Kappazuri-e: Kyoto was the main center of activity for the production of kappazuri-e (stencil prints, literally, "oil-skin prints": 合羽摺絵), with a tradition spanning close to a century. Prints of teahouse women and courtesans represented one important aspect of this genre, although they amounted to only a small fraction of the total output—among these were the Gion nerimono-e of Kyoto (see references below). Far more common were actor prints (yakusha-e: 役者絵). The present example represents yet another category, namely, legendary figures from Japan's colorful history.
Once abundant throughout western Japan (Kansai), kappazuri-e were often printed quickly and in small and cheap editions on thin paper, with fugitive pigments (generally more transparent than those used in nishiki-e — "brocade prints" or full-color prints, 浮世絵), which were brushed through stencils after woodblocks were used to stake out the keyblock lines. It was only in Kyoto that kappazuri-e maintained fairly high widespread standards and enjoyed a measure of respect up to the midpoint of the nineteenth century.
Sadly, almost all stencil prints have perished over time, due to the delicacy of the paper, their generally small size, and the relatively low esteem in which they have been held when compared with nishiki-e (though they, too, were too often neglected). The vast majority of stencil-print designs are now very difficult to find, regardless of condition.
Historical Background: Sugawara no Michizane (845-903: 菅原道真), also known as Kan Shôjô (菅丞相), Kanke (菅家), and Tenman-Tenjin (天満天神, often shortened to Tenjin, 天神), was a celebrated scholar, poet, statesman, and calligrapher who ran afoul of the ruling Fujiwara (one of the four great clans of Japan, the others being the Tachibana, Minamoto, and Taira). In particular, his nemesis was Fujiwara no Tokihira (藤原時平, 871-909). As a result of political maneuverings by Fujiwara no Tokihira, Michizane was demoted from his aristocratic rank to a minor official post at Dazaifu in Kyushu's Chikuzen Province. Sugawara died in exile in 903, whereupon plague and drought soon spread across the land, and the sons of Emperor Daigo died in quick succession. Michizane was posthumously restored to his title and then deified as a tenjin or "heavenly deity" (天神) when the Imperial court during the reign of Emperor Ichijô (一条 980-1011; r. 986-1011) built and dedicated to him a Shinto shrine in 986 called Kitano Tenmangû (北野天満宮) in Kyoto (originally the site of a shrine dedicated to the God of Thunder). Subsequently, thousands of other Shinto shrines throughout Japan were and continue to be dedicated to Michizane.
Today, Michizane is best known as the god of scholarship or learning, Tenman Tenjin (天満天神). His poetry, both waka (Japanese-style poem: 和歌) and especially kanshi (Chinese-style poem: 漢詩), were of the highest order. Rimer in his introduction (see ref. below) writes, "By common agreement even during his lifetime, Michizane was the most accomplished of the Japanese poets to compose in classical Chinese, fusing elegance of diction with highly personal and often emotionally sophisticated sentiments." Michizane (Tenjin) remains a popular god to this day. Paintings of him are hung in homes across the country, and students from all over Japan visit his shrines to pray for luck on their school examinations.
One of the most popular and still-performed plays enacts a drama surrounding Sugawara no Michizane. Titled Sugawara denju tenarai kagami (Mirror of learning & transmitting Sugawara's secrets of calligraphy: 菅原伝授手習鑑), which premiered in 8/1746 as a ningyô jôruri (puppet play: 人形淨瑠璃) at the Takemoto Theater, Osaka, the play is also considered one of the three great jidaimono (history plays: 時代物) in bunraku and kabuki.
Michizane is frequently portrayed, as in our anonymous kappazuri-e, wearing the costume of a Chinese official or courtier, including a hat called a kanmuri (冠), which features a stiff upright element at the back and a long, more flexible trailing piece. (Often in these conventional portraits, Michizane also holds a branch of his beloved plum tree.) In this guise, Michizane is often called Totô Tenjin (deity who went to China: 渡唐天神), a journey he never undertook. When he was forty-nine, Michizane was indeed given the highest reward available, an opportunity to lead a diplomatic mission to the T'ang court; however, he declined the honor. The name Totô Tenjin identifies a theme based on the legend that Tenman Tenjin, the spirit of Michizane, went to China to pay a visit to the Song-dynasty Chan priest Wuzhun Shifan (1178-1249) on Mt. Jing.
The poem inscribed on the print is a waka composed by Sugawara, in which he seems to refer to either (or both) the Emperor Uda (宇多天皇, Uda-tennô, 866-931; r. 887-897), whom Sugawara supported in the conflict with the Fujiwara clan, and/or Emperor Daigo (醍醐天皇, Daigo-tennô, 885-930; r. 897-930), who gained the throne upon the abdication of his father Uda and did little to protect Sugawara from Fujiwara no Tokihira. The poem reads: Ware tanomu / hito wo munashiku / nasu naraba / Tenga shita nite / Na wo yanaka san (If my trusted person [Uda?] is treated with distain, I will act to make my name known to the world and reward him: 我たのむ 人をむなしく なすならば 天か下にて 名をやなかさん).
Unlike the vast majority of surviving kappazuri-e, this impression retains excellent color and is virtually untrimmed, a decidedly rare state of preservation. Moreover, its survival is unusual, as many of these Tenjin amulets were indeed made to endure rough treatment as good-luck charms.
- GPS: "The Gion Parade Stencil Prints." Ujlaki, Peter. In: Andon, no. 63, 1999, pp. 5-16.
- GNP: "Gion Nerimono Prints Revisited: The List." Ujlaki, Peter and Nakade, Akifumi. In: Andon, no. 75, 2003, pp. 5-48.
- Joly, Henri: Legend in Japanese Art: A Description of Historical Episodes, Legendary Characters, Folk-lore, Myths, Religious Symbolism Illustrated in the Arts of Old Japan. [originally London, John Lane pub., 1908] Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1967, pp. 502-504.
- Rimer, J. Thomas and Chaves, Jonathan (eds. and trans.): Japanese and Chinese Poems to Sing: The Wakan Rôei Shû. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, p. 7.