I ran into an acquaintance in Asakusa the other Sunday, on the corner of Senzoku-dori at the back of the big temple, a young woman I met years ago at a party in a local antique shop. I occasionally see her in the neighbourhood. Miki is dressed as always, in a kimono, white tabi toe socks and zori wedge sandals. She’s mad about traditional clothing. She often has her hair done by an elderly professional, in proper geisha style. She keeps it that way for days, sleeping with a tiny pillow. Today she has her hair down. She is looking at her phone. I am merely walking around, enjoying Asakusa.

Miki says she’s thinking of visiting an exhibition at the O-Edo museum down the river, and I am welcome to join her. But she seems in two minds about it, considering the crowds and Covid-19, and I ask if there is anything she wants to do instead. She mentions some erotic pictures we could see. I say that sounds interesting.

The exhibition is at Kastori, about a fifteen-minute walk away in the brothel district of Yoshiwara, formerly Edo’s biggest red-light quarter, now a shabby grid of soapland sex parlours. Kastori is a small publishing company with its own tiny bookstore. It specialises in the history and other aspects of the sex trade. We head north and west into the lanes, passing old dwellings and tall new apartment blocks, then into Yoshiwara, past the brothels with their lit-up signs and prices outside, and touts who eye us warily. The bookstore is at the far border from Asakusa, down a slight incline that was formerly the location of the outer wall and the moat.

As we walk, Miki says she doesn’t know much about the show, except it is inspired by the “brown envelope photographs.”

“What are they?” I ask. She says with a smile, “Dirty pictures in brown envelopes that were sold illicitly until the 1960s, on the street and at hot-spring resorts.”

I expect we will see something historical. My mental image of the brown envelope photographs is of seedy, forensic depictions of sex acts. But the paintings at Kastori are nothing like this. We are shown to the back room, a raised, low-ceilinged space like a secret chamber, barely two tatami mats in area. The light is dim but the small artworks — about a dozen hanging on the walls and leaning on shelves — are a riot of pop colours, showing full-fleshed, wide-eyed women in states of dishevelment and arousal, rendered in day-glo pinks and greens, vivid oranges and blues.

Some of the depictions are grotesquely comic, such as a woman being licked on her body by a giant toad.

Some of the depictions are grotesquely comic, such as a woman being licked on her body by a giant toad. One shows a lusty woman with the legs and abdomen of a spider, straddling a frightened man; another features a more mature woman with her robe hanging open, suckling a child from one breast and a bespectacled salaryman from the other. In others, the subject poses suggestively with an eel; two schoolgirls share the same soft-cream cone; a salivating aged farmer licks the knee of a country girl against distant rice paddies. One is surreal: a topless woman on her wedding day, soaking in a red and black bowl of miso soup among bits of seaweed and tofu. Perched on her head is a tsunokakushi, the voluminous white matrimonial hat that is said to hide a woman’s evil “horns”. The artist has added a further twist by filling the top of the hat with farm produce: a cob of corn, ears of rice, a carrot, a daikon, a shiitake mushroom.

The paintings are confronting but they are not violent, with no depictions of actual sex or genitals. The perspectives and anatomies are slightly askew, some are clumsy. You could call them childish. We point out different pictures and laugh; Miki thinks they are charming and is glad to discover she and the painter attended the same college, Tama Fine Arts University.

What surprises me is that the artist is a woman. Perhaps this explains why in almost all of the pictures, while the fantasies may be mostly male cliches, the women are in charge, looking beatific, defiant, or teasing.

There is a queue of people waiting to come in, so we pick up some postcards at the low counter beside the paintings and hurry out (I want to leave for another reason: before running into Miki, I had bought some grilled chicken to take home, and I realise the smell is starting to spread from my bag into the small room, and this makes me self-conscious people will start thinking the smell is me).

Outside Kastori, we climb the steps to a park above the former moat. A few trees, playground fixtures and a public toilet dot the stretch of grey sand between a lane of houses and a street of soaplands. A tree has spread its roots like fingers through the upended cement logs that form a ring around it. We have drinks from a vending machine. Then a tiny old woman appears at the top of the stairs, carrying a shopping bag.

“Oh my!” she says upon seeing Miki in her kimono, “Look at you!” She stands back to take in the sight before gushing a stream of compliments on how splendidly she is dressed. She carries on so enthusiastically I wonder if she is senile, or being sarcastic. Miki giggles embarrassedly, unable to get a word in. The woman, for some reason, insists on having Miki’s autograph, so we search in our bags for a piece of paper and a pen. I’m hoping she will leave us alone. “Gorgeous, wonderful,” she goes on after marveling over the signature, then says I must be a proud husband. She laughs conspiratorially when we say we’re not a couple, then pauses for a moment and suddenly says she must return to her dormitory. She heads off across the park, waving and bowing as she goes. We fall silent, then Miki laughs. She also appears to be flattered, and it occurs to me that perhaps the kimono she wears all the time is not only for style, but makes a cultural statement, maybe it’s even an obsession. I notice her obi waist sash, under her black see-through kimono jacket, is a bold scarlet and white design, reminiscent of the military rising-sun flag. When I remark on this she says. “Yes it is, it’s nice isn’t it?”

On the way back to Asakusa, Miki points out a building where she had inspected an apartment for rent. It overlooks the O-tori shrine grounds, which are packed on festival days with thousands of visitors buying lucky kumade talismans from the crowded stalls. Shaped like a rake, with a pole that fans out, the kumade are topped with gaudy decorations and figurines representing gods, rich harvests and money; they are intended to “rake in” fortune. Some sell for hundreds of thousands of yen. Their colours and optimism remind me of the women in the paintings. Both represent some kind of worship.

“I’ve long been interested in how girls have come to be seen as a sort of high-end product,” she says. “I wanted to take that to an extreme.”

Wanting to know more about the brown envelope pictures, I contacted the artist. The following week we met at a classical music coffee shop in Shinjuku. Rina Yoshioka is 43 and almost exclusively paints erotic pictures of women. “I’ve long been interested in how girls have come to be seen as a sort of high-end product,” she says. “I wanted to take that to an extreme.”

“I may have been born female, but for some reason I’ve always looked at being a girl from the outside, as if seeing myself from a distance. I wasn’t part of any sort of girl’s world as a kid, and at school, I watched girls who were popular, and how they acted to attract boys. I guess I am poking fun at them.”

She is cheerful and seems well adjusted. But she says, “I have a complex.” She says her grandmother on her mother’s side occupied herself constantly with boyfriends, neglecting her daughter, who eventually turned against men. Although the daughter married and had Rina and another child, the husband abandoned the family when Rina was two. “I grew up without a father’s love,” she says. “So I guess my point of view is a bit ironic.”

She says the wedding picture is one of her favourites. “The day women get married is supposed to be like, the best moment of our lives, but for some it’s the day they give up their freedom to become a kind of luxury item. I wondered, huh, what’s the big deal about getting married? Even though I know for some it brings happiness. That’s why I put all the food in the hat.”

It is not enough to say the reason Yoshioka’s women pose like men’s playthings is that they’re merely male possessions. Because in almost all of the pictures, the women are taking their pleasures too. Even the woman with the toad. Perhaps they are acting out their own female fantasies? “They are posing for women as well,” Yoshioka says with a wry smile. “It’s complicated. If I had made the woman uncomfortable being licked by the toad, it could have been more erotic. But I made her happy, to show she is in control.” One thing Yoshioka insists on is the women are not her. “There are three people involved,” she says. “The woman is the main character, and maybe a man is looking on, and I am looking on, too.”

Yoshioka has been painting for only around five years, but has gathered a keen social media following. One person I felt sure would know about her was writer and photographer Kyoichi Tsuzuki, a veteran chronicler of subculture creators, with an emphasis on the Showa era. Sure enough, Yoshioka told me he had covered her in his online magazine Roadsiders Weekly.

“The images she is dealing with are very much a late Showa period (late 1950s to early 70s) fantasy about men and women,” Tsuzuki told me in an email. “I was interested there is no connection between her works and her personal lifestyle. She doesn’t even drink!”

“I guess you know of Makie Maki,” he continued, “the sexy self-portrait photographer. Or the sorts of girls who love strippers and love hotels. Their attitudes are a little different from old school feminism, but at the same time they are not at all Showa-minded women-obeying-men personalities. For me, Rina has one of these new kinds of female attitudes in Japanese culture now.”

Tsuzuki has built his career digging beyond mass-market ideas of popular culture. In his landmark 1993 photo book, Tokyo Style, he upended the then-common (especially overseas) glamorisations of the “Japanese home” as something sleek and minimalist. His large format photographs took the reader deep into the real lives of young urban workers, recording every aspect of their tiny apartments, their often fetishistic accumulation of “stuff.”

Yoshioka also finds resonance in everyday objects. Her colours may be solid and even hard, but the props in her paintings allude to a warmer time. A burning mosquito coil, old brand names, a wooden sake cup, a public bathhouse massage chair, frayed tatami, old style fridges, radios and telephones. A seeping brown danchi public-housing block, its railings hung with laundry and bedding, forms a towering backdrop to a model whose voluptuous ass stretches the thin fabric of a pink negligee as she takes out the garbage.

“I like to put non-erotic things with erotic things,” Yoshioka says. “The danchi is made up of so many lives all lined up, with private things going on inside, Maybe sex.” Her juxtapositions give her heroines energy.

The night before my interview with Yoshioka, I happened to watch a movie by director Shunji Iwai on the life and films of Kon Ichikawa, whose prolific output covered family dramas, historical epics, war movies and kinky literature (such as Tanizaki’s The Key). He was known for the strong women he put in his films (and his close partnership with his wife, who wrote most of his screenplays). Iwai describes Ichikawa’s heroines as, “Lively and full of vitality, tough and shameless. In short, they’re realistic. That’s why they’re so charming.”

I ask Yoshioka if this sounds like her women. “Sure she says. “They’re cute, because they’re tough.”

Another way of looking at Yoshioka’s women is that they are free because we understand we are seeing only one glimpse of them; it is impossible to know what they do outside the picture frame. On the other hand, the few men who appear seem imprisoned for life in their office or farm uniforms as they slobber single-mindedly over girls’ breasts or knees.

It would be wrong to read too much into the paintings, but inside Yoshioka’s brown envelopes is her own take on girl power. She says, “Many people think I’m painting only porno and erotica. I don’t look at it that way, but I don’t mind. Most of my professional commissions for magazines or books are for that kind of thing, and I’m grateful for the work. You can’t control how people see things.”

website Rina Yoshioka