Tough Love: Expressions of Confucian Morality in Japanese Woodblock Prints features works that depict classic examples of filial piety—respectful behavior towards those in positions authority, particularly one’s own parents—alongside prints that depict scenes from famous Kabuki. 

Among the works are a pentaptych of woodblock prints by the artist Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) highlighting five Kabuki actors who were particularly well known for their roles as otokodate.

The male archetype known as otokodate, often featured in tales of morality and vengeance, developed in Kabuki theater during the Edo period (1615-1868). The feudal class system of Japan rigidly divided the public into samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants, and outcastes. As society became increasingly stratified, and as this imbalance led to egregious abuses of power, otokodate were valiant commoners who expressed moral outrage and attempted to rectify isolated incidents of injustice. Their sense of morality, however, was often quite subjective: While some behaved lawfully, others were deceitful scoundrels who disregarded the rules of society, which they considered to be inherently flawed.

What bound together these disparate characters was their charming combination if individualism, self-confidence, and bravery—characteristics that were extolled in bushido (the traditional samurai code of honor) but were in fact sometimes sadly lacking in the samurai one encountered in daily life.

Kunisada’s prints highlights five Kabuki actors who were particularly well known for their roles as otokodate and who are here shown disguised as itinerant monks (komusō) holding shakuhachi flutes and straw tengui hoods.

Utagawa Kunisada / Toyokuni III (1786-1865)
The Actor Ichikawa Ichizō III as Sawai Matagorō
Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), 1858
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc., 2012

Utagawa Kunisada / Toyokuni III (1786-1865)
The Actor Sawamura Tosshō II as Hanakawa Bunshichi
Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), 1858
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc., 2012

Utagawa Kunisada / Toyokuni III (1786-1865)
The Actor Ichimura Uzaemon XIII as Ishii Genjirō
Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), 1858
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc., 2012

Utagawa Kunisada / Toyokuni III (1786-1865)
The Actor Kawarazaki Gonjūrō I as Shirai Gonpachi
Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), 1858
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc., 2012

Utagawa Kunisada / Toyokuni III (1786-1865)
The Actor Nakamura Fukusuke I as Miyamoto Musashi
Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), 1858
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc., 2012

Tough Love: Expressions of Confucian Morality in Japanese Woodblock Prints is on view in the Robert F. Lange Foundation Gallery of Japanese Woodblock Prints through January 31.