Fart Battles of the He-gassen Handscrolls Brought Toilet Humor to Life
Japanese art is full of surprises, including rowdy depictions of phallic contests, intercourse tournaments, and the unforgettable he-gassen fart battles. Bawdy, boisterous and downright delightful, the he-gassen scrolls first came to Western attention in 2012 when the Daily Mail published an article linking them with Edo-era xenophobia. But, is there any truth to rumors linking Japanese fart battles with political commentary on Japan's distrust of European influence?
He-gassen, meaning “fart competitions,” were Japanese art scrolls depicting flatulence humor. A trend which first appeared during the Heian period (794 to 1185), one of the most famous of these handscrolls is owned by Waseda University Library. On it is a note stating it was an 1846 copy of a 1680 original.
The Waseda scroll features characters unleashing their flatulent fury like you've never seen before. Thunderous blasts abound in this mother of he-gassen fart battles, where entire villages are destroyed, trees uprooted and animals propelled into the air by the sheer force of flatulence. Meanwhile, hapless targets try to defend themselves with facemasks and fans, in a series of humorous scenes which will literally blow you away.
The flatulence on display at the farting battles of the he-gassen handscrolls were even able to pierce a hole in the shoji screen walls of Japanese homes. (Public domain)
Without citing any sources, the Daily Mail labeled the "sinister" he-gassen handscroll a political commentary on “increasing intrusion of Europeans in Japan during the Edo period.” However, the Ask Historians Reddit community, which promotes thorough research and commentary, discredited the paper's assumptions, calling out their sensationalist lack of factual evidence. The Daily Mail's fake news spread like wildfire, picked up by other publications all over the internet.
Japanese art actually has a long history of depicting fart battles, with roots dating as far back as the 12th century. This raunchy art is part of the shunga erotic art tradition. Shunga, a subset of medieval ukiyo-e woodblock art, flourished during Japan's Edo period (17th-19th centuries) due to patronage from the wealthy and hedonistic chonin merchant class.
The Waseda he-gassen handscroll even depicted the tactic of trapping farts in bags and releasing them during battle. (Public domain)
Fart battles and phallic contests were not limited to the early modern era. The larger-than-life phalluses of the shunga, were actually inherited from kachi-e paintings, whose oldest example, the Mitsui handscroll, is on display at the Mitsui Memorial Museum in Tokyo. Dating back to between the 12th and 16th century, although probably a copy of a medieval original, this handscroll depicts not just a phallic contest but a farting battle.
The he-gassen scrolls were a lighthearted tradition in Japanese art, the Eastern equivalent of toilet humor. “Whereas early modern Western scatology in literature and visual art tends to point to a specific object to criticize, in the case of the hõhi gassen [ he-gassen], its critical intention is not obvious,” concluded Akiko Yano in Japan Review. So sit back, relax, and let the farting commence!
Top image: The Japanese Waseda he-gassen handscroll depicted farts so powerful they could uproot trees. Source: Public domain