Report for the talk “Online Lecture: Edo Iconography Reading Popular Prints in Early Modern Japan”

Dr Matsuba Ryoko, Senior Digital Humanities Officer at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures (SISJAC) presented the first online lecture of 2021 on the complex theme of Edo-period iconography in popular woodblock prints and printed books.

Working in close collaboration with Ritsumeikan University’s Art Research Center, Dr Matsuba has led ambitious digitisation projects in Japan, America and Europe. Most recently she co-ordinated the digital strand of the AHRC-funded ‘Late Hokusai: Thought, Technique, Society’ research project, and co-curated the British Museum’s ‘Manga’ exhibition. This wealth of experience makes Dr Matsuba the authority in her subject specialism: Edo-period woodblock prints and Japanese visual culture.

Suzuki Harunobu, c. 1760s © The Trustees of the British Museum

In her online presentation, Dr Matsuba addressed the challenges of reading Early Modern iconography. To illustrate this point she focused on three eighteenth-century prints, which have elicited multiple interpretations from scholars. Given that around 250 years have elapsed since these prints were issued, it is unsurprising that some of their original meaning has been lost.

Dr Matsuba began her talk by introducing a parody image or ‘mitate’ print by Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770), which depicts a woman riding an ox alongside a river. In order to unlock the meaning of this print’s visual framework, the viewer is required to recognise references made to Chinese and Japanese visual and literary culture. The breadth of knowledge expected of the Edo-period print consumer suggests that parody prints were intended for an educated elite versed in classical and vernacular subjects.

In 1964 David Waterhouse likened the woman on the ox in this print to the weaving girl, Shokujo, from the Chinese tale of Tanabata. In this story, the divided lovers, Shokujo and the ox herder, Kengyū, are personifications of the stars Vega and Altair that only come into conjunction once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. According to Waterhouse, the stream in the print is a representation of the Milky Way, or ‘heavenly river’, that separates Shokujo from Kengyū.

However, there are other possible interpretations of this print. Other readings have linked Harunobu’s ox and river iconography to the Chinese legend of Sōho and Kyoyū, or to images of the sixteenth-century, Japanese poet-priest, Botange Shohaku, who decorated the horns of his ox with peony flowers. Although the meaning of a parody print is not always clear, digital image databases have facilitated scholarly access to related study materials and deepened our understanding of Japanese visual culture.

The second parody print discussed by Dr Matsuba depicts Shōki, the demon queller by Nishimura Shigenaga (1697-1756). Also drawn from Chinese legend, the auspicious figure of Shōki has been adapted to appeal to a contemporary Japanese audience. Through comparisons with other compositions, Dr Matsuba discovered that Shōki’s stance in this print, with the long sword positioned behind his back, was highly unusual. This detail combined with Shōki’s defeated muddy opponent and the distant procession of lanterns led Dr Matsuba to research links between the print and theatrical productions of ‘Natsumatsuri naniwa kagami’. ‘Natsumatsuri naniwa kagami’ was based on a real-life crime that was committed in Osaka in 1745. The gruesome murder gripped the public’s imagination and was quickly adapted for the theatres. By examining digitised theatre programmes and playbills, Dr Matsuba confirmed that the Shōki parody print was influenced by jōruri and kabuki productions, first staged in the 1746 and 1747 respectively. This information has provided an approximate date for Shigenaga’s print.

Nishimura Shigenaga, ‘Shōki (Zhong Kui), demon queller, subduing a demon, with the Kanda Myōjin shrine in the distance’
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The final example of a printed parody explored the visual and literary sources for Katsukawa Shunei’s (1762-1819) woodblock prints of the Chinese warrior, Hankai, and the Japanese warrior, Asahina. By examining Japanese translations of Chinese texts, Dr Matsuba unravelled the process by which both heroes had come to be visualised in the same way by Japanese print artists and publishers.

Hishikawa Moronobu, Kokon bushidō ezukushi, published in 1684
© The Trustees of the British Museum

In an early illustration by Hishikawa Moronobu (c.1618-1694) for ‘Kokon bushidō ezukushi’, published in 1684, Asahina is shown breaking open the castle gate with his bare hands. In Japanese printed publications, such as Ōmori Yoshikiyo’s (c.1702-1716) ‘Ehon ayane take’ from 1702 and Tachibana no Morikuni’s (1679-1784) ‘Ehon Ōshuku bai’ from 1740, Hankai is similarly depicted pushing open a wooden gate with one hand while clutching a shield in the other.

Access to digitised archives of printed books has enabled Dr Matsuba to identify that a mistranslation of the Chinese account of Hankai (Ch. Fan Kuai) created a confusing duplication of visual cues. In the original Ming-dynasty text Hankai forces his way past a guard posted at a temporary gate in a military camp; however, in the first Japanese translation of ‘Seikan engi den’, published in 1694, it is incorrectly reported that Hankai pushes open a gate using his great strength.

Ōmori Yoshikiyo, Ehon ayane take, published in 1702
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Dr Matsuba’s presentation provided fascinating examples of how digital archives can assist scholars in the interpretation and disambiguation of a print’s meaning. Over the last decade, digitisation projects have done much to advance woodblock print-related research. It is exciting to consider what future revelations will be made in this expanding field.

Dr Vanessa Tothill
Assistant Curator, Sainsbury Centre

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