Utagawa Toyokuni I 初代歌川豊国 (1769–1825)
Hirasawa Tsunetomi (1735–1813)
The Demon Courtesan
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), c. 1800
Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk
Gift of Dr. Nathan V. Hammer, 1960

To this elegant portrait of a prostitute and her adolescent assistant by Toyokuni, Hirasawa Tsunetomi added an inscription that clearly conveys the complicated image of women working in the Yoshiwara by the beginning of the 19th century. The story makes playful use of the term oiran, which denotes the highest-ranking prostitutes in the Yoshiwara:

There was once a demon that lived in the Northern country. Its mother had a dream about seeing square eggs on the night before the new moon, and she gave birth to the demon. She named the demon Oiran.
When Oiran spoke, her words magically transformed into text, even without the use of a brush. When Oiran touched someone, her hands had the magical ability to kill, even without the use of a sword. With her speech, she could transform a cognoscente into a bumbling idiot, and with her hands, she had the ability to kill a fool and transform him into a sophisticate. Her emotions were as thick as the ice on Lake Suwa, but she was able to melt the hearts of men and make them fall in love with her. She was as solemn and as fortitudinous as the pools of the Asuka River, but she was able to render men speechless with lovesickness.
I presume that skillful artists were able to accurately express the spirit of this demon. If the oiran painted below has a spirit, I presume that she will look up at these written words and ask, “How do you know all of these things about me?”

In this complex tale, courtesans are simultaneously idealized and— quite literally—demonized. “The Northern Quarters” and “The Northern Country” were nicknames for the Yoshiwara, as the district lay to the north of Edo. The references to square eggs and new moons originate from a popular Japanese expression about the trustworthiness of courtesans being as rare as these novelties.

Professor Katsumata Motoi of Meisei University was of invaluable help in deciphering this inscription.

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