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Seduction: Japan's Floating World

Courtesans promenading under blossoming cherry
by Kubo Shunman (Japanese, 1757–1820)
Hanging scroll; ink and colors on silk.

Each spring, starting in the late 1740s, budding cherry trees were transported to the Yoshiwara and planted down the center of the main boulevard, Nakanochō. Sponsored by the district's business leaders, this annual cherry blossom festival ended with the trees' removal at the end of the third lunar month.

Shunman's painting shows two courtesans and their attendants passing by one of the bamboo enclosures used to protect the trees and the yamabuki, or yellow kerria, planted at their base.[1] Drifting petals dividing the two groups offer a metaphor for impermanence, which in the Yoshiwara context might mean fleeting affairs as well as the transient celebrity of the courtesan. Both adult women are gorgeously attired. The beauty at the right wears a soft sash (kakaeobi) loosely tied over layers of pale robes. Her bright green overrobe is patterned with churning waves and autumnal maple leaves, a combination that alludes to classical poems on the Tatsuta River theme. Flanking her are a child attendant (kamuro) and teenage apprentice (shinzō), who glance back toward a second courtesan dazzlingly attired in a robe ablaze with propitious imagery, including auspicious Chinese characters, chrysanthemums (another autumn motif ), and an elaborately knotted obi studded with peacock feathers. Her bearing is erect and her feet are stepping into the courtesan's fancy processional gait—a back-and-forth series of eight twisting steps, complicated here by high clogs and heavy clothing. Might she not be a freshly minted Yoshiwara favorite, out to show up an older rival?

The relatively short, fleshy figures and wide hairstyles seen here characterize Shunman's work between the years 1781 and 1789.[2] For further observations on the fashions of this period, see Melinda Takeuchi's essay in this catalogue.

1. Seigle, Yoshiwara, 109.
2. Kobayashi, Azabu Bijutsu Kōgeikan (Azabu Museum of Arts and Crafts), 215.

John C. Weber Collection

Image © John Bigelow Taylor.