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Utamakura 歌まくら (Poem of the Pillow)

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Title (series)

    • Utamakura 歌まくら (Poem of the Pillow)
  • Description

    Shunga, colour woodblock print. No. 1 out of 12 illustrations from a printed folding album (sheets mounted separately). A female diver for abalone shellfish (ama), seated on a rock, observes with a mix of horror and fascination as her companion is set upon and violated beneath the waves by two scaly river creatures called ‘kappa’. This opening image from the album establishes a mood of sexual fantasy, making complicit our own voyeurism.


  • Producer name

  • Culture/period

  • Date

    • 1788 (New Year, preface)
  • Production place

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 254 millimetres (Image)
    • Width: 368 millimetres (Image)
    • Height: 406 millimetres (Mount)
    • Width: 559 millimetres (Mount)
  • Curator's comments

    Asano and Clark 1995

    The title "Utamakura" (Poem of the Pillow), as well as being suggestive of intimacies of the bedroom, is also a term used to describe certain place-names used in classical literature which are full of poetic associations. Used in this sense, ‘utamakura’ is a term closely linked to ‘makura-kotoba’, stock poetic epithets that precede these place-names. Both ‘utamakura’ and ‘makura-kotoba’ are in fact amply used in the preface by Honjo no Shitsubuka (Profligate of Soggy Honjo), thought to be a name used by the ‘kibyoshi’ author and ‘kyoka’ poet Torai Sanna (1744-1810). Neither the name of the artist or the publisher appear in the album, but stylistically there is no doubt it is by Utamaro. In addition, the reference in the preface to the name of the album "coming close to the name of the artist" (gako no na ni yosete) confirms this. Many of the robes in the illustrations have a crest similar to the ivy-leaf trademark of Tsutaya Juzaburo, and the folding album format with dark blue covers is identical to that used for many of the ‘kyoka’ anthologies published by Tsutaya around this time.

    The style and content of ‘Utamakura’, published the same year as ‘Ehon mushi erabi’ (cat. no. 263), are unprecedented within the genre of ‘shunga’ (erotic pictures), as was appreciated early on by Edmond de Goncourt (1891, repr. 1904, p. 138). A world of fantasy is immediately established by the almost primordial scene in the opening illustration in which an abalone-diver is raped by scaly river-monsters (kappa), as her companion looks on in horror and fascination. Scenes of conjugal bliss and other suave scenarios more common to the genre are punctuated by certain extraordinary or exotic studies: the violence and pain of rape by a hairy assailant; an elderly, somewhat repulsively depicted Dutch couple in their foreign clothes. A degree of indiscipline, even wildness, in the arrangement of bodies is kept in check by the complex hierarchy of outlines, from the thichest calligraphic line used to suggest a bed-quilt, down to infinitesimally fine pubic hairs. Textile patterns are equally complex and skilfully cut.

    Two plates contain texts: no. 9, the rape scene, includes the exchange. "Let go of me Rihei, you old fool!" (Kono Rihei jijii-me yoshaagare), and "Save your words and just keep still" (Nan to iwarete mo ichiban shisai sureba yoi no ja); and the following, no. 10, the entwined lovers in the second-floor rooms of a tea-house, has a ‘kyoka’ poem by Yadoya no Meshimori inscribed on the man's fan: "Its beak caught firmly/In the clamshell/The snipe cannot fly away/Of an autumn evening (Hamaguri ni/hashi o shikka to/hasamarete/shigi tachi-kanuru/aki no yugure). Meshimori." The preface may be translated as follows:

    Loosening the sash of Yoshino River, forging a bond 'twixt Imo and Se mountains, spreading the skirts of Mount Tsukuba — thus do lovers plight their troth. Enveloping themselves in a screen of mist, spreading a quilt of flowers, reaching for a pillow... We hereby print pillow pictures in brocades of the East as a plaything of spring at court. With one glance the eye is startled, the heart throbs, the spirit leaps [Ide], pausing below the sash, pressing, pressing, entwining the legs like the reeds of Naniwa, from the jewel-comb box of Hakone onwards, it is akin to using the hips. Ah! Rather than some amateur at drawing, the brush of one who is skilled in the art of love, without pressing too hard, this is the way to move the hearts of men. And so, what name shall I give this volume? Why yes, likening it to a poem by Bishop Henjo, borrowing the title of a letter by Lady Sei, and even coming close to the name of the artist, I call it ‘Ehon utamakura’, Poem of the Pillow — a companion to awakening in spring perhaps. [Honjo no Shitsubuka (profligate of Soggy Honjo) First spring, 1788] 

    ‘Kokusho somokuroku’「 国書総目録」, vol. 1, Iwanami Shoten, Tokyo, 1963-72, 380.
    Hillier, Jack, ‘The Art of the Japanese Book’, Sotheby’s Publication, London, 1987, 414-6.
    Hayashi, Yoshikazu 林美一, ‘Edo makura-eshi shusei: Utamaro sei’「 江戸枕絵師集成 喜多川歌麿 正」,Tokyo, Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 1990, 84-86, 235-249.
    Clark, Timothy. "Utamakura — Utamaro no higa-cho"『歌まくら—歌麿の秘画帖』, in ‘Ukiyo-e hizo meihin shu’「浮世絵秘蔵名品集」, vol. 1, 14-23, ii-vi. Tokyo, Gakushu Kenkyusha, 1991.
    Hayashi, Yoshikazu 林美一, ‘Utamaro: Le Chant de la Volupte’, Translated by Jacques Levy. Aries, Editions Philippe Picquier, 1992, 49-64.

    Other copies:
    Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

    [Main text translated in Japanese below / 以下上記本文日本語訳]

    浅野/クラーク 1995



    「蛤にはし(嘴)をしっかとはさまれて 鴫立ちかぬる秋の夕ぐれ 飯盛」

    天あきらけき 八ツのはつはる
    本所のしつ深題This is the first major erotic work by Utamaro, a folding album with a preface followed by twelve colour-printed illustrations and two erotic stories. A wide variety of scenarios and protagonists are presented: young lovers, married couples, townspeople and samurai, sex workers and ordinary types, a middle-aged woman seducing a youth, a widow, a secret lover, a rape. The album begins with mythological river creatures called kappa seizing a female diver and ends with exotic Europeans. There is a clear ambition to show as many different kinds of coupling as possible, which has the effect of emphasizing the universality of sex. Two erotic stories at the end of the album extend the range even further, with scenarios difficult to portray in pictures presented in texts and vocal exclamations. The first describes the fantasies of a young man who dreams of a tryst with the girl next door. In the second, women isolated on the fabled ‘Isle of Women’ (Nyogo-ga-shima), thought to be located in the ocean to the south, get satisfaction by exposing themselves to the southern breezes. On the fan in picture ten is inscribed a verse by the comic kyo-ka poet Yadoya no Meshimori (1753–1830): ‘Its beak caught firmly / in the clam shell / the snipe cannot fly away / on an autumn evening’ (‘Hamaguri ni / hashi o shikka to / hasamarete / shigi tachikanuru / aki no yu-gure’). The same verse also appears in volume five of the anthology Kyo-ka saizoshu-, published by Tsutaya in 1787. It gives a new spin to one of three famous classical poems on autumn themes in the imperial anthology Shin kokin waka shu- (1205), by the monk Saigyo- (1118–90), which ends with the lines ‘… snipe fly from the marsh / on an autumn evening’ (‘… shigi tatsu sawa no / aki no yu-gure’). Taking the fable of the battle between the clam and the snipe from the Chinese Han-period chronicle Zhanguoce, Yance (J. Sengokusaku, Ensaku), it comically depicts the travails of the snipe with its beak caught in the clam shell that it was trying to eat, likening this to the lovers soon to be locked in sexual coupling. The composition is memorable for the softness of the woman’s ear and the line of her nape, the delicate hand gestures and dynamic, flowing lines of the drapery. And thanks to the verse we get the additional dimension of actions unfolding in time. The sense of seduction expressed through the woman’s fingers and her entwining leg is countered by the cool gaze of the man’s one visible eye, as he looks back at her. He may be the snipe, but also perhaps the fisherman of the story who is able to capture both the battling snipe and clam. So intricately are poem and picture intertwined that maybe Utamaro even got the idea for the picture in the first place from reading the verse. The name of the publisher does not appear in the album; however, as previous scholars have suggested, there is strong evidence to suggest Tsutaya Ju-zaburo-; he was the first to discover Utamaro’s talent and was beginning to publish similar luxurious colour-printed books and albums around this time. The preface is signed by one Honjo no Shitsubuka (‘Profligate of Soggy Honjo’) who, in the past, has been identified by the scholar Shibui Kiyoshi and others as the author of popular literature To-rai Sanna (1744–1810).1 However, this relied on the assumption, now discredited, that Sanna and Shimizu Enju- (?1726–86) were one and the same person. Also, the style of the calligraphy is different from the preface written by Sanna for Tokoyogusa of 1784 by Kitao Masanobu (1761–1816).2 The calligraphy of the preface to Utamakura is in the same style as the preface for Utamaro’s kyo-ka illustrated book Shiohi no tsuto of 1789. The distinctive manner of writing the ‘no’ character with such a round shape is unique to the writer Akera Kanko- (1738–98) and his followers. It may not be possible yet to conclude that the preface was written by the same ‘Chieda’ who did the calligraphy for Shiohi no tsuto. However, it can be proposed that the preface for Utamakura was probably done by a member of the Tamagoto group of kyo-ka poets whowere pupils of Akera Kanko- and active in and around the Honjo district at this time. [KF]


  • Bibliography

    • Asano & Clark 1995 489 bibliographic details
    • Clark et al 2013 Cat. 48 bibliographic details
  • Location

    Not on display

  • Exhibition history

    2007 10 Oct-2008 28 Jan, London, Barbican Gallery, 'Seduced: Art and Sex'
    2010 22 Sep-14 Nov, Birmingham, Ikon Gallery, 'Kitagawa Utamaro'
    2011 14 Feb-14 Apr, London, BM, Japanese Galleries, 'Japan from prehistory to the present'
    2013 3 Oct - 2014 5 Jan, London, BM, Shunga: Sex and pleasure in Japanese art, 1600-1900

  • Subjects

  • Department


  • Registration number


Shunga, colour woodblock print. No. 1 out of 12 illustrations from a printed folding album (sheets mounted separately). Abalone-diver being raped by two kappas (river-monsters) as her companion looks on.


Shunga, colour woodblock print. No. 1 out of 12 illustrations from a printed folding album (sheets mounted separately). Abalone-diver being raped by two kappas (river-monsters) as her companion looks on.

Image description



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