Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760–1849)
A Makeshift Pillow
From the series Picture Book: Patterns of Couples (Ehon tsui no hinagata)
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), c. 1812
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Purchase, Richard Lane Collection, 2003

Originally misattributed by shunga scholars to Katsushika Oui (active c. late 19th century, known also as Oei), the third daughter of Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), later research has revealed it to be a work by Hokusai himself.

In the late 20th century, fictional works loosely based on Japanese history unfortunately have perpetuated the aforementioned misunderstandings about geisha and their sexual activity. Though geisha did originally strive to avoid sexual interaction with clients, the fact that by the 1870s they were required by the shogunate to hold two licenses—one to work as a geisha and another for prostitution—indicates that the actual difference in conduct between prostitutes and geisha was far from clear.

Here, a geisha has discarded her plectrum, seen in the lower right corner, and has laid her sheet music over the body of her three-stringed shamisen to form a makeshift pillow as her client proposes that they make an altogether different kind of music. The sheet music the geisha has placed on her shamisen is from the Kabuki performance Nanakusa wakayagi Soga (1744), in which appears the ghost of the famous Yoshiwara courtesan Takao II (1640–1659).

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