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Treasures of the library

Night view of Saruwaka-machi by Utagawa Hiroshige I

The Lisa Sainsbury Library houses an ukiyo-e print by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) entitled “Night view of Saruwaka-machi” created in 1856 from the Cortazzi Collection. It is one print from  the series: ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’. The ukiyo-e print depicts the theatre district Saruwaka-machi, which was developed by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1841 as a part of Tenpō Reforms to rid the centre of Edo of theatres and remove them to the then remote area of Asakusa, because theatre plays were believed to encourage decadence.[1]

Utagawa Hiroshige, Saruwaka-machi yoru no kei, 1856.

On the right-hand side of this ukiyo-e is a row of buildings, some of which display a cubic structure on their roof. This indicates that the buildings are theatres. The theatre in the foreground is the Morita-za, the middle one is the Ichimura-za and the third one is the Nakamura-za. They were the only three officially licenced kabuki theatres in Edo. On the left-hand side, there are a row of theatre teahouses. As well as the teahouses, there were two puppet theatres, Yūki-za and Satsuma-za, on this side of the road, but they are not depicted in this print.[2] The theatre teahouses played an important role in offering all the services associated with visiting the theatre, such as securing seats, guiding the audience to their places in the theatre, providing places for breaks, and serving food and drinks. The road drawn in the centre is the main street of this theatre district which had a width of 11 metres.[3]

This district, named Saruwaka-machi, was surrounded by a ditch and had wooden gates in four places, although they cannot be seen in this ukiyo-e. Everyone connected with the theatre plays was obliged to reside in the vicinity. The plan of Saruwaka-machi provides an easy-to-understand map of the district.[4] The areas coloured in pink are the theatres and the houses of the actors and other residents, and yellow areas on this map are the teahouses and shops. Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e is a view from the right to the left of the main street that runs through the centre of this map.

Since many organisations hold a copy of this ukiyo-e print, a variety of authors have written commentaries on it. Most of them are similar in content, i.e.
1. They describe the history of Saruwaka-machi[5]

2. They point out that Hiroshige employs the perspective drawing method

3. They draw attention to the shadows of the moonlight which is not commonly seen in pre-modern Japanese pictures

4. The print shows the scene of the mid-autumn moon festival on the fifteenth of the eighth month[6]

5. The print depicts people on their way home after watching the theatre plays

It is standard to introduce this ukiyo-e with such content. As for 2 and 3, they are indisputable facts, so there is no need to expand on them in this article. However, regarding 4 and 5, these two points could be contested.

Since this ukiyo-e was censored in the ninth month of 1856 before its publication, many critics explain that it depicts the night of the full moon in the previous month which was traditionally the day designated to admiring the moon. The custom of viewing the full moon on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar became popular in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907) and was brought to Japan during the Heian period (794-1185).[7] Since the Heian period, moon-viewing in Japan has been an act of admiring the reflection of the moon on the surface of water rather than looking up at the moon. Therefore, when viewing the moon, people watched the reflection of the moon from a building overlooking water or followed the reflection of the moon on a boat on water. In ‘The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter’ dating back to the Heian period, the Princess Kaguya was discouraged from looking directly at the moon because it was considered unlucky.[8] In Tokugawa period, there were several famous places for moon viewing in Edo, such as Yushima Tenjin Shrine near Shinobazu Pond, Matsuchiyama Shōden along the Sumida River, and Takanawa Beach. All these places  have waterfronts. However, no water reflecting the moon is depicted anywhere in this ukiyo-e although Saruwaka-machi was surrounded by a ditch.

We can imagine that the common people of the Tokugawa period, instead of Heian aristocrats, looked up directly at the moon to appreciate it. If that is the case, Hiroshige would have drawn at least one person in the ukiyo-e print looking up at the moon. However, none of the people in the print turn their gaze to the moon at all. Therefore, it is an implausible argument that this ukiyo-e depicts the scene on the fifteenth of the eighth month which is the day of the moon viewing.

So why is the full moon shown in this print? A simple assumption is that the moon is merely a decorative element. To make a slightly more penetrating remark, it is possible that Hiroshige wanted to depict the shadow cast by the moonlight as he attempted to introduce some new techniques in the ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’ series.[9]

Comparison of the moon.

As an additional piece of information, the moon also reveals that the copy held at the Lisa Sainsbury Library is a later print since it is higher and smaller in the earlier impression of this ukiyo-e.[10] Our print is also lacking the black outer frame.

Moving on to the next topic of whether or not this ukiyo-e print is a depiction of people returning home after the end of the theatre plays. As the Tokugawa Shogunate restricted the kabuki performances from dawn to dusk to prevent fires, it is natural to imagine that people in this print are heading home in the moonlight.

Yet, take a look at this ukiyo-e print depicting theatres in Saruwaka-machi, which was also created by Hiroshige. This print is nearly the same composition as our print although the viewpoint is at the opposite end of the street. This ukiyo-e print is evidence that the theatres in the daytime during their operation were fully decked out. The yagura (cubical structure on the roof) is decorated with the crests of the theatres, signboards are displayed on the eaves, and red Chinese lanterns are hung on the eaves, and banners are on the road. On the other hand, the theatres depicted in our ukiyo-e print are completely devoid of ornamentation. Some people would assume that because Japanese people are diligent, they put away the signboards and decorations every day after the plays even though it was in pitch darkness after sunset.

If there is any doubt in that regard, please view this ukiyo-e print held in the National Diet Library. The building located across the street from the room where people are dining is the Nakamura-za, one of theatres in Saruwaka-machi according to the crest on the lantern. It is dark outside the window, which indicates that the print depicts a night scene. The ukiyo-e print clearly shows that the signboards, lanterns and flags are still up at night outside of the theatre, which is evidence that there might not have been a custom to put away the signboards and decorations after the theatre at night. 

Even though there are no decorations outside of the buildings in our ukiyo-e, people might argue that there are some activities inside the theatres because some of the rooms of the buildings on the right-hand side are lit. However, it is not the theatres which are lit but the teahouses. The outer wall design on the first floor of the buildings helps us to distinguish which are theatres and which are teahouses. The walls of the theatres have a diamond-shaped pattern called namako kabe.[11] On the other hand, the design of the walls, which are not theatres, have stripes.[12] A closer inspection reveals that the buildings with the diamond-shaped wall do not have any lights showing. This means that all the theatres are closed.

Difference between the outer wall designs: The areas surrounded by a red frame have a diamond pattern, and the areas surrounded by a green frame have a striped pattern.

The book entitled Ukiyoe to fūkeiga by Kojima Usui explains that this ukiyo-e is a depiction of a scene on the final day of the kabuki performance.[13] However, if the print is depicting the scene of such a special day, Hiroshige would have shown a much livelier scene, such as actors handing out gifts to patrons and workers taking down the signboards and decorations. Instead of the liveliness, the impression received from this ukiyo-e print gives the viewer the feeling of sombreness. The argument strongly suggests that this ukiyo-e is a night-time scene on a day when none of the three theatres are performing.

So, what are the people depicted in this ukiyo-e doing on a night when there are no performances in the theatres? There is no immediate answer to this question, however there is no doubt that some kind of activity is taking place in the teahouses that might provide further clues. As well as facilitating theatre goers’ comfort, teahouses also played a part as restaurants and/or banqueting halls. Even though no records, documenting the teahouses on the nights when theatres were closed, could be found, there are some descriptions of dining at a teahouse after seeing a play. Therefore, the people in this ukiyo-e print could have been visiting this theatre district on the night when no plays were being performed in order to dine out. However, Saruwaka-machi was located quite a distance from the city centre of Edo.[14] There must have been a compelling reason to go so far from home apart from just going out for a meal at a time without streetlights, trains, buses or cars. One of the motivations to travel to Saruwaka-machi might have been to enjoy the company of their favourite kabuki actors in teahouses. Perhaps Hiroshige has been giving us some indication about the eating and drinking that was taking place within the teahouses through the depiction of the sushi vendor in the middle of the main street.

Sushi vendor in the main street of Saruwaka-machi.

Considering all the points raised in this article, we can conclude that this ukiyo-e print by Hiroshige does not necessarily depict the night of the mid-autumn moon festival but rather a quotidian night scene in Saruwaka-machi. All the theatres were closed on the day shown in this print, and so the people depicted probably came here to see some of their favourite kabuki stars instead of to look at the moon.  

Akira Hirano 

[1] “猿若町” can be as read either Saruwaka-machi or Saruwaka-chō. On the website by Morikawa Kazuo, he alleges that it was known as Saruwaka-machi during Tokugawa period and Saruwaka-chō after Meiji, but this may need further research. In this article, Saruwaka-machi is employed only because it is easier to type it this way.

[2] Both Yūki-za and Satsuma-za were officially licenced puppet theatres, so they had yagura as well. However, this print does not show them.

[3] Komori Ryūkichi, “Machi no enkaku,” in Asakusa Saruwakamachi, ed. Niimi Takeshi (Tōkyō: Niimi Shōten, 1973), 69.

[4] The Morita-za was closed at the time this map was made, and the name of the Kawarazaki-za, the spare impresario of the Morita-za, is on the map instead.

[5] Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University, outlines a brief summary of the history of Saruwaka-machi: https://kunisada-and-kabuki.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/themes/saruwaka-street

[6] In 2023, the moon festival takes place on 29 September.

[7] Mooncakes are given as gifts on this day in China, but this Chinese tradition is not practised in Japan.

[8] Hosoi Hiroshi, Nihon-shi o manabu tame no “kodai no koyomi” nyūmon (Tōkyō: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 2014), 63.

[9] Harashida Minoru, and Kitahara Itoko, “Jishin no konseki to “Meisho Edo hyakkei” no atarashii yomikata,” Nenpō jinrui bunka kenkyū no tame no himoji shiryō no taikeika, no. 1 (March 2004): 75.

[10] Suzuki Jūzō, “Zuhan kaisetsu” in Meihin soroimono ukiyo, (Tōkyō: Gyōsei, 1991), 10:154.

[11] In order to avoid fires, plaster and fire-resistant roof tiles were used as raw materials in the theatres as theatres utilised naked flame candles for stage illumination.

[12] They are not walls but banisters of the balconies.

[13] Kojima Usui, Ukiyoe to fūkeiga (Tōkyō-shi: Maekawa Bun’eikaku, 1914), 357.

[14] It is around 5.2 km from Nihonbashi to Saruwaka-machi.

Special thanks to:
Professor Yutaka Yabuta, Director of the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of History