The Wrestler Tanikaze Kajinosuke and the Waitress Naniwaya Okita (Tanikaze Naniwaya Okita)

Color woodblock print: ōban tate-e, 14⅞ x 9¾ in. (32.7 x 22.5 cm); 1793–94, Signed: Shunchō ga, Publisher: Tsuruya Kiemon, Provenance: Heinrich Tiedemann; Walter von Scheven

Shunchō had an active career that was relatively short. He graduated from the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō around 1780, but not liking theater prints, the main staple of the Katsukawa School, he was quickly drawn to the tall, slender figures portrayed by Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815). Shunchō’s woodblock prints, especially his triptychs from the mid-1780s in the Kiyonaga style, are justly famous. Together with the publisher Tsuruya Kiemon in the early 1790s, Shunchō produced numerous large-head portraits of courtesans, geisha, and leading beauties, often set against yellow backgrounds, such as the present example.

In November 1789, after a dearth of grand champions that had lasted for over forty years, the reigning sumo authorities decided to bestow the rank of yokozuna (grand champion), on not one, but two, of the leading sumo wrestlers of the period, Tanikaze Kajinosuke and Onogawa. They were the first living wrestlers to achieve this rank, and the occasion was only the fourth and fifth time that the honor itself had been awarded. The two wrestlers became part of Edo’s celebrity culture, often portrayed in prints in everyday life situations, rather than in the ring itself. All the major artists of the time made images of them being entertained by geisha and courtesans, and in street scenes wearing fashionable, boldly patterned cotton robes (yukata), as well as during their wrestling matches.

Here, Shunchō has pictured the giant Tanikaze alongside Naniwaya Okita, one of the leading “billboard girls” (Kanban musume) of the period. Okita was a waitress at a teahouse (mizujaya) known as the Naniwaya, located in Asakusa, one of Edo’s liveliest districts at that time. Such teahouses served hot tea and provided a stylish atmosphere for a rest during excursions to one of the nearby temples or famous sightseeing spots. Neither a geisha nor a courtesan, Okita was a townsman’s daughter, and was well known for her wit and good humor, as well as for her beauty. Shunchō portrays her wearing a black translucent cotton kimono woven with an ikat design, a simple fabric that came into fashion following the sumptuary edicts of the early 1790s.

The artist also made a companion print depicting Tanikaze’s rival Onogawa alongside Ohisa, the eldest daughter of Takashima Chōbei of Ryōgoku in Edo, an official purveyor of Japanese rice crackers (sembei) to the shogunate, who was Okita’s principal competition for Edo’s affections. Both prints are very rare, with two other examples of the present design known, one housed in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the other a heavily trimmed copy formerly in the collection of Lawrence Bickford.1 The companion print is also known in three impressions.

  1. Christie’s New York. 1994. The Lawrence Bickford Collection of Japanese Wrestler Prints. Auct. Cat. (New York: Christie’s, Manson & Wood International, Inc.), lot 40.
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