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A Guide to Subjects, Themes & Motifs

Gina Collia-Suzuki
A Guide to Subjects, Themes & Motifs

Gina Collia-Suzuki

Nezu Press
Published by Nezu Press

First published 2008

© Gina Collia-Suzuki 2008

All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a
retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise,
without the prior permission of the publishers.

ISBN-13: 978-0-9559796-0-6
This book is dedicated to the memory of
Jack and Mary Hillier

Introduction 9
I. Artist Without a Biography 10
II. Denizens of the Pleasure Quarter 32
III. The Beauty of Innocence: A Selection of Serving Girls 50
IV. Popular Entertainment: From Theatrical Dances to Festive Frolics 59
V. Tales of Star-Crossed Lovers 67
VI. Laughing Gods and Legendary Heroes 88
VII. Leisurely Pursuits 127
VIII. The Occupations and Handiwork of Women 141
IX. Intimate Scenes of Everyday Life 152
X. Studies in Female Characteristics 159
Appendix I: Map of Edo 175
Appendix II: Signatures and Seals 176
Appendix III: Publishers’ Marks 178
Appendix IV: Names of Lovers 180
Appendix V: Names of Famous Beauties 182
Appendix VI: Names of Yoshiwara Houses and Courtesans 183
Appendix VII: Riddle-Pictures 187
Bibliography 189
Index 193
Beauty holding a hair comb, one of a pair of bust portraits set against a
decorative background, published by Ômiya Gonkurô, c. 1795-6.

One need not know anything of Utamaro’s background or of the subjects he depicted to
immediately appreciate the mastery of his designs or the brilliance of his
draughtsmanship, but to fully appreciate his works a certain level of knowledge is
required to understand the meaning he intended to convey by their production. A slight
hand gesture, the tilt of a young woman’s head, the way a garment is worn, the presence
of some item which would have been instantly recognisable to the people of the day, all
help us to identify the subject and aid our interpretation of the image being presented,
and in so doing they bring us closer to an understanding of the creator of such
wondrous designs. Without such knowledge Utamaro’s prints are still obviously
technically brilliant and visually stunning, but with it they offer an insight into the world
in which the artist lived, the customs and manners of the time, and a glimpse of the
characters he associated with, along with the places he frequented, and even of the
artist’s opinion of his own work and worth.
It is not my intention in this book to present a chronological chapter by chapter
account of the artist and his oeuvre, as the reader has already been provided with such a
work in the form of Jack Hillier’s excellent Utamaro: Colour Prints and Paintings. Rather, my
purpose is to present a reference guide which can be read cover to cover or dipped into
when the need arises to aid in the identification of subjects in the artist’s work. It is my
hope that the information provided in the following chapters, along with that contained
within the appendices, will enable the reader, even if he has no knowledge of Japanese
history or the language, to locate and decipher the subject of the Utamaro design he has
before him. So, while the opening chapter is concerned solely with providing a brief
chronological overview of the biographical information which can be gleaned from
Utamaro’s works, in order to give us a more vivid picture of the artist, the remaining
chapters are organised into groupings by subject and are not presented according to date.
As it is most often the case that an artist invests much of his personality and
character into his work, a better understanding of the subjects and themes presented in
the artist’s work, and the methods used to present them, undoubtedly leads to a better
understanding of the artist. That is the purpose of this book, to present information
which leads to a better grasp of the subjects portrayed, and therefore a greater familiarity
with Utamaro himself.

Chapter One
Artist Without a Biography

To gain an understanding of the artist and his environment, the analytical study of his
works is not just the most insightful method for the procurement of information, it is by
and large the only way in Utamaro’s case. Ordinarily, to construct a true image of the
artist and trace his development, we would marry the information gleaned from his
works to the biographical data at our disposal, but in Utamaro’s case, as the latter is so
scant and invariably contradictory, the former becomes our sole source from which to
accomplish the task. Despite being a renowned artist within his own lifetime, the lowly
status of an Ukiyo-e print designer in 18th century Edo meant that little attempt was
made to record elements of Utamaro’s life, and aside from an entry in the death register
at Senkô-ji Temple, where the artist’s remains were interred, there is no biographical data
on official record.
Based on the record at Senkô-ji Temple, which states that at the time of his death,
on the twentieth day of the ninth month of Bunka 3, which corresponds to 1806, he was
fifty-four years old by the Japanese count, which takes into account the old tradition of
considering an infant to be one year old at birth, making him in actual fact fifty-three
years old by today’s reckoning, it is generally accepted that Utamaro was born in 1753.
We also know from the death register that his family name was Kitagawa and that he was
buried with the posthumous Buddhist name of Shûen Ryôkô Shinshi. His birthplace is
unknown. There have been various locations put forward for consideration, based on old
accounts written during the artist’s lifetime and in the few decades which followed his
death, including Kawagoe in the province of Musashi, Ôsaka, Kyôto, and the Yoshiwara
pleasure quarter of Edo, but as there is no conclusive evidence to support any one of
them it may be wise to assume that, failing the introduction of freshly uncovered and
factually verifiable information, the matter may never be resolved one way or another.
Concerning Utamaro’s parentage there is no more certainty than there is regarding his
place of birth, unless we accept the theory that he was the son of a tea-house owner in
the Yoshiwara district, for which there is no conclusive proof, or that his teacher,
Toriyama Sekien, was in fact his father as has been suggested from time to time.
Certainly, based on his postscript to Utamaro’s illustrated book Ehon mushi erabi (A Picture
Book of Selected Insects) of 1788, which refers to Utamaro playing in Sekien’s garden as a
child, Sekien seems to have been the artist’s guardian since childhood, but neither
claimed any blood relationship and there seems no reason to assume there was one.
Accounts of Utamaro’s life written by his contemporaries shed little light on his
background. From one source we learn that his name as a child was Ichitarô. Another

Utamaro Revealed

3. Street scene depicting a sushi shop at Tôri-chô, from Ehon Edo suzume (Picture Book:
The Sparrows of Edo), published by Tsutaya Jûzaburô, 1786.

renowned poet of the time, are still rather Kiyonaga-esque in style, but we begin to see
the promise of things to come. Between the years 1786 and 1790, Utamaro invested
much of his time and effort into the production of illustrations for kyôka picture books,
with all but one being published by Tsutaya Jûzaburô, so it appears that, having secured a
most promising young talent, Tsutaya was keen to put him to work.
We know little of Utamaro’s life during this period, aside from what can be
gleaned from the kyôka anthologies the artist produced. We gather from the signature
contained in the postscript to Bakuseishi, a privately commissioned work published in the
ninth month of 1787, that Utamaro was lodging with the publisher Tsutaya Jûzaburô at
the time of its publication. His signature, Tsuta no moto no Utamaro, which translates as
‘Utamaro at the foot of the ivy’, playfully alludes to the recognisable ivy leaf publishing
mark used by Tsutaya, and it seems likely that his move to the publisher’s premises took
place some time during or just after 1783, when the working relationship was first
There appeared, in the New Year of 1788, a most glorious testament to Utamaro’s
powers of observation and composition, and to the wood cutter’s abilities with regards
to carving the block; a work which owed little to any other masters of the time and
established the artist’s career, the illustrated colour album Ehon mushi erabi (A Picture Book
of Selected Insects). As mentioned previously, Toriyama Sekien provided the postscript for

Utamaro Revealed

intended to be a true to life representation of Utamaro’s actual appearance. Personal

vanity, or perhaps the simple following of his own pattern of idealising the human form,
does appear to have led him to depict a man who looks to be much his junior, but the
main focus in drawing this design was more likely to have been the occupation of the
man depicted rather than his physical attributes. Although the artist’s designs arrived with
his public in the form of woodblock prints, Utamaro appears to have always considered
himself to be a painter, rather than a designer, so it is fitting that he should be
immortalised in this fashion, captured in the moment as he prepares to add the finishing
touches to another of his sumptuous creations, this time on a particularly grand and
impressive scale, in one of the pleasure houses that must surely have been home to a
number of the courtesans who had been the subject of so many of his broadsheets.
During the summer of 1804, only a short while after the publication of the Annals
of the Green Houses, Utamaro was apparently censured for producing broadsheets
depicting famous warriors and for naming them on the prints, albeit in a slightly
disguised manner; the naming of historical figures and the inclusion of crests or seals
being strictly prohibited at the time. Unfortunately, no court documents concerning the
trial or subsequent punishment have survived, so there is no official record of the
specific prints responsible for Utamaro’s censure, or the punishment handed down by
the court. In the fourth month of 1804 there did appear, however, an official report

14. Utamaro putting the finishing touches to a painting of a Hô-ô bird in one of
the Green Houses, from the illustrated book Seirô ehon nenjû gyôji (Annals
of the Green Houses), published by Kazusaya Chûsuke, 1804.

Chapter Two
Denizens of the Pleasure Quarter

Until the formation of the licensed quarter of the Yoshiwara, the brothels of Edo were
scattered, in groups of two or three, about the city. In the 17th year of the Keichô era
(1612), however, a rather prosperous brothel owner by the name of Shôji Jin’emon
petitioned the government for the allocation of land to set up a licensed brothel district,
and in 1617 his petition was granted with land being allocated in Fukiya-machi, which
was at the time little more than a swamp. Owing to the location and condition of the
site, the new area was named Yoshiwara, or ‘Rush Moor’. Work to fill in the marshes and
prepare the area for building began in earnest in 1617, and by the latter part of the
following year the new brothel district was open for trade, although the quarter was not
entirely finished until the end of 1626. During the latter part of 1656, however, the
Yoshiwara’s inhabitants were informed that the quarter would have to be relocated, as
the expansion of the city left the local authorities in need of the site, and two possible
alternatives were put forward; a site in the vicinity of Nihon-zutsumi (‘The Dyke of
Japan’), near Asakusa Temple, and one in the Honjô area. After petitioning the
government to reconsider, and having that petition summarily rejected, the brothel
keepers of the district chose the former of the two locations and agreed that the
relocation of the quarter would begin during the April of 1657. It was on the 2nd of
March of that year, however, that the great fire swept through the city, burning for three
days and nights and destroying everything in its path, including the entire brothel quarter,
so the relocation of the quarter to the new site was moved forward and began
The building of the new brothel district, appropriately named the Shin-Yoshiwara,
or ‘New Yoshiwara’, which turned out to be considerably larger than the old quarter and
occupied almost eighteen acres of land, was completed in the September of 1657 and
was immediately opened for business. The entire quarter was constructed to be
contained within an enclosed area, surrounded by a moat, with only one point of access,
the Ômon, or ‘Great Gate’. A government notice was posted at the entrance to the
district, forbidding those who entered from riding in palanquins, unless they were
doctors, or from carrying in weapons of any kind, and admittance to, and exit from, the
area was strictly monitored at the gate. Women from outside the brothel quarter were
only allowed to enter if they had an official letter, and the prostitutes who lived and
worked inside the quarter were not permitted to leave without prior permission, and not
for any reason at all after six o’clock in the day. The Yoshiwara district was a world within
a world, in one respect an intrinsic part of the city and of the lives of many of its

Chapter Three
The Beauty of Innocence: A Selection
of Serving Girls

It cannot be denied that Utamaro invested a great deal of his time and energy into the
depiction of Yoshiwara courtesans and their entourages, and the portrayal of their
everyday lives. However, there were other female subjects who appeared frequently in his
prints, girls of the townsman class, drawn not from the pleasure quarter but from the
many teahouses, rice-cake shops and
restaurants around the city. These
ordinary young women, who served
a s wa i t r e s s e s i n t h e va r i o u s
establishments offering refreshments
situated throughout Edo, inspired
some of his most well-known prints;
the waitresses Okita and Ohisa, for
example, who were both depicted on
a number of occasions with great
success. As opposed to the grand
designs of Yoshiwara women, with
their layers of beautifully
embroidered dresses and elaborate
hairstyles, and their costumed
attendants and lavish apartments, the
portraits of the young women
outside the pleasure quarter possess
a more simple and delicate beauty.
The youthful girls depicted in these
prints have an air of innocence
befitting ones so young which sets
them apart from the women of the
Yoshiwara who, despite being only a
little older than these girls in many
cases, had been forced to age well
26. Naniwaya Okita at her teashop, published by Maruya beyond their years in order to cope
Bun’emon, c. 1793 with the lifestyle imposed upon them

Utamaro Revealed

30. Tôji san bijin (Three Beauties of the Present Day), showing Tomimoto Toyohina and
the teahouse waitresses Naniwaya Okita and Takashima Ohisa, published by
Tsutaya Jûzaburô, c. 1793.

Chapter Five
Tales of Star-Crossed Lovers

At a time when marriage was entered into primarily for convenience, out of loyalty to
one’s family, and often solely for the purpose of ensuring the continuation of the family
line, and when taking a wife was more akin to engaging a housekeeper and nursemaid
than choosing a lover and lifetime companion, tales of passionate romantic love which
endured against all odds, which offered a glimpse at the type of intense and intimate
relationship many ordinary Japanese men and women could not hope to experience,
were incredibly popular amongst the Edo townspeople. Scandalously illicit affairs, double
suicides, and passionate encounters between lovers who risked all to be together,
captured the imagination of Edo’s inhabitants, and dramatic tales of ill-fated lovers,
which invariably ended badly, were popular in literature, in prints, in songs and on the
stage. By modern standards they may not, in many cases, be seen as even remotely
romantic, and the protagonists may not earn our respect or admiration for their actions,
but amongst the inhabitants of Edo the men and women who were portrayed in these
tales represented the ideal of romantic love and unwavering devotion.

Koharu and Jihei

Utamaro produced a number of sets of prints depicting such famous lovers, shown in
both half-length and full-length, and in different formats, but none surpass the
monumental series which appeared around 1798-9, published by Nishimuraya, bearing
the title Jitsu kurabe iro no minakami (An Array of Passionate Lovers), for which twenty-one
designs are currently known. The most well-known design within this set is that
portraying Kamiya Jihei and Kinokuniya Koharu, which is often referred to as La Sortie.
The scene depicted in Utamaro’s design is the michiyuki, or ‘final journey’, and illustrates
the moment when the two lovers are preparing to leave and make their way to Daichô-ji
Temple, the place where they will end their lives together. Jihei is shown raising the walls
of the collapsed paper lantern he is holding, to protect the candle flame which is
exposed to the wind, and is wearing a white head covering to disguise his appearance,
whilst his lover Koharu, whose hair is shrouded in a black veil, stands by his side. The
dramatisations of the story of Koharu and her lover Jihei were based on real-life events
which took place in 1720, when Kamiya Jihei, a twenty-eight year old married paper
merchant with two children, from the Temman district of Osaka, and Koharu, a
nineteen year old prostitute belonging to the Kinokuniya brothel, committed suicide

Chapter Six
Laughing Gods and Legendary Heroes

In addition to numerous images of courtesans, famous waitresses, entertainers and ill-

fated lovers, and scenes of everyday life involving the ordinary townsfolk of Edo,
Utamaro produced a multitude of designs which took for their subjects the characters
from popular Japanese legend and mythology. In many cases the legendary or
mythological subject is only secondary to the main theme of the design, which is often
the portrayal of a beautiful woman, or the subject has been altered somewhat to enable
the artist to include a famous beauty of the day. Whilst the characters being represented
must have been readily recognisable
to Utamaro’s audience at the time, to
the modern viewer the link between
the intended subject and the one
presented can at times seem so
tenuous that it evades detection
almost entirely and only the title on
the design, or the inclusion of an
inset picture, aids in the identification
of the myth or legend being depicted.

Yamauba and Kintarô

Yamauba, with her wildly unkempt
locks, strands of which frame her
face and tumble freely about her
shoulders, and Kintarô the golden
boy, with his brick-red skin and
chubby form, are one couple who
rarely need an introduction, as their
appearance makes them instantly
recognisable. Utamaro produced
more than fifty prints which include
Kintarô and Yamauba, more than any
47. Yamauba and Kintarô , published by Tsutaya other individual Ukiyo-e artist, so it
Jûzaburô, c. 1801-3. must be assumed that Yamauba and

Utamaro Revealed

58. Ichi danme (Act One), from the series Chûshingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers),
published by Nishimuraya Yohachi, c. 1801-2.

Chapter Ten
Studies in Female Characteristics

The most well-known, best loved, and artistically outstanding of all the designs produced
by Utamaro undoubtedly belong to the sets of bust portraits devoted to the depiction of
female moods and characteristics. The series which stands out as the finest, and is
without a doubt the best known, is that entitled Fujin sôgaku juttai (Ten Physiognomic
Studies of Women), of 1792-3, the title of which was changed to Fujo ninsô juppon (Ten
Physiognomic Classes of Women) following the issue of the first five designs. The ambitious
aim of the series, according to the title, is the physiognomic study of different ‘types’ of
women; that is, the divination of the character or destiny of the subject portrayed by the
close study of her facial features. A total of eight designs are known,48 with one of the
prints, that of the woman blowing a poppin, having been issued twice, with the earlier title
and then again with the later one. The reason for the title change is uncertain. It has been
suggested that there was some adverse reaction to the use of the word sôgaku
(physiognomic study) from professional physiognomists, who may have objected to
Utamaro representing himself as a qualified member of their profession,49 but it seems
unlikely that such complaints would have held much sway with the authorities at the
time. The more likely cause, considering the climate with regards to the censorship of all
printed works, may well have been a desire to refrain from contravening some restriction
put in place by the authorities, which might also account for why the final design to have
been published, that of a young woman holding a parasol, was issued without the
customary kiwame seal, implying that the changes made to that point still hadn’t satisfied
the censors. Along with the change in title, the signature used on the designs was altered
and the term sômi, which was reserved for use by professional physiognomists, was
changed to sôkan. With the title and signature changes, the suggestion that these designs
were the product of a serious physiognomic study of female characteristics by one
qualified for the task was removed, and replaced by the more light-hearted assertion that
the subjects portrayed were the result of an attempt to depict female ‘types’ according to
models already outlined by professional physiognomists.
At the time of this set’s publication, the bust portrait was almost entirely
unknown, and the use of mica, which provides the background to each of the designs,
was reserved, for the most part, for the embellishment of small areas of illustrations

48 There is written mention of a ninth design. See Yoshida Teruji, Ukiyo-e jiten, vol. 3.
49 Asano, Shûgo, The Passionate Art of Utamaro, London 1995, p.100.

Appendix III
Publishers’ Marks
(which appear on Utamaro’s prints)

1 2 3 4 5

6 7 8 9 10

11 12 13 14 15

16 17 18 19 20

21 22 23 24 25

26 27 28 29 30

31 32 33 34 35

Utamaro Revealed

88. Naniwaya Okita, from the series Kômei bijin rokkasen (Famous Beauties Compared
to the Six Immortal Poets), published by Ômiya Gonkurô, c. 1795-6.


Above and Below Ryôgoku Bridge (six-sheet A Parent’s Moralising Spectacles, see Kyôkun oya no
print)128-129 megane
A Brief History of the Exploits of a Great Dandy, Ariwara no Narihira (825-880) 62, 103, 104,
see Minari daitsûjin ryakuengi 111-112
A Collection of Elegant Little Treasures, see Fûryû Ariwara no Yukihira (818-893) 62, 181
kodakara awase Array of Passionate Lovers, see Jitsu kurabe iro no
A Collection of Japanese Poems from Ancient and minakami
Modern Times, see Kokin wakashû Asajiu (Daimonjiya) 186
A Comparison of Seven Lucky Beauties, see Shichi Asakusa Kannon Temple 32, 52, 55, 135-136,
fuku-bijin kiryô kurabe 175
Agemaki (the courtesan), see Agemaki and Toshi-no-ichi (Year-end Fair) 49, 53, 135-136
Sukeroku Asano Takumi no Kami (one of the
Agemaki and Sukeroku 79-80, 180 Chûshingura) 118, 119
A Hundred Birds Compared in Humorous Poems, A Selection of Six Poets from the Green Houses, see
see Momo chidori kyôka awase Seirô rokkasen
Akane no iroage (play) 72 A View of the Seven League Beach at Kamakura,
Akashi (Tamaya) 186 see Sôshû Kamakura Shichiri-ga-hama fûkei
Akera Kankô 14 Azamino (the courtesan), see Azamino and
Amanoya Rihei (Gihei in the play Kanadehon Gontarô
Chûshingura) 125, 126 Azamino and Gontarô 84, 181
Amazing Travels of a Playboy in the Land of Azuma Tôzô II (1730-1776) 61
Giants, see Migi no tôri tashika ni uso shikkari Bakuseishi 16
gantori-chô banquet to announce new working name 14
A Mirror of Flirting Lovers: Cloud Clusters across Baxian 99, 100, 101
the Moon, see Chiwa kagami tsuki no Beauty holding a hair comb 8
murakumo Beauty smoking (from the series Fujo ninsô
A Mirror of Matching Beauties of the Yoshiwara, juppon) 21, 161-162, 164
see Seirô bijin awase sugata kagami Benten, see Benzaiten
An Array of Passionate Lovers, see Jitsu kurabe iro Benzaiten 112, 113-114, 117, 133, 139
no minakami birth of Utamaro 10
Anchin (theatrical character), see Dôjô-ji Bishamon 112, 113, 117
Annals of the Green Houses, see Seirô ehon nenjû Brief History of the Exploits of a Great Dandy,
gyôji see Minari daitsûjin ryakuengi
Annals of the Regent Hideyoshi, see Ehon Taikô-ki Budaishi, see Hotei


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