Katsuma Ryūsui 勝間竜水, Umi no sachi 海幸, 1762

Artist: Katsuma Ryūsui 勝間竜水 (1711-1796)

Title: Umi no sachi 海幸

Date: 1762

Medium: Woodblock printed, ink and color on paper

Gift of Arthur Tress, Arthur Tress Collection of Japanese Illustrated Books, Ryūsui 1

Umi no sachi, or Treasures of the Sea, is an extraordinary two-volume book of poetry matched with lavish color-printed illustrations of fish. Produced in large format on an unusual theme, this project was probably the private production of a poetry circle, rather than a commercial publication.(1) At its core, the work is a compilation of haikai poems. Yet its unusual theme, exceptional printing, and fascinating, deftly executed pictures defy such easy classification.

The first volume opens with a preface by the esteemed Baba Songi (1703–1782), a leading practitioner of haikai poetry in the mid-eighteenth century. Next come three further introductory texts: one by the book’s editor and fellow poet Sekijukan Shūkoku and two by artist Katsuma Ryūsui. Shūkoku’s preface outlines the allusion present in Umi no sachi’s title: the ancient tale of two brothers, Umi no Sachi Hiko (Prince Luck of the Sea) and Yama no Sachi Hiko (Prince Luck of the Mountain), found in the early chronicle the Kojiki (A Record of Ancient Matters, 712).(2) It was typical in the period for such prefaces to provide highly elevated or literary references, such as this classical text, no matter how mundane the content. In this case, it provides the justification for the aquatic theme to follow.

In the main text of the book, each page opening reveals new variety of fish, splendidly printed in color and accompanied by poems for each type. With more than one hundred species represented, the book presents a veritable catalogue of the bounty of the sea, rivers, and lakes. These aquatic creatures range from established delicacies like sea bream, tuna, octopus, eel, and various kinds of shrimp to more exotic subjects like the whale—so vast it is represented by the inky darkness of a page printed in reverse—and the semi-mythical minogame—a hairy-backed turtle and symbol of longevity. Every illustrated fish is also identified by name, sometimes with several Chinese variations, as if to imitate the conventions of natural history texts.

One of the things that makes Umi no sachi so significant in the history of Japanese print culture is that its abundant color printing predates the development of full-color nishiki-e in sheet prints by three years. Every illustration uses at least two printed colors in addition to black; most illustrations display up to five or even six colors. And though profuse and elaborate, the color printing in this book is often quite subtle. A fish might be depicted in three shades of grey, rather than boldly saturated with contrasting colors. Furthermore, each fish, mollusk, or crustacean is approached with a degree of naturalism by artist Ryūsui. Their sometimes startling morphological verisimilitude signals the growing interest in the period in honzōgaku, or natural studies.

Highly appreciated in the period, Umi no sachi was reprinted multiple times by successive publishers. The Tress copy of Umi no sachi comes from the first printing, published by Kameya Tahei in the second month of 1762. These early printings rank among the very finest examples of early multiple color woodblock printing in Japan, enhanced with special techniques like applications of mica which make the fish seem to shimmer on the page.

(1) Their poems and sobriquets appear throughout the book, and though most of these poets are unknown today, it has been speculated that some of the contributors may have been high-ranking samurai See Kira Sueo, “Tashokuzuri ebaisho ni tsuite,” 16.
(2) Both the Kojiki and Nihon shoki contain versions of this story. For an English translation of the story based on the Kojiki, see Ō and Heldt, The Kojiki, 53-60.

Other collections:
Pulverer Collection, Freer Gallery of Art

Posted by Jeannie Kenmotsu, April 6, 2022

Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎, Kyōka kunizukushi 狂歌国尽, ca. 1810

Artists: Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849), Katsushika Ōi (ca. 1800-ca.1870) and others

Editor: Hasendō Yoboke 巴扇堂暮気 (?-1820)

Title: Kyōka kunizukushi 狂歌国尽 ‘Mad Verse’ of Selected Provinces

Date: ca. 1810

Medium: Woodblock printed, ink on paper

Gift of Arthur Tress, Arthur Tress Collection of Japanese Illustrated Books, Hokusai 43

Katsushika Ōi (応為) was one of the rare women artists to forge a career in Edo-period Japan. Like other women artists at the time, she was able to do so due to her family connections; in her case, she could work as a professional illustrator and painter because she was one of Hokusai’s daughters. She was trained in her father’s studio, often assisting in preparing materials and learning to draw alongside his other students. This book includes her first printed illustration, a scene of sailboats in the mist, and is signed “from the brush of the woman Ei” (using her personal name, Ei) on the right opening. She was likely only about ten years old at the time this was published.

This book is an anthology of poetry, edited by Hasendō Yoboke, with an opening illustration by Hokusai followed by those by fifteen of his students; Ōi is included in this grouping as equal to all. The poems that appear in each double-page opening were submitted and ranked by a group of leading poets; the judges’ ratings appear as a list of numbers between the poet’s name and the poem itself.

The concept of the anthology seems to have been for each poet to write a poem related to one of the provinces (called kuni in the period). Here, the poet Utanoya Mahagi (歌廼屋真萩) writes about the province of Enshū (now Shizuoka) and its famous site, Hamamatsu, located along the coastline and with rising mountains beyond. Hamamatsu was one of the fifty-three stations of the Tōkaidō road linking Edo to Kyoto; its name referred to the pine trees (matsu) that grew in the sand by the bay (hama). Period imagery often shows the motif of pines grown in sand and with the sea beyond to mark this famous place.

The poem starts on the upper right and proceeds to the left, then breaks to begin again in the lower register, from right to left. It puns on Enshū (as a distance province) as well as on Hamamatsu’s piney shore:

夏草のしけるる / 遠州 / はま松は
ひろい / やう / ても / せまい / 道野 /邉

And can be translated as:

Hamamatsu, in the distant province of Enshū,
grows thick with summer grasses and
with its pines on the shore
seem so vast yet
the road and fields so narrow

In this period poetry always included references to the season, as here in the summer grasses. The poet also plays with contrasts in the wide open space of the sea and the narrowness of road and fields skirting the terrain between dunes and mountains.

Ōi married one of Hokusai’s other students, Minamizawa Tōmei, in about 1824, but by 1827 she separated from her husband and returned to live with Hokusai, working alongside her father until his death in 1849. She assisted him with his many commissions during this period, perhaps even contributing to some of his most famous paintings, prints and illustrated books. After her father’s death, she worked as an independent artist until about 1870, making paintings and designing two illustrated books under her own signature.

Other collections:
British Museum

Selected reading:

John T. Carpenter, “The Literary Network: Private Commissions for Hokusai and His Circle,” in Designed for Pleasure: The World of Edo Japan in Prints and Paintings, 1680-1860, ed. by Julia Meech and Jane Oliver (New York, 2008), 143-68.

Julie Nelson Davis, “Hokusai and Ōi: Art runs in the Family,” British Museum blog (2017): https://blog.britishmuseum.org/hokusai-and-oi-keeping-it-in-the-family/

Kobayashi Tadashi, “The Floating World in light and shadow — Ukiyo-e paintings by Hokusai’s daughter Ōi,” Hokusai and his Age: Ukiyo-e Painting, Printmaking and Book Illustration in Late Edo Japan, translated and adapted by Julie Nelson Davis, edited by John T. Carpenter (Leiden, 2005), 92-103.

Kubota Kazuhiro. Hokusai musume, Ōi Eijo shū (Tokyo, 2015).

Posted by Julie Nelson Davis, March 14, 2022

Kawamura Bunpō 河村文鳳, Kanga shinan nihen 漢画指南二編, 1811

View of West Lake

View of West Lake

Artist: Kawamura Bunpō (河村文鳳, 1779-1821)

Title: Kanga shinan nihen 漢画指南二編 (Instruction in Chinese Painting, Part Two)

Publishers: Yamatoya Kanbē 大和屋勘兵衛, Fushimiya Tōemon 伏見屋藤右衛門, Hishiya Magobē 菱屋孫兵衛

Block Carver: Inoue Jihē 井上治兵衛

Date: 1811

Medium: Woodblock printed, ink and color on paper

Gift of Arthur Tress, Arthur Tress Collection, Bunpō 3 (formerly Box 2, Book 3)

Like other painters of his generation, Kawamura Bunpō was not able travel to China due to period prohibitions but learned about Chinese painting and culture via printed books, paintings, poetry, literature, and other media.

Entitled Kanga shinan nihen (漢画指南) or Instruction in Chinese Painting, Part Two, this book was designed as the sequel to the Kanga shinan, a book featuring designs by Takebe Ayatari (建部綾足, also known as Kan’yōsai 寒葉斎1719–1774), published in 1778. As historian Ellis Tinios notes, Ayatari’s Kanga shinan “. . . was so highly regarded that the Kyoto publisher Hishiya Magobē (Gosharō 五車楼) reprinted it in 1811 using the original blocks. At the same time, he commissioned Kawamura Bunpō to produce a second part (nihen)” (Tinios). The colophon includes the name of block carver, Inoue Jihē, attesting to the publisher’s commission, too, of this highly appreciated artisan in the production of this exceptional book.

The three-volume title presents a variety of Chinese-style elements for aspiring painters, from studies of trees, grasses, and dwellings, to figures and landscape vignettes, all labeled in Chinese. The publisher called it ““a tool for the study of Chinese painting,” adding that “if you take this book as your manual for the study of Chinese painting, without a teacher, on your own, you will be able to master a marvelous style of Chinese painting” (translated by Tinios).

vol 1 trees

In the third volume, Bunpō ends the sequence of selected studies and indicates a new sequence with an opening showing a view through a window of a plum tree in moonlight on the right and a stele with an inscription reading “Views of West Lake” (西湖の図) on the left.


In the final twenty-one openings, Bunpō adapts views of the renowned West Lake in China, in scenes such as the one shown at the top of this post.

Long appreciated for its great beauty, the site of West Lake was a painting and poetry theme in China since the Song dynasty. The subject became well known in Japan, employed by Japanese painters since the Muromachi period. What is rather remarkable about Bunpō’s sequence is how closely the compositions match those included in a Chinese book, Nanxun shengdian 南巡盛典, the Great Canon of the Southern Tours compiled by Gao Jin and others, published in 1771. This Chinese book documenting Emperor Qianlong’s tours in the south was imported to Japan in 1774 (Ōba 1967). How Bunpō came to know this Chinese title remains an open question, but the connection demonstrates how much Japanese painters relied upon Chinese printed books for source material.

Other copies:
British Museum
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Pulverer Collection of Japanese Illustrated Books, Freer and Sackler Galleries
Portland Art Museum

Selected Reading:

Masaki Itakura, Egakareta miyako: Kaihō, Kōshū, Kyōto, Edo (Tokyo: Tokyo Daigaku Shuppankai, 2013).

Ōba Osamu, Edo jidai ni okeru tōsen mochiwatarisho no kenkyū (Kansai Daigaku shuppanbu, 1967).

Ellis Tinios, “Commentary,” Kanga shinan nihen, The World of the Japanese Illustrated Book, (https://pulverer.si.edu/node/372/title/1)

Ellis Tinios, Kawamura Bumpō: Artist of Two Worlds. Leeds, U.K.: Leeds University Gallery, 2004.

Written by Tim Zhang, edited and posted by Julie Nelson Davis, March 17, 2022

Shōkōsai Hanbē 松好斎半兵衛, Kensarae sumai zue 拳会角力図会, 1809

Artist: Shōkōsai Hanbē 松好斎半兵衛 (active 1795-1807)

Authors: Girō 義浪 and Gojaku 吾雀

Title: Kensarae sumai zue 拳会角力図会 (Pictures of Sumo Hand Competitions)

Publisher:  Kawachiya Tasuke 河内屋太助, Ōsaka

Date: 1809

Medium: Woodblock printed, ink on paper

Gift of Arthur Tress, Arthur Tress Collection, Box 29, Book 8

The hand gestures game called “janken” in Japan–and known as “rock-paper-scissors” abroad–is very well known today. It is often played by children and adults for fun as well as in competitions, perhaps over whose turn it is to do the dishes or to ride in the front passenger seat of the car. Hand gesture games were popular in the Edo period as well. But “rock-paper-scissors” is not as old as it seems–instead this variation evolved from others in the mid to later nineteenth century.

In this book published in 1809, we learn more about the popularity and the rules for “ken-asobi” (拳遊び) or  “hand-gesture play” for earlier forms. These were often enjoyed as drinking games. Some were even styled  after sumo wrestling competitions. In the opening pages of this book, Osaka artist Shōkōsai Hanbē shows participants and fans hurrying to the site of play, then packing into the hall to sit in small groups eating, drinking, and playing the hand gesture games.

Some hand-gesture games were styled as matches played around miniature wrestling rings, like the one shown in the illustration at the top of this post, in imitation of sumo wrestling competitions. These games were refereed by judges carrying fans, just like they did in sumo matches, and in the pages preceding this image, we learn more about the rules and the role of the referees. Some competitors became famous for their skill, as the list of names of players from Osaka, Kyoto, and Nagasaki at the end of the book demonstrates.

Two variations of hand gesture games are illustrated in another opening, with the pages preceding and following describing the terms used during the game. One variation used all five fingers, as seen on the right, in a game where each player selected a hand gesture for a number and then shouted a prediction for the total made by both players (see the essay by Linhart listed below).

On the left, we are shown the very popular variation with three distinct hand forms called mushi-ken (虫拳). This version featured three protagonists: the snake, the frog, and the slug. These animals were classed as mushi, a word often translated as “insects,” but this class of animals also included amphibians and reptiles in period taxonomies. This form of the game originated in China with the protagonists as the snake, frog, and poisonous centipede. The shift from centipede to slug in the Japanese version happened due to a misreading of the characters for centipede.

In the illustration here, the snake is performed by the index finger, the frog by the thumb, and the slug by the pinky finger. Each of these animals is afraid of being consumed by one of the others, so the snake wins over the frog, the frog over the slug, and the slug over the snake. Below the hand gestures, Hanbē has illustrated an item called a “kenkin” (拳錦) or a “competition brocade,” a cover that could be attached to the hand, presumably to hide the player’s hand movement while forming the gesture.

Games like these were played at home as well as in a variety of other locations. Images of the licensed brothel quarters often show clients and sex workers playing a game featuring a fox, a hunter, and the village headman. In that version, the wily fox outsmarts the village head, the village head bests the hunter, and the hunter trounces the fox.

This large format book features printing on fine paper. Mr. Tress recalls finding this book, volume one of two volumes, in 1970, on his second trip to Japan. For complete digitization of both volumes, see the example held in the Pulverer Collection (pulverer.si.edu).

Other copies:

Pulverer Collection:  http://pulverer.si.edu/node/934/title

Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin)

University of Kyoto Library along with another seven libraries in Japan

Selected Reading:

Kitagawa Hiroko, “Commentary,” Kensarae sumai zue, The World of the Japanese Illustrated Book (http://pulverer.si.edu/node/934/title/1)

Linhart, Sepp, “From Kendo to Jan-Ken: The Deterioration of a Game from Exoticism into Ordinariness,” The Culture of Japan as Seen through Its Leisure, SUNY Press (1998), 319–344.

Posted by Julie Nelson Davis, August 24, 2020

Tani Bunchō 谷文晁, Meizan zue 名山圖會, 1812


Artist: Tani Bunchō 谷文晁 (1763-1840)

Title: Meizan zue 名山圖會 (Pictorial album of famous mountains)

Date: 1812

Publisher: Akitaya Taemon

Medium: Woodblock printed book, ink on paper

Tani Bunchō is perhaps the most famous Japanese literati painter represented in the Tress collection. He was the grandson of an economist and Neo-Confucian scholar, the son of a noted master of Chinese poetry, and the samurai retainer of the highest-ranking conservative advisor to the shogun, Matsudaira Sadanobu (1759-1829). Bunchō exhibited painterly talent as a child, and studied with the academic ink painter Katō Bunrei (1706-1782). After Bunrei died Bunchō worked with various masters of Japanese, Chinese, and even Western style painting. Bunchō was a prolific painter, copyist, and connoisseur who taught hundreds if not thousands of pupils; his books include collections of his sketches intended as manuals for others to study. The Tress collection includes one of Bunchō’s most beautiful works, Shazanrō gahon (Painting book of the Mountain-reflecting Tower) from 1817.


This title, the Meizan zue, (Pictures of Famous Mountains), also known as Nihon meizan zue (Pictures of Famous Mountains in Japan), is a monochrome three-volume set of views of more than a hundred Japanese peaks. Each mountain spreads across one opening, and most are topographically precise. They are based, according to Bunchō’s preface, on his direct observations, reinforcing his reputation as a prolific traveler. Our copy is from the 1812 edition. The book was originally published in 1806 under a slightly different title, Meizan zufu. The University of Pennsylvania Libraries holds a second copy of this title, the 1842 printing, making it possible to compare changes between the 1812 and later printings.

Other copies:
British Museum, London
Library of Congress, Washington, DC (1807, 1812, and other editions)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Pulverer Collection, Freer Gallery of Art

Selected readings:

Frank L. Chance, “Tani Bunchō” in Grove Art Online (http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T083257).

Timon Screech, The Shogun’s Painted Culture: Fear and Creativity in the Japanese States, 1760–1829 (London: Reaktion Books, 2000).

Tani Bunchō 谷文晁, (Nihon) Meizan zue 『(日本) 名山図絵』 (Tokyo: Kokusho Kankōkai, 1970), esp. the afterword by Higuchi Hideo 樋口秀雄, “Bunchō no gafu obogaki” 「谷文晁の画譜覚書」, unpaginated.

Frank L. Chance
Posted April 6, 2020

Tani Bunchō 谷文晁, Shazanrō gahon 写山楼画本, 1816

plum blossoms

Sparrow on branch
Artist: Tani Bunchō 谷文晁 (1763-1840)

Title: Shazanrō gahon 写山楼画本 (Picture-book of the mountain-reflecting pavilion)

Date: 1816

Publisher: Izumiya Shōjirō

Medium: Woodblock-printed book, ink and color on paper

Gift of Arthur Tress, Arthur Tress Collection Box 10, Item 19

Since the political philosophy of the Tokugawa ruling family in the Edo period was based on Chinese thought, members of the ruling class learned the classical language of China, and not infrequently enjoyed literary works in that language, including poetry and prose of the literati (wenren) class of Chinese scholar-bureaucrats. Both in China and in Japan, these scholars produced paintings as well, often but not always based on the classics of Chinese literature and evoking the dry austerity encouraged by the admonitions toward frugality and calm growing from Neo-Confucian thought. In Japan, Chinese literati painting was known mostly through woodblock prints reproducing Chinese works, and it was only natural that the Chinese books were copied, reprinted, and imitated in Japan. The style of these books and paintings came to be known as “Nanga” meaning “Southern Painting” or “Bunjinga” literally “Literati painting.” A number of books in the Tress collection are associated with this erudite painting genre.

Perhaps the most famous Japanese literati painter represented in the Tress collection is Tani Bunchō (1763-1841). He was the grandson of an economist and Neo-Confucian scholar, the son of a noted master of Chinese poetry, and the samurai retainer of the highest-ranking conservative advisor to the shogun, Matsudaira Sadanobu (1759-1829). Bunchō exhibited painterly talent as a child, and studied with the academic ink painter Katō Bunrei (1706-1782). After Bunrei died Bunchō worked with various masters of Japanese, Chinese, and even Western style painting. Bunchō was a prolific painter, copyist, and connoisseur who taught hundreds if not thousands of pupils; his books include collections of his sketches intended as manuals for others to study. This is best exemplified by Honchō gasan (Collected Paintings of Our Country), compiled from serially published small pamphlets reproducing Bunchō’s copies of paintings by Japanese painters of the past along with biographical notes. These pamphlets appear to have been given to his students annually as part of the celebration of the New Year to provide them with models to imitate.

plum blossoms

The most beautiful of Bunchō ‘s publications is Shazanrō gahon (Painting Book of the Mountain-reflecting Tower, 1816). This elegant volume reproduces original designs of flowers, birds, insects and such. Some openings imitate the painterly effects of monochrome brush and ink, while others include delicate color effects. The Tress copy is in pristine condition. The name derives from one of Bunchō ‘s pen names, Shazanrō, the tower () where the mountain (zan) is reflected or drawn (sha), derived from the fact that Mt. Fuji could be seen (and hence drawn) from the upper story of Bunchō’s studio in the Shitaya section of Edo (today Taitō-ku, Tokyo).

Other copies:
Pulverer Collection, Freer Gallery of Art

Written by Frank L. Chance
Posted April 7, 2022

Toji-awase Oden no kanabumi 綴合於伝仮名書 ca.1879

Broadside showing acts in kabuki play

Broadside showing acts in kabuki play

Artist: Unknown

Title: Toji-awase Oden no kanabumi (The Binding of Oden’s Letters)

Date: ca. 1879

Medium: Woodblock-printed broadside, ink and color on paper

This broadsheet refers to the kabuki play The Binding of Oden’s Letters (Toji-awase Oden no Kanabumi), written by Kawatake Mokuami. The play debuted at the Shintomi-za theater in 1879, and this broadsheet was likely made as a summary to the play. It includes 16 individual panels read from right to left, top to bottom. The first panel in the uppermost right corner identifies the play and its theater, and the 14 before the red square at the bottom left each represent a key scene in the narrative. The red cartouches on the right side of each panel describe the scene and location; above and outside the frame of each panel, within the yellow segment, is a list of roles and associated actors. Dialogue from the scenes is included within panel, and the actor’s costumes display their distinctive crests (mon). This broadsheet may have been made as a guide distributed at the theater or as memorabilia to take home from a performance.

The kabuki play was based on sensational stories about a woman named Takahashi Oden (ca.1848-1879). Oden gained media attention when she was arrested in 1876 under suspicion of cutting the throat of merchant Gotō Kichizō at an inn before fleeing the scene. Oden’s trial spanned nearly 3 years before she was convicted under the Meiji-era justice system. On January 31, 1879, she became one of the last persons in Japan to be officially executed by beheading. The kabuki play based on her story debuted in the Shintomi-za theatre in May of that year.

Comparatively little can be verified about the real Takahashi Oden. Her literary appearances, on the other hand, in gossip serials that appeared in newspapers within days of her death as well as the books and plays that followed, provide a wealth of shifting details about her life. Due to the immediate and sensationalist coverage of her crime, Oden was termed a “poison woman,” by mass media after her alleged poisoning of her sick husband was added to the list of criminal accusations including gross immorality, thievery, and murder. The term “poison woman” or dokufu gained traction in Meiji Japan through publications featuring female criminals (see Marran).

Reporter Kanagaki Robun (1829-1894) wrote The Tale of Demon Takahashi Oden (Takahashi Oden yasha monogatari) in 1879; this has become perhaps the best-studied version of Takahashi Oden. It first appeared in the newspaper Kanayomi as a serial called the The story of poison woman Oden (Dofuku oden no hanashi). The serial began two days after Oden was beheaded and its immediacy likely lent to its popularity. It was later expanded into book form. Robun’s work predates the Kabuki play version of Oden by 3 months.

The script for the kabuki play, Toji-awase Oden no kanabumi, that is the reference for this broadsheet remains extant, available digitally in the database maintained by the National Institute of Japanese Literature. The play was organized with six acts, and the panels in the broadsheet line correspond to that work as follows:

Panel 1: Play title and theater
Panel 2: Opening act
Panels 3 and 4: Second act
Panels 5 and 6: Third act
Panels 7 and 8: Interlude performance featuring material unrelated to Oden
Panel 9: Fourth act
Panel 10: Intermediate act
Panel 11: Fifth act
Panels 12, 13, 14, 15: Sixth act

The play has yet to be translated or analyzed in detail but a great deal of attention appears to be given to detailing Takahashi Oden’s life before and during her husband’s illness. In the broadsheet, some panels depict her being harassed by unsavory fellows alongside what appears to be her husband in worsening condition. In a panel midway, Oden is depicted as distressed aboard a boat, hounded by a ghost-like figure—this is likely her husband after his death. The panels following the intermission scenes may depict Oden cohabiting with another man as well as her involvement in his enterprises. The final panels illustrates the climax of the play. In the 12th panel, Oden is seen luring and killing a man on the second floor of an inn, in the 13th panel she is captured by officials on a bridge, in the 14th panel she is standing trial, and in the 15th panel she is sentenced. A study group at the University of Pennsylvania is currently working on a full transcription of the broadsheet.

Other collections: as yet no other copies have been found

Selected Readings:
Christine L. Marran, Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

Ohashi Yoshiteru, Dokufu densetsu Takahashi Oden to Eriito Gunitachi (Kyoei Shoten, 2013).

Matthew C. Strecher, “Who’s Afraid of Takahashi O-Den? ‘Poison Woman’ Stories and Literary Journalism in Early Meiji Japan.” Japanese Language and Literature, vol. 38, no. 1, 2004, pp. 25–55.

Posted by Caitlin Adkins, April 6, 2022

Tosa School, Bunshō ぶんせう, 17th century

Salt making

Salt making
Artist: Tosa School, style of

Title: Bunshō ぶんせう (Bunsho)

Date: 17th century

Medium: Manuscript: ink, color, and gold on paper

Size: 23.8 x 17.6 cm

Gift of Arthur Tress, Arthur Tress Collection of Japanese Illustrated Books
Tosa School 1, Kislak Center for Special Collections

When is a book an event? For a period in early nineteenth-century Japan, the New Year was a time for fresh installments of the phenomenal Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji. Even earlier the ritual reading of lavish hand-copied productions of an auspicious tale had marked this most important holiday. Colorfully illustrated, they told of the miraculous rise in fortunes of a common salt maker named Bunda.

The Tress Collection contains a single volume of Bunshō sōshi, or “The Story of Bunshō,” bearing the simple title Bunshō. (Bunda upgrades his name to Bunshō in accordance with the abundant wealth he earns after coming in to his own making salt that keeps people young and healthful.) Thirty openings beautifully render the life of this honest, pious, and hard-working man (second illustration) and, perhaps more importantly, his daughters. For it was the daughters of merchant families who read–or had read to them–this tale on the second day of the lunar new year in the hopes of happy and prosperous futures.

Imagine the scene: among your tasks as the old year ends is to order a copy of the story with elegant calligraphy for the text and familiar but grand versions of the expected illustrations. The workshop that produces the books, hoping to maximize profits and avoid the crush of orders before the holiday, puts together an assembly line with artisans responsible for paintings, for text, for covers. All must be fit together, attractively and with no waste. The Tress manuscript demonstrates this reality while also relating how prayers to the Kashima Shrine in Hitachi province (shown in the third illustration) resulted in the birth to Bunshō’s wife of two girls. They were of such perfection that their hands in marriage were sought by a courtier from the capital and even the sovereign. First, however, as the pictures show us, the daughters steadfastly resisted the suits of a local governor, the Kashima priests’ sons, and local lords.

Many copies of Bunshō sōshi survive (in excess of eighty), but their artists are anonymous, just like the author of the story itself. Short or mid-length narratives in this vein are sometimes known as Muromachi monogatari, tales from the high medieval era, or otogi zōshi, “companion tales,” a name that derives from a collection published in the early eighteenth century, Otogi bunko. More than four hundred such tales, dating from the early fourteenth to the early seventeenth century, have come down to us, but Bunshō sōshi was first in the Otogi bunko selection. The format is often referred to as Nara ehon, “Nara picture books,” a misnomer because they were not produced in the city of Nara. Typically it indicates a medium-sized booklet, bound with thread and sporting indigo covers (although some are in scroll format). The covers have delicate floral motifs in gold, the dark and light combination imitating the decoration for the highest class of Buddhist scriptures.

The Tress text holds few surprises, differing from a popular recension by minor variations. The pictures, five interspersed among pages of flowing brushwork, are delightful but usual. Only the painting of Bunda making salt is not always found in manuscripts. It is hard to date or place the Tress copy relative to other versions, some of which elaborate different aspects of the story. The reverse sides of some pages have their secrets, however. On the back of the fourth illustration, we can see a basic ink sketch of the daughters who are finely finished on the front in polychrome. The front and back covers are lined with reused paper, fragments of what appear to be correspondence. More oddly, the first page of our book is a superfluous copy of a page in the middle of the story—the extra page corresponds to the left side of the eleventh opening, although it uses different character variants, and has almost twice as much text on it as the corresponding main page. Someone has brushed a large “X” through this “first” page, so originally it too was no doubt pasted down, its blank back forming the inside of the front cover. We cannot be sure how many pages or volumes are missing from our copy. The front cover has a cartouche with the title written in nonstandard characters, as well as “first volume.” It is possible that there were two more; certainly there was a second volume.

Among other surprises about these hand-painted and brush-written tales, many were copied from printed editions. We often assume that the advent of print culture to Japan in the late sixteenth century meant the end of the manuscript, but such is not the case. Printed books imitated the free and personalized style of manuscript, while some manuscripts used well-done printed editions as models.

Selected Readings

Araki, James T., trans. “Bunshō Sōshi: The Tale of Bunshō, the Saltmaker.” Monumenta Nipponica vol. 38, no. 3 (Autumn, 1983): 221-49.

Keene, Donald. “Muromachi Fiction: Otogi-zōshi.” In Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature form Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century, 1092-1128. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993.

Marra, Michele. “Economic Success and Aristocratic Legitimation: ‘The Story of Bunshō’.” In Representations of Power, 140-43. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.

Ruch, Barbara. “Medieval Jongleurs and the Making of Japan’s National Literature.” In Japan in the Muromachi Age, edited by John W. Hall and Takeshi Toyoda, 279-309. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1977.

Shirane, Haruo. “Muromachi Tales (Otogi-zōshi).” In Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600, 1097-1100. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Written by Linda H. Chance
Posted April 6, 2022

Tosa School, Tsuru no sōshi 鶴のさうし, 17th century

Artist: Tosa School

Title: Tsuru no sōshi 鶴のさうし (The Tale of the Crane)

Date: 17th century

Medium: Manuscript, ink, color, and gold on paper

You will not be surprised to learn that a crane features prominently in The Tale of the Crane, but here’s the part you probably didn’t expect: the crane marries a human man.

This odd couple will seem a little less odd if you are familiar with Japanese lore, where narratives of interspecies romance abound. Such stories—known as irui kon’in-tan, or tales of marriage between kinds—appear in Japan’s earliest recorded myths from the eighth century, multiplied and diversified over the years. No generalization can encompass the vast body of irui kon’in-tan that exist today, but more often than not, they end unhappily. Many irui kon’in-tan can be read as a kind of dark funhouse mirror to Western fairy tales such as Beauty and the Beast or The Frog King: instead of an apparent animal becoming a desirable human spouse, an apparently desirable human spouse is revealed to be an animal, and almost inevitably the union dissolves.

The Tale of the Crane bucks this trend, ending with a rare happily ever after—or at least, this is the case for the copy of The Tale of the Crane in the Tress collection. Multiple manuscripts of The Tale of the Crane exist, and despite their shared title they differ significantly, although they can be divided into two lineages that are more or less consistent within themselves. The manuscript from the Tress collection belongs to the three-volume lineage, so named because the tale is divided into three volumes, the last of which concludes with the human protagonist and his crane-wife living in wedded bliss. By contrast, the shorter and simpler one-volume lineage follows the more typical pattern of revelation and separation.

Although the one-volume lineage has strong roots in folklore, it was produced within the upper echelons of society; the original manuscript was illustrated by the court painter Tosa Mitsunobu (1434-1525), the founder of the Tosa school of painting. The three-volume lineage developed somewhat later, with the first manuscripts dating to the early Edo period (1603-1868). Perhaps because of its more complex plot and cheerful ending, the three-volume version of The Tale of the Crane survives in numerous versions, as here in manuscript copy the Tress collection. Some are woodblock-printed books; others are the work of commoner artisans, with bold, simple illustrations; and yet others were created by skilled artists for moneyed audiences. This last is the case for the manuscript in the Tress collection, which was illustrated by an unnamed Tosa-school artist. The paintings are dynamic and detailed, sumptuously ornamented with gold flakes. Finely-made manuscripts of auspicious tales, like this one, became a standard item in the trousseaus of upper-class brides. The copy of The Tale of the Crane in the Tress collection is of unclear provenance, so we cannot make any definitive statement about its intended purpose—but use as a “bridal book” (yomeiribon) is certainly one possibility.

Written by Laura Nuffer
Posted April 6, 2022

Selected Readings:

Kimbrough, Keller, and Haruo Shirane, eds. Monsters, Animals, and Other Worlds: A Collection of Short Medieval Japanese Tales. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

McCormick, Melissa. Tosa Mitsunobu and the Small Scroll in Medieval Japan. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009.

Nüffer, Laura. “Humans and Non-Humans: Animal Bridegrooms and Brides in Japanese Otogizōshi.” In A Cultural History of Fairy Tales in the Age of the Marvelous, edited by Suzanne Magnanini, 95–118. London: Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2021.

Utagawa Toyokuni 歌川豊国, Yakusha meisho zue 戯子名所図会, 1800



Artist: Utagawa Toyokuni 歌川豊国 (1769-1825)

Author: Takizawa Bakin 滝沢馬琴 (1767-1848)

Title: Yakusha meisho zue 戯子名所図会 (Pictorial Album of Famous Places with Actors)

Date: 1800

Publisher: Tsuruya Kiemon

Medium: Woodblock printed book, ink on paper

Gift of Arthur Tress, Arthur Tress Collection, Box 29, Item 11 (Toyokuni 2)

Imagination and landscape go hand in hand. Though images of places are often more deeply equated with observable reality, these images remain representation, not reality. Created at a specific moment in time, as part of a specific culture, these pictures are deeply bound with the meaning of the place. Some landscapes though are not just imagined, but are the vehicles for imagination. Through Edo period print culture, pictures of place could take on new meaning. In the hands of clever publishers, authors, and illustrators, the popularity of new geographies and topographies led to genre-crossing creations.


Yakusha meisho zue (1800), was the product of some of the top members of the Edo print world—written by Takizawa Bakin (also known as Kyokutei Bakin), illustrated by Utagawa Toyokuni, and published by Tsuruya Kiemon. While the true subject of the work was a clever commentary on contemporary kabuki, it was wrapped in the format of a meisho zue, a format of guide that became popular in the eighteenth century. In doing so, it drew upon a lengthy and celebrated tradition of conceptualizing place, marrying this tradition with the theatrical world of Edo.

In Japan, ideas of place were initially linked to representation in poetry. Locations known as meisho (名所, initially called na ga aru tokoro, “places with a name”) were called out and celebrated in poetry from the eighth century on. The first meisho sites were linked to the emperor’s ritual visitation of the lands of his realm, a practice known as miyuki (御幸). The invocation of these place names in poetry became known as utamakura (歌枕), “poem pillows” epithets that allowed a poem to pivot around layered concepts [Kamens]. These words, used and re-used in poems, acquired connotations over time; by merely invoking the name of a meisho the poet was able to tap into a literary and historical matrix.

The meisho tradition continued into the earliest landscape paintings in Japan, a genre known as meisho-e (名所絵, “pictures of famous places”). First appearing in the tenth century, these paintings derived from poetic conventions, which likewise became linked to the representation of these topographical spaces.[1] Working together, word and image prompted the reader/viewer to produce the imagined landscape.

Over time, though, the definition of what constituted a “meisho” evolved as urban sites and locations along major highways rose in popularity—specifically in the shogun’s capital of Edo. Edo, which had previously been a small fishing village, rose to prominence when it became the shogun’s seat of power. While it lacked in the traditional meisho associated with classical poetry, it soon developed its own famed sites. The Yoshiwara pleasure quarters, popular shops, and travel checkpoints could all become meisho in this new scheme and were included in many printed guidebooks.

[1] No landscape paintings from this era survive to this day. Scholars have relied on descriptions of poetry composed in relation to these images to determine the earliest appearances of these paintings. The earliest extant landscape image is considered to be the Jingōji senzui byōbu, which dates to c. 1200.

Other copies:
Harvard Yenching Library
National Institute of Japanese Literature
Waseda University Library

Selected reading:
Chino Kaori, “The Emergence and Development of Famous Place Painting as a Genre.” Review of Japanese Culture and Society 15 (2003), 40.

Edward Kamens, Utamakura, Allusion, and Intertextuality in Traditional Japanese Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

Quintana Heathman Scherer
Posted April 6, 2022