Utagawa Toyokuni I 初代歌川豊国 (1769–1825)
Courtesans as the Seven Deities of Good Fortune
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), c. 1800
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of James A. Michener, 1957

The Seven Deities of Good Fortune (shichifukujin) are mythological characters often depicted in Japanese art. Each is a tutelary (patron deity) of a particular kind of fortune and can be identified by specific iconographic details. Benzaiten, goddess of art and beauty, holds a lute; Daikoku, god of wealth, stands near sake barrels and holds a mallet; Ebisu, god of success, carries a fishing pole and a basket of fish; Hotei, god of abundance, reclines against a large bag; Bishamonten, god of war, carries a pagoda; Fukurokuju, god of luck, has an elongated cranium; and Jurōjin, god of longevity, holds a waking stick with a scroll attached to it.

In this parody by Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769–1825), the gods of good fortune are re-envisioned as seven courtesans from the Yoshiwara brothel district, some accompanied by their adolescent attendants (kamuro). Toyokuni inscribes above each of the women a poem dedicated to the deity she represents. Though all of them work in the sex industry, the figures depicted here exude an air of propriety, and the sexual innuendos in the poems are so subtle that they are easily overlooked:

Benzaiten / The sound of her biwa lute / Reverberates through the sky / Humble before her visage / The god who blesses us / With fertility and prosperity.

Daikoku / The wineskin / Still now / Ebisu also says / He’ll stop indulging / Such is the oath of the gods.

Ebisu / Pretending to be at peace / Even his beard seems gentle / Every time he fishes / His determination / Radiates heat / Such is the heart of the gods.

Hotei / If you know one of his faces / Then you should know ten / Violating his friends / This pilfering priest of the gods.

Fukurokuju / With his eternally playful spirit, / He gives shape to the world / As morning due accumulates / On top of his head.

Bishamonten / Collecting the Law of the Buddha / He stands behind the gods / And protects the world / In all directions.

Jurōjin / Expectations build up / Over a thousand generations/ And one becomes increasingly accustomed / To the brevity of people’s lives.

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