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Tayû Up, Tayû Down (Text and Photos by Peter Ujlaki)

This page has often testified to the happy frequency with which even casual collectors of Osaka prints can possess pieces that are extremely rare or even unique. This is partly due to the fact that the Osaka ukiyo-e market was miniscule compared with Edo's, and relatively few impressions were ever pulled for each design. On top of that, because kamigata-e seldom got carried out of Japan (or even out of Kansai), fires and wartime bombing raids have consumed an inordinate share of the already scant legacy.

Indeed, so thorough has the decimation been (the pioneer Osaka print scholar Matsudaira Susumu estimated a full 3/4 of all designs are lost to posterity) that — never mind unrecorded designs — evidence continues to come to light at this late date of unsuspected formats … and even new genres!

There's something about tayû

Distinct from the situation in Edo, nearly all known Osaka ôban beauty prints — rare items to begin with — depict common, approachable teahouse servers, the kind of pleasure quarter denizen that the average print buyer might actually have been acquainted with.

Interestingly, although accessible (and again, in contrast to Edo), such women were almost never portrayed in prints in dishabillé. Instead, Kansai prints tend to show this class very fully clothed, masquerading as historical or literary personages as part of their local entertainment district’s annual costume parade — see Daruma 48.

Fig. 1, in contrast, represents the opposite phenomenon. It is a full-size deluxe ôban print portraying an Osaka tayû. Recognizable by her oversized obi, numerous hair ornaments and tall geta, a tayû (called an ôiran in Edo) was the ne plus ultra of pleasure women, a creature so exalted that the typical brothel district client swooned at the thought of her refinement and artistic accomplishments — and her cost. An evening's experience with a tayû was totally unattainable to any but the wealthiest or best-placed.

Fig. 1 shows Shozan-dayû from the Higashi Ôgiya establishment in the Shinmachi district of Osaka, wearing her extraordinarily lavish everyday work attire. She is out for a stroll, kept from teetering on her lofty, almost stilt-like clogs by her young assistants, Rikimatsu and Miha.

Tayû up, tayû down

This kind of composition may not seem so unique to Edo ukiyo-e collectors, but oban prints of tayû are all but unknown in Kansai.

The sheet features the artist’s signature "Yabutora." The only other tayû print I have seen is unsigned, but bears the same seal with the characters "Senri" inside a fan (ôgi). Apparently, Ogiya Risuke, the proprietor of this firm — more of a book dealer than a print publisher — was also a celebrated poet whose pen name was Senritei Yabutora (act. 1818-30).

In addition to the two tayû images, Senri produced a small handful of other ôban beauty prints. Signed "Kikyô," they showcase courtesans and are also very beautifully executed.

Tayû fig. 1
Fig. 1

In other words, one gentleman may have been single-handedly responsible for the small but extremely elegant genre of Osaka prints of high-level courtesans, a distinctive grouping that stands well apart from other Osaka bijin-ga.

Clearly, here was a man intimately and hopelessly tied up with tayû and other expensively-ranked entertainers. Such a passion would have bankrupted even a rich Osaka merchant—think of the fees per hour for socializing, on top of the cost of producing deluxe prints in the women’s honor — but the grand folly of this spendthrift in the 1820s is something for which today's collectors of Osaka prints can be exceedingly thankful.

This article originally appeared in Daruma, no. 50, Spring 2006. Copyrighted © text and pictures reprinted with permission.

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