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A studio photo of two women sleeping in wadded futon bedding with their heads on wooden head supports. It must be Winter as they use two layers for both mattress and cover. There is an ando lamp near their heads. A folding screen illustrated with flowers and birds stands behind it. Near their feet is a hakohibachi (brazier encased in a wooden box) with a tetsubin (iron hot water kettle).
Photographs of one or two Japanese women sleeping were extremely popular with foreign visitors to Japan during the late 19th century and early 20th century, and there are countless variations on the theme.
What attracted visitors was the custom of sleeping on the floor in “removable” beds. The futon itself, and all the typical Japanese pieces of furniture like the andon lamp, hakohibachi and the screen were seen as extremely exotic.
Visitors were especially intrigued by the hakomakura (箱枕), the wooden support for the head. These were used to preserve the elaborate Japanese hairstyles.
Many foreign visitors who ventured into the countryside during the 19th century would have actually seen scenes like these. They may not have been invited into homes, but Japanese homes in the country side were usually left wide open during the hot season, so that everything inside was visible.
In Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894), author Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) describes such a scene:
The weather is more than warm, rendering clothing oppressive; and as we pass through the little villages along the road, I see much healthy cleanly nudity: pretty naked children; brown men and boys with only a soft narrow white cloth about their loins, asleep on the matted floors, all the paper screens of the houses having been removed to admit the breeze.1
In the same book, Hearn also dwells on the Japanese way of sleeping, once again showing how intrigued foreigners were by this:
But here I must interrupt the story for a few moments, to say a word about Japanese beds. Never; unless some inmate happen to be sick, do you see a bed in any Japanese house by day, though you visit all the rooms and peep into all the corners. In fact, no bed exists, in the Occidental meaning of the word. That which the Japanese call bed has no bedstead, no spring, no mattress, no sheets, no blankets. It consists of thick quilts only, stuffed, or, rather, padded with cotton, which are called futon. A certain number of futon are laid down upon the tatami (the floor mats), and a certain number of others are used for coverings. The wealthy can lie upon five or six quilts, and cover themselves with as many as they please, while poor folk must content themselves with two or three. And of course there are many kinds, from the servants’ cotton futon which is no larger than a Western hearthrug, and not much thicker, to the heavy and superb futon silk, eight feet long by seven broad, which only the kanemochi can afford. Besides these there is the yogi, a massive quilt made with wide sleeves like a kimono, in which you can find much comfort when the weather is extremely cold. All such things are neatly folded up and stowed out of sight by day in alcoves contrived in the wall and closed with fusuma—pretty sliding screen doors covered with opaque paper usually decorated with dainty designs. There also are kept those curious wooden pillows, invented to preserve the Japanese coiffure from becoming disarranged during sleep.
The pillow has a certain sacredness; but the origin and the precise nature of the beliefs concerning it I have not been able to learn. Only this I know, that to touch it with the foot is considered very wrong; and that if it be kicked or moved thus even by accident, the clumsiness must be atoned for by lifting the pillow to the forehead with the hands, and replacing it in its original position respectfully, with the word ‘go−men,’ signifying, I pray to be excused.2
Notice the apparent intimacy of the two women in this photograph. Japan was experienced as a very sensual country by Westerners, as witnessed by books like Pierre Loti‘s Madame Chrysantheme (1887), and Giacomo Puccini‘s opera Madama Butterfly (1904).
Photographers selling souvenir photographs to Western visitors often took advantage of this impression by placing two women in a careful embrace or in the same futon, as in this image.
1 Hearn, Lafcadio (1894). Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan VOL. I. Houghton Mifflin and Company, 123.
2 Hearn, Lafcadio (1894). Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan VOL. II. Houghton Mifflin and Company, 516-517.