okiya) often began at the age of 10. During the Meiji period (1868-1912), girls were trained as apprentices (maiko) in the music and dance, conversation, tea ceremony and games.

The apprentice period still begins when a young woman finds an onesan (older sister), a full geisha who will be her mentor. Finally, the important ceremony that marks the transition from maiko to geisha is the erikae, which means ‘changing of the collar’. At this time, the maiko exchanges her red, patterned, collar for a solid white one, a symbol of her debut life as a geisha.

Until 19 September at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore,

Artist & Curator Tour featuring Clement Onn and Russel Wong on Wednesday, 11 August 2021. Hours: 7.30pm to 9pm, Onsite. Price: S$30 per participant. Limited to 8 participants. Booking essential.

Food Talks on Asian Civilisations Museum Facebook. Learn about history and food culture of Edo-period Japan that continues today in these videos. On 7 Jul 2021 at 8pm; and Saturday, 14 Aug 2021, at 8pm. Visit museum’s Facebook page at