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Class Conscious Ukiyo-e

(Text and Photos by Peter Ujlaki)

Shi-no-ko-sho fig. 1
Fig. 1


The hierarchy of social classes in Edo period Japan was notoriously rigid. Perched at the top of the pyramid, with a quiver of special rights, were the samurai (bushi). In theory, this "warfare class" deserved its position of honor because in the samurais’ hands lay the ultimate responsibility for safeguarding the nation.

On the next rung down the status ladder were placed the farmers (nômin), whose toil resulted in there being enough rice to feed the population. The peasants relatively exalted official status presumably made them feel better about their miserably over-burdened lot in life.

Under the farmers in rank were gathered the artisans (shokunin), people who also produced things with their hands and thus needed to be acknowledged for their contribution to the commonweal

Class dismissed

And finally, lower than everyone (except those considered outside the system, like untouchables, convicted criminals and prostitutes), was the merchant class (shônin) Never mind that it was these folk who made the economy function, such people followed unsavory pursuits like money-lending and speculation, along with the less suspect but equally intangible work like trading and shop-keeping

In a largely mercantile city like Osaka, much of the feudal governance consisted in enforcing sumptuary laws to keep the increasingly wealthy shônin — the class also included anyone who worked for merchants, such as shop assistants and domestic servants — in their place. Rules dictated what they could wear and the design of their house, and, during one infamous austerity campaign, even proscribed kabuki woodblock prints as a frivolous luxury!

All this is relevant to appreciating a tetraptych by Shigeharu (1803-53), an Osaka artist already familiar to followers of this page. The main title on the far right, Yakusha mitate haru no yuki koi, merely states the obvious: a passel of leading actors are enjoying the auspicious first sunrise of the year (1831?) — a custom practiced by Japanese to this day.

The arrangement of the eight actors follows a complex sequence (from right to left) based on prominence and seniority, with perennial superstar Nakamura Utaemon III (1778-1838) leading the parade. Similarly meaningful are the actors' outfits, recalling signature roles and replete with symbols associated with that celebrity. A game could be played seeking out evidence of assorted New Year’s rituals, and one could also try to sleuth out the publisher’s name ("Where’s Waldo?") and that of the print carver. (Hint: The latter is hidden in a rebus in the trailing obi of Sawamura Kunitaro II — fifth actor from right, d. 1836).

Beyond this, however, something altogether different is being referenced, a factor which places this work in a very unique category. In the discs in the upper left corner of each sheet are the characters "shi-nô-kô-shô." the shorthand set phrase for the 4-tiered class system spelled out above (with standing in for shoku).

Ukiyo-e publishers frequently reached into their culture's deep grab-bag to come up with set phrases by which to label individual sheets in a print series. Pine/bamboo/plum (shô-chiku-bai) was popular for assigning to a triad of prints, for example. And equally handy was flower/bird/wind/moon (ka-chô-fû-getsu) for four items. Also available for charming appropriation were "five classical elements," "six immortal poets," and so on.

Too clever by half?

Shinôkôshô, however, was a chô of a different feather; a well-known phrase, yes, but one more steeped in politics than cultural aesthetics. For openers — we have to imagine the publisher hiring an outside marketing genius who preached edginess — its appearance on a print could easily smack of social criticism. Maybe most townsmen were fine with their lowly official status, and found it merely laughable. But note how all the disks just happen to be originating from within the compound of Osaka Castle, the symbol of the Shogunal regime in that city, as if indicating where to direct the ridicule (or resentment). Surely even the authorities knew that in an ukiyo-e print nothing is positioned at random.

To complicate matters, as every print-buyer was aware, the class of actors itself fell altogether off the Shinôkôshô chart”. Rich and adored though they might be, their designation was hinin (outcasts), or kawaramono (dry riverbed people), a rubric they were obliged to share (perhaps proudly) with prostitutes and wandering minstrels.

In the event, the conceit of labeling quartets of prints with shi-nô-kô-shô never caught on in Osaka. (In Edo, perhaps out of superstitiousness toward the unlucky number 4, tetraptychs were rare to begin with.) No other oban example comes to mind and, for whatever reason, complete impressions — and even individual sheets — of the Shigeharu design are next to unknown. Government intervention? Poor Waldo. Market-place indifference? Fire the genius. Ah, the pleasures of speculation!

This article originally appeared in Daruma, no. 55, Summer 2007. Copyrighted © text and pictures reprinted with permission.

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