2017 Franklin D. Murphy Lecturer: Dr. Christine Guth

"Gender, Ritual, and Needlework in Early Modern Japan"
Thursday, April 27, 2017 @5:30pm
Spencer Museum of Art Auditorium

The needle was a powerful instrument in early modern Japan whose mastery offered women a means of augmenting and transforming their physical power into material things that enhanced the wellbeing and comfort of their families. Although employed both by men and women, its use was understood to be a common denominator among women of all classes and ages. Mobilized on a daily basis, this tiny implement became bound up with the intimate and affective life of its owner, her identity as a wife and mother, and the wider temporal rhythms of social, economic, and ritual life.
Because of its very mundanity, the needle has been largely ignored in studies of material culture and technology, and its physical properties have not been fully taken into account in studies of its symbolic and ritual meanings.  Anthropologist Janet Hoskins has argued that “ordinary household possessions might be given an extraordinary significance by becoming entangled in the events of a person’s life and used as a vehicle for a sense of selfhood.” In this presentation I throw light on the relationship between the agency of this gendered “biographical object” from three perspectives:  the kikkoden or “pleading for skills” ritual enacted by women of the court since the Nara period; its centrality to Confucian ideals of female virtue promoted during the Edo period; and its ritual disposal in the hari kuyo. In so doing I draw particular attention to the relationship between the needle’s physical attributes and its sacralization.

Dr. Christine Guth is Senior Tutor Emerita of the Victoria &Albert/Royal College of Art programme in History of Design. Her research interests range widely across subjects, geographies and chronologies, with Japan a particular focal point. Questions arising from the intersection of cultures are a common thread running through her work. Her current research explores materials, making and meaning in early modern Japan. Her book-length publications include Art Tea and Industry: Masuda Takashi and the Mitsui Circle (1993), The Arts of Edo Japan: the Artist and the City (1996; 2012), Longfellow’s Tattoos: Tourism, Collecting and Japan (2004), and Hokusai’s Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon (2015).


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