Suzuki Harunobu 鈴木春信 (1725?–1770)
Saigyō Hōshi Praying to a Bijin on a White Elephant
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), c. 1766
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of James A. Michener, 1970

At the top of this print, Harunobu inscribes two haiku poems by the monk Saigyō (1118–1190). In a section of his text Collection of Selected Tales (Senjūshō), which later inspired the Nō play Eguchi, Saigyō explains the context. He was travelling through the village of Eguchi in modern-day Niigata Prefecture, and when a torrential rainstorm suddenly began, he knocked on the door of a brothel and asked for shelter. The courtesan who answered the door, perhaps doubting his intentions, refused to let him in. The first poem is Saigyō’s complaint to her:

You'd never bring yourself / to hate and forsake this world / no matter how I plead... / Yet, how can you begrudge / to lend a temporary shelter?
(yo no naka wo / itou made koso / katakarame / kari no yadori wo / oshimu kimi kana)

The second poem is the witty, cold-hearted reply of the courtesan, who obviously still mistrusts the monk:

Knowing you are someone / who has forsaken this world, / I naturally thought / you would not be concerned / with this temporary shelter.
(yo o itou / hito to shi kikeba / kari no yado / kokoro ni tomuna to / omou bakari zo)

While the inscriptions by themselves make the meaning of this print challenging, Harunobu adds yet another level of interpretation by depicting the woman astride a white elephant. Such iconography conflates the courtesan with Samantabhadra Bodhisattva (Japanese: Fugen bosatsu), who, along with Shakyamuni Buddha and Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva (Japanese: Monju bosatsu) forms the revered Shakyamuni trinity. Rather than a lost soul in need of spiritual salvation, the artist depicts the prostitute as far more enlightened than the priest himself.

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