Kitao Shigemasa 北尾重政 (1739-1820)
Katsukawa Shunshō 勝川春章 (1726-1792)
A Mirror of Beautiful Women of the Green Houses Compared
(Seirō bijin awase sugata kagami 青楼美人合姿鏡), vol. 2: Autumn / Winter

Japan, Edo period (1615-1868), 1776
Woodblock-printed book; ink and color on paper
Purchase, Richard Lane Collection, 2003
(TD 2012-03-038.02)

Depicted here are women of the Shin-Kanaya Brothel: Ekuchi (right page) writes a wish on a tanzaku card; Kaoru lies on the ground behind Ekuchi reading a book; Ninoaya (upper left page) reads the Kokin Wakashū, an anthology of Japanese waka (thirty-one-syllable poems) as she fiddles with one of her hair combs; and Tachibana (lower left page) ties a tanzaku card inscribed with her wish onto a stalk of bamboo.

Ekuchi’s and Tachibana’s activities are traditional ways of celebrating the holiday of Tanabata, held every year on the 7th day of the 7th month, when the Milky Way was believed to be most visible in the evening sky. Thereby we can concretely date this depiction to the seventh day of the seventh month — most likely in either the year 1775, when all four women were listed in that year’s edition of A Visitor’s Guide to the Yoshiwara District (Yoshiwara saiken), or in the following year, when this print series was published. In the third volume of this text appear poems that were supposedly composed by these women.

Tachibana’s poem reads as follows:

The Heavenly River — if they were able to meet on Earth, then they would never have been separated.
(Chi ni aeba / ni so bune narazu / Ama no kawa)

According to legend, on the annual celebration of Tanabata, two lovers, indicated by the stars Altair (Kengyū-sei) and Vega (Shokujo-sei) on opposite sides of the Milky Way, are able to visit one another.

As with the courtesan Senzan’s poem, discussed directly to the left of this print, Tachibana’s poem is subtly self-referential. A courtesan and her client were separated throughout most of the year by the walls and moat that surrounded the Yoshiwara, and like the celestial lovers of Tanabata, their opportunities to rendezvous were brief and precious.

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