Shirabyōshi Dancer in a Boat (Asazuma-bune)

Color woodblock print: ōban yoko-e,10 x 14⅞ in. (37.8 x 25.7 cm); circa 1832
Untitled series of ten landscapes
Signed: Kōchōrō Kunisada ga
Censor’s seal: kiwame (approved)
Publisher: Yamaguchiya Tōbei (Kinkōdō)

A woman dressed in the costume of a shirabyōshi dancer raises a folding fan as she sits in a boat beneath a willow tree on the Asazuma inlet of Lake Biwa, to the northeast of Kyoto. Shirabyōshi were originally Japanese female entertainers in the Heian and Kamakura periods, who sang songs and performed dances. They danced dressed as men in clothing based on court hunting outfits of the time and were celebrated even in classical poetry. But by the early Edo period, the term had become synonymous with a cheap type of boat prostitute available on the lakeshore.

One of the most famous of the images created by the early Edo painter Hanabusa Itchō was a painting of a woman dressed in a shirabyōshi costume sitting in a boat under a willow tree. The shogunal authorities took this as a lampoon of the fifth shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646–1709), who had a penchant for playing the drum and singing nagauta (recitative chanting) with his concubine, Oden no Kata, in a boat on the Fukiage Park in Edo; the episode led to Itchō’s exile to the island of Izu Miyakejima. Forgiven some years later, upon his return to Edo Itchō modified the image to a boat prostitute dressed in a gold court hat and court hunting robe and holding a fan and a drum. Versions of the painting became conventionalized through the numerous picture books published during Itchō’s lifetime and after his death. Many later ukiyo-e painters made their own versions of the image.

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