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Seduction: Japan's Floating World

Robe with willow tree and Chinese characters
Silk, paste resist- and stencil-dyed, silk, and couched gold thread embroidery.

The wearer of this eighteenth-century robe was enveloped in literary allusions and imagery related to spring. Slender willow branches twist upward as leafy shoots fan out to either side on the deep green ground. Costume designs of standing trees (tachi-ki) are thought by some scholars to derive from similar motifs found on imported Indo-European chintzes (sarasa).[1] Paste resist-dyed and hand-painted, the tree is here embellished with embroidery, including bold Chinese characters that float among the upper branches. The seven characters come from a poem in the "Early Spring" section of Japanese and Chinese Poems to Sing (Wakan rōei shū), an eleventh-century anthology.

ki harete wa kaze shinryu no kami o kushikezuri,
kori kiete wa nami kyutai no hige o arau

The weather clears, breezes comb the hair of the young willows; the ice is melting, wavelets wash the whiskers of the old bog moss.[2]

This robe was likely made for a woman of the merchant class, among whom costumes with calligraphic decoration were popular in the eighteenth century.3 Robes with embroidered phrases were also worn within the floating world, although there the sentiments expressed might be more likely to refer to a courtesan's beauty or her fickle nature (see figure above).[4]

As Melinda Takeuchi notes in her essay in this catalogue, the Moronobu scroll in the Weber Collection includes a woman with the word ukiyo (floating world) written on her sash.

Characters appearing on the robe (left to right):
Front: ki 気 (weather), ryu 柳 (willow), kushikezu-ri 梳 (to comb).
Back: hige 鬚 (whiskers), ha-rete 霽 (to clear), kaze 風 (wind), shin 新 (new)

1. Takeda, "Clothed in Words," 171.
2. Trans. Jonathan Chaves. The poem is by Miyako no Yoshika (834–879). Trede with Meech, Arts of Japan, 212.
3. Trede with Meech, Arts of Japan, 212.
4. Allen and Rinne, The Printer's Eye, 151, no. 4.

John C. Weber Collection

Image © John Bigelow Taylor.