Like any good citizen of 19th century Tokyo, these anthropomorphic mice, as seen in this whimsical “popular” woodblock print by the artist Utagawa Kunisada III, went to a public bathhouse to keep themselves clean. Although in certain quarters bathhouses often masqueraded as brothels, with indoor plumbing in the home a thing of the future, frequenting the neighborhood sento or onsen was a common activity, one that was social as well as practical, catching up on the gossip as well as removing the dirt. A culture of hadaka no tsukiai, naked communion, they called it. The bathhouse was a place that the whole family could enjoy, fathers and mothers and children all sudsing together—that is until around 1890 when a law was passed that doused the fun, calling for separate sections for men and women.
Reminiscent to vertical landscape scroll paintings, Kōshi Bath is divided into four separate planes, arranged bottom to top, depicting the mice’s progression through the bathhouse from the entrance to the soaking, from earth to the heavens you might say. The woodblock print was published in 1882, during the Meiji era, when Edo became Tokyo, when a more egalitarian Japan opened its doors to foreign influences. Along with forms of western industrialization came the introduction of synthetic aniline dyes to the Japanese printmaking process, which allowed for prints to be produced in brilliant colors—unlike the muted tones of the preceding period. “Vibrant red and purple in particular—the ‘colors of progress’—became emblematic of the Meiji era,” one curator wrote, “vividly expressing the pursuit of ‘enlightenment and civilization,’ the watch-words of the Meiji leaders.”
While Kunisada III was a trained master artist in his own right—having been the apprentice of the apprentice of the apprentice of the master Toyokuni who had founded the celebrated Utagawa school—his print of bathhouse mice wasn’t fine art made for the elite, using the best quality of paper but, according to artist and author Rebecca Salter, most likely created for the amusement of the burgeoning working class, dashed off on thin, sometimes recycled paper and sold inexpensively to the thousands of people who had scurried, like mice, into the cities.
 Utagawa Kunisada III also named himself professionally Kunimasa IV and Baido Hosai, and Toyokuni IV—as per the elaborate Eastern tradition.
 Donald Jenkins, Curator, “Meiji Woodblock Print Exhibition,” Portland Art Museum, 2002.
 Rebecca Salter, Japanese Popular Prints: From Votive Slips to Playing Cards, University of Hawaii Press, 2006.
Additional source: Scott Clark, Japan, a View from the Bath, University of Hawaii Press, 1994.
(Image: Utagawa Kunisada III, Kōshi Bath, woodblock print, 1882.)