Mitate-e metaphors in Japanese art

Courtesan Dancing to Daruma's Accompaniment

Ishikawa Toyonobu (1711–85), Courtesan Dancing to Daruma’s Accompaniment

Our current exhibition Focus on the Subject: The Art of the Harari Collection is full of fun details to explore. One particularly humorous section examines mitate-e, which literally means “look and compare.” This is a category of Japanese art that uses metaphorical images that juxtaposes historical and contemporary events and figures, often fusing the religious with the vulgar, the high with the low, added layers of meanings that could be playful, critical or ironical references enjoyed by the educated classes. Here we’ll look at two works from the exhibition in this category. If you want to get a closer look at these paintings, don’t miss the Curator’s Tour of this exhibition this Saturday, July 13 at 2 p.m.

Mitate-e became popular in the Edo period when urban culture blossomed. As the Tokugawa shogunate secured relative peace, the newly established capital Edo (today Tokyo) grew rapidly in population and economic status. The merchant class accumulated wealth but their relatively low social status limited their participation in public affairs. As a result, they looked for outlets in various forms of entertainment, and embraced mitate-e, which allowed the indirect critique of current events and élite culture. The inclusion of witty prose or poems next to images heightened the complex allusions embedded in mitate-e. Text could also nuance or disguise the interpretation, further stimulating the viewer or confusing the authorities who regulated mass-produced images. 

Among the most popular subjects in mitate-e are pairings of courtesans with religious figures such as Daruma (Bodhidharma in Chinese), the Indian monk who transmitted Chan (Zen in Japanese) Buddhism to China, as seen at the top of this post. The juxtaposition of this ascetic with a courtesan of the pleasure quarters humorously critiqued religion as well as the culture of the ruling samurai class who boasted of their dedication to Zen. It also underscores the core values of the genre known as ukiyo-e (or ‘pictures of the floating world’), to which this painting belongs. The word ukiyo (‘transitory world’) was derived from Buddhism, referring to the ephemeral nature of this world. By replacing the character for uki 憂き (meaning ‘transitory’) with a homonym 浮meaning ‘floating,’ a profound Buddhist idea was turned upside down to express the attitude of  joie de vivre characteristic of the pleasure quarters.

Zen Buddhism teaches that anyone is able to reach enlightenment through simple, banal activities such as chopping wood or taking naps. Here, the courtesan’s knowledge of the ‘floating world’ (ukiyo 浮世) is compared to Daruma’s enlightened realization of the ‘evanescence of the world’ (ukiyo 憂き世). It also suggests that one can find enlightenment, or release, in the carnal activities of the pleasure quarters. Pious Daruma playing the shamisen, a popular musical instrument among courtesans and geisha, further increases the wry humor.

The poem accompanying the image is by Old Priest Rinsen in the Jōkyō era (1684–88). It reads:
Why have you come from the west?
Don’t ask and cause me to regret it.
In playing the shamisen, the bridges do not count.
The heart alone sings:
Is it the plectrum or the strings
Which makes the music?
(Translation by Kuniko Brown)

Courtesan with a Crane

Kawamata Tsunemasa (flourished 1716–48), Courtesan with a Crane (detail)

Rinnasei (Lin Hejing in Chinese) was a famous Chinese poet of the Song dynasty (960–1127). A hermit renowned for never writing down his poems as well as his love for the crane and plum tree, he was often depicted with them in paintings. In this mitate-e, Tsunemasa provocatively replaced the reclusive poet with a courtesan resplendent in a sumptuous kimono. She gently rests her hand on a crane under a plum tree, echoing Lin’s reputation for treating these birds as his surrogate children. Courtesans were given names using auspicious words; tsuru (crane) and ume (plum) were often chosen for their association with longevity and resilience. Plums were also compared to courtesans for their sensual fragrance and showy blossoms.

The companion poem (not pictured) wryly alludes to the carnality of the plum:
The plum is called the “literature-loving tree.”
The hedge-row plum tree
To men gives freely
Its fragrance.
(Translation by Jack Ronald Hillier and Kuniko Brown)

You’ll certainly want to take the time to appreciate these works in person– and soon! While this exhibition is on view through March 30, 2014, it will undergo a full rotation this fall to introduce new works from our collection and protect the objects from prolonged exposure to light.


Kawamata Tsunemasa (flourished 1716–48), Courtesan with a Crane (detail), Edo period (1603–1868); c. 1745, Ink, color and gofun (ground shell) on silk, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Calvin Frazier, 1986.67.3

Ishikawa Toyonobu (1711–85), Courtesan Dancing to Daruma’s Accompaniment, Edo period (1603–1868); c. 1755, Ink, color and gofun on paper, silk, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Kamansky, 985.56.14


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