Treasures of the library

Emon-zaka by Hiroshige II

The previous article in this series explored an ukiyo-e print depicting the Saruwaka-machi theatre district, one of the two most notorious places in Edo (二大悪所). This edition highlights an ukiyo-e print from the Cortazzi Collection depicting the other infamous place, Yoshiwara,[1] the only licensed red-light district in Edo. This ukiyo-e print entitled ‘Emon-zaka’ (衣紋坂) is one in the series of the Views of Famous Places in Edo (Edo Meishō Zue 江戸名勝図絵) by Hiroshige II (1826-1869), who was a pupil of Hiroshige I (1797-1858) and “probably assisted in some of the late work of his master”.[2] At first, he was known as Shigenobu (重宣). In 1859, after the death of his master, he married Tatsu, Hiroshige’s adopted daughter, and took his name. In 1865 he separated from Tatsu and changed his name to Kisai Risshō (喜斎立祥). He then settled in Yokohama for a period of time where he painted Yokohama-e.

The Edo Meishō Zue series is in a vertical format,[3] with the name of the series indicated by a red background cartouche in the top right-hand corner and the title in a separate cartouche next to the series title. The prints are often signed on the left-hand side. This style seems to have followed that of the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Edo Hyakkei 名所江戸百景) series, which his master worked on until his death.

Layout similarities between the two series:

Left: Meisho Edo Hyakkei series. Right: Edo Meishō Zue series.

The publisher of Meisho Edo Hyakkei was Uoya Eikichi, while the publisher of Edo Meishō Zue was Fujiokaya Keijirō. It is also known that Meisho Edo Hyakkei contains a total of 119 pictures in the series, but the total number of Edo Meishō Zue is unknown. However, 71 works are listed on the website of J. Noel Chiappa and Peter L. Chiappa.

Emon-zaka is a gentle S-shaped, winding slope connecting the artificially created bank called Nihon-zutsumi along the Sumida River and the Ōmon, the only entrance to the Yoshiwara brothels. As the length of the slope is 50 ken (91 metres), it is also called Gojiken-michi (50-ken-long Passage).[4] Edo kagai enkakushi states that the name ‘Emon-zaka’ came from the fact that kimono (i.e., emon), that had been dishevelled during the long journey, was straightened out on this slope before heading to Yoshiwara, and probably originated from the Emon Bridge at the entrance to Shimabara red-light district [5] in Kyoto.[6]

Emon-zaka by Utagawa Hiroshige II (9th month of Bunkyū 2 (1862))

Let us now explore what this ukiyo-e print depicts. Where wild geese soar, the full moon glows in the dark sky. The rooftops of Yoshiwara red-light district can be seen in the distance. The mist, expressed by a purple band, divides the far perspective from the close view. We can see the diagonal line at the lower half of the print; this is Nihon-zutsumi which is briefly mentioned above. Two palanquins run on the embankment. Alongside this bank, teahouses lined with reeds serve dumplings, edamame (green soybeans), watermelons and some other nibbles.[7] The large Y-shaped slope at the bottom may be mistaken for Emon-zaka, but is in fact simply a walkway, and Emon-zaka, which is the title of this print, is a hardly perceptible triangle in the centre of the right-hand edge. The location of the willow tree provides a clue that this little triangle is Emon-zaka. According to documents, the willow tree is located on the left-hand side as you walk from the Nihon-zutsumi down Emon-zaka. A palanquin is about to turn this corner and head for the Yoshiwara brothels.

Even though the title of this ukiyo-e is Emon-zaka, the main topic seems to be the big willow tree, which is shown prominently in the centre of the picture. In fact, the explanatory text in the title cartouche begins with a description of this willow tree and ends with the senryū, which is a poem about this tree.

The weeping willow tree is native to China and does not exist in the wild in Japan.[8] This means that this tree was planted here for a specific purpose. This article considers the implication of this weeping willow tree at Yoshiwara red-light district.

Before proceeding to examine the willow in Edo, it is important to consider how the weeping willow has been regarded in China, the country of origin of the tree. In China, according to an article by Hsu Man-li, willow trees have long been believed to ward off evil and as trees where gods dwell.[9] The Qimin Yaoshu, the oldest surviving complete work of agricultural writing from the first half of the 6th century, states that if a willow branch is placed at the gate on New Year’s morning, evil spirits cannot enter the house.[10] This custom has been handed down to modern Japan, and weeping willow branches are often used in flower arranging at the New Year’s tea ceremony.[11], [12] The idea of the tree as the gods’ dwelling has also been carried over to modern Japan, where special chopsticks for the New Year are made from willow trees. Be that as it may, it was thought that the special powers of the weeping willow tree prevented evil spirits from entering inner boundaries by planting the trees on the boundary. In many cases, rivers or moats serve as boundaries.[13] It makes sense to plant willow trees beside the water because willow trees prefer damp soil.[14] Weeping willow trees were also used as a boundary marker between the inside and outside of the red-light districts in China. In the capital city of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Chang’an (now Xi’an), there was a section of the city called Pingkang Fang (平康坊), where there was a red-light district.[15] Willow trees were planted along the boundary of this Pingkang Fang brothel area. This red-light district in the capital of the Tang Dynasty served as the model for the construction of the Song (960-1279) Dynasty and beyond.[16]  When the first sanctioned red-light district was constructed in Japan in 1589 with authorisation from Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1538-1598), it emulated the red-light district of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).[17] This brothel district in Kyōgoku Mari no Kōji, Kyoto, was surrounded by willow trees emulating the Chinese style. In 1602, the licenced brothels were transferred to Rokujō Misuji-machi so that Nijō Castle could be built. The new red-light district in Rokujō had a walled enclosure, a moat, and a large gate in the same manner as its predecessor. However, only one willow tree was planted adjacent to the gate because the dwellings were so close together that it was difficult to surround the area with willows.[18] The district was then relocated to Suzakuno in 1640 and this red-light district was called Shimabara.[19] Modelled after the Rokujō red-light district, there was only one willow tree next to the gate at Shimabara. This Rokujō style also became a basis for Moto-Yoshiwara in Edo.[20]

It is also believed that another Chinese custom had a role in the continued determination to plant a willow tree, even if it was only one tree, next to the gate of Shimabara pleasure quarter. An equestrian tribe in northern China had the custom of offering a weeping willow branch to a man who was leaving to use the branch as a horse whip. During the period of Six Dynasties (222-589), this ritual was introduced to the Han people (the predominant ethnic group in China).[21] During the Liang Dynasty (502–557), the practice of snapping off a branch of a weeping willow tree and giving it to a departing traveller to wish them safety and a safe return became widespread. In the middle to late Tang Dynasty, willow branches were understood to signify separation.[22] This Chinese tradition was not thought to have entered Japan as an actual practice, however, this custom must have been widely known to the intelligentsia through the composition of Tang poetry. There are many poems in the latter half of the Tang Dynasty which were created based on this custom, and the majority of the poetry in this category is set in a scene where a ‘woman’ breaks a branch off of a willow tree and offers it to a ‘man’ who is off to a battlefield.[23] Japanese intellectuals, who were aware of this Chinese custom through Tang poetry, strove to keep a willow tree next to the gate of Shimabara in order to represent a courtesan wishing her client a safe voyage home and a return to her. For this reason, the weeping willow tree beside this gate is called the ‘willow at the exit’ (出口の柳) (note that it is not the ‘willow at the entrance’).

Turning now to the willow in Edo, the Yoshiwara red-light district in Edo modelled itself after its counterpart in Kyoto. However, when this arrangement was brought to Edo, the ideas that were supported by Chinese customs were entirely disregarded, and the willow tree was positioned 91 meters from its gate rather than next to it.[24] Perhaps the people of Edo may have thought that the willow tree at the red-light district was simply planted to mark the entrance to the pleasure quarter. The willow may have thus been positioned atop Emon-zaka to serve as a marker for turning here at the intersection of the Nihon-zutsumi embankment to the Yoshiwara red-light district. However, the location of the willow would not help to exorcise demonic spirits from infiltrating this district at all. The distance between the gate and the willow also made it difficult for courtesans to convey their wish that their clients had a safe journey and would return by using willow branches. Courtesans were prohibited from leaving the gate in order to prevent them from escaping. Therefore, they could not approach the willow tree at the Emon-saka. In contrast to the Chinese custom, the willow tree on the Emon-zaka was thought to be a sign for ‘men’ leaving the pleasure district to recall the bitter-sweet recollections of the courtesans (i.e., ‘women’), and as a result, it earned the name ‘willow of recollection’ (見返り柳).[25], [26]

The northern Chinese custom of women giving a willow branch to departing men was adopted in central China in the 6th century. It was then introduced to Kyoto through Tang poetry, and willows were planted next to the gate of the Shimabara red-light district as a sign to convey the feelings of courtesans to their clients. However, in the case of Edo, the gender roles were entirely reversed. Would it be an exaggeration to state that the willow tree on Emon-zaka symbolises the flimsy imitation culture of the newly emerging city of Edo which lacked the customs cultivated by the well-established traditions of older cities? On the other hand, it could be argued that Edo was able to forge such a vibrant culture specifically because there was no need to be constrained by past traditions. According to this viewpoint, this willow tree standing quietly under the moonlit night could be seen as an embodiment of the dynamism of Edo culture.

Akira Hirano

[1] In this case, it is Shin-Yoshiwara (新吉原). Yoshiwara red-light district originally opened in 1618 situated near Nihonbashi. After the great fire of 1657 in Edo, the Yoshiwara district was forced to relocate to Asakusa. When it is necessary to distinguish between the two, the newer one is called Shin-Yoshiwara, and the one located in Nihonbashi is called Moto-Yoshiwara (元吉原). When simply saying Yoshiwara, it often refers to Shin-Yoshiwara.

[2] Laurance P. Roberts, A dictionary of Japanese artists painting, sculpture, ceramics, prints, lacquer, (Tokyo, New York: Weatherhill, 1976), 45.

[3] In many cases, landscape ukiyo-e prints were employed horizontal format.

[4] There are many documents say that Emon-zaka and Gojikken-michi are different, i.e., the part of the slope that goes down from the embankment is Emon-zaka and the S-shaped road is Gojikken-michi. I do no know which is correct. However, it seems that the slope continued all the way from the embankment to the gate, rather than a flat road continuing from the end of the slope.

[5] The licenced red-light district in Kyoto.

[6] Sekine Kinshirō, ed., Edo kagai enkakushi vol. 1 (Tōkyō: Rokugōkan Tsurumaki Shoten, 1894), 33, 

[7] Mitani Kazuma, Edo Yoshiwara zushū (Tōkyō: Chūō Kōronsha, 1992), 69.

[8] Hyōgo Tōgei Bijutsukan, ed., Yakimono no moyō : dōshokubutsu o chūshin ni (Hyōgo-ken Tanbasasayama-shi: Hyōgo Tōgei Bijutsukan, 2022), 110

[9] Hsu, Man-li, “Yō-ryū shōkō : yanagi no minzoku, Chū-Nichi hikaku no shiten kara,” Geibun kenkyū no. 50 (December 1986): 115, 126. 

[10] Hsu, Man-li, “Yō-ryū shōkō : yanagi no minzoku, Chū-Nichi hikaku no shiten kara,” Geibun kenkyū no. 50 (December 1986): 115. 

[11] Sugiura Sumiko, “Musubi yanagi : Seishinan sawa 7,” Tōsetsu no. 634 (January 2006): 42.

[12] This ritual was probably observed not only at tea ceremonies but also in ordinary households when the Chinese lunar calendar was employed in Japan. New Year’s Day in the lunar calendar is regarded as the first day of spring, and the willow branches that budded in advance of other plants heralded the arrival of spring. However, after the solar calendar has been adapted in Japan, the New Year became an event in the middle of winter. As a result, this custom seems to have fallen out of use as willow branches are withered during the winter.

[13] It may be easier to understand that a portion of the river Wensum that flows through Norwich once functioned as the city’s boundary, and the River-side Walk is now lined with the weeping willow trees.

[14] Yoshioka Sachio, Nihon no iro jiten (Kyōto: Shikōsha, 2000), 158.

[15] Chen Yi-shiu, “Edo makki to Min matsu Shin sho ni okeru yūkaku bunka ni tsuite,” Kokusai Nihon-gaku Konsōshiamu, Ochanomizu University.

[16] Takigawa Masajirō, Yoshiwara no shiki : kiyomoto “Hokushū senzai no kotobuki” kōshō (Tōkyō: Seiabō, 1971), 139.

[17] Takigawa Masajirō, Yoshiwara no shiki : kiyomoto “Hokushū senzai no kotobuki” kōshō (Tōkyō: Seiabō, 1971), 43.

[18] Takigawa Masajirō, Yoshiwara no shiki : kiyomoto “Hokushū senzai no kotobuki” kōshō (Tōkyō: Seiabō, 1971), 140.

[19] Nakamura Tadashi, “Shimabara”, Kokushi Daijiten volume 7, 125.

[20] Takigawa Masajirō, Yoshiwara no shiki : kiyomoto “Hokushū senzai no kotobuki” kōshō (Tōkyō: Seiabō, 1971), 140.

[21] Zhang, Zhe-jun, “Man’yōshū no yanagi no kazura to Chūgoku no ryūken,” Waseda Daigaku Nihon Kotenseki Kenkyūjo nenpō no. 4 (March 2011): 11.

[22] Hsu, Man-li, “Yōryū zokkō : shinkō kara betsuri no shōchō e,” Geibun kenkyū no. 53 (July 1988): 113.

[23] Okamura Sadao, “Setsuyōryū kō,” Shina-gaku kenkyū no. 17 (April 1957): 41.

[24] Although the location of the willow tree at Moto-Yoshiwara is unclear, it was probably planted beside the gate to resemble Rokujō red-light district in Kyoto. The willow was apparently planted far from the gate when the district relocated to Shin-Yoshiwara.

[25] Inagaki Shisei, Ōedo o kōshōsuru: Ueno, Asakusa o yuku (Tōkyō: Ōbunsha, 1986), 313.

[26] With the passing of the Prostitution Prevention Law in 1956, the Yoshiwara red-light district was abolished in 1958, but the willow of recollection remains in the same spot although it is not the same tree as in this ukiyo-e print.