Katsushika Hokusū 葛飾北嵩 (active c. 1800s–1830s)
An Oiran and her Lover
From the series The Safflower Princess (Suetsumuhana)
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), c. 1817
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Purchase, Richard Lane Collection, 2003

An oiran (high-level prostitute) in the Yoshiwara brothel district is entertaining a client. While taking a break from her duties, she has a secret rendezvous with her paramour.

“This is my break-time,” she says. “While my client is still asleep, give me what it is I really want!”

“Hmmm, he seems to be a real boor,” her lover replies. “This reminds me of the ‘Hateful Things’ mentioned in The Pillow Book.”

The text to which the man refers is The Pillow Book (Makura no zōshi, 1002), the diary of Sei Shōnagon (966–1017), a court lady in the service of Empress Fujiwara no Teishi (977–1001) during the Heian period (794–1185). In Chapter 14, entitled “Hateful Things,” Shōnagon complains:

An admirer has come on a clandestine visit, but a dog catches sight of him and starts barking. One feels like killing the beast!

Such literary allusions underscore the cultural sophistication not only of courtesans in the Yoshiwara, but also of artists such as Hokusū.

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