Suzuki Harunobu (1725?–1770)
Saigyō Hōshi Praying to a Bijin on a White Elephant
Japan, Edo period (1615–1868), c. 1766
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of James A. Michener, 1970
(15554)

At the top of this print, on view in Tongue in Cheek: Erotic Art in 19th-Century Japan through March 9, Harunobu inscribes two haiku poems by the monk Saigyō (1118–1190). In a section of his text Collection of Selected Tales (Senjūshō), which later inspired the Nō play Eguchi, Saigyō explains the context. He was travelling through the village of Eguchi in modern-day Niigata Prefecture, and when a torrential rainstorm suddenly began, he knocked on the door of a brothel and asked for shelter. The courtesan who answered the door, perhaps doubting his intentions, refused to let him in. The first poem is Saigyō’s complaint to her:

You’d never bring yourself / to hate and forsake this world / no matter how I plead… / Yet, how can you begrudge / to lend a temporary shelter?
(yo no naka wo / itou made koso / katakarame / kari no yadori wo / oshimu kimi kana)

The second poem is the witty, cold-hearted reply of the courtesan, who obviously still mistrusts the monk:

Knowing you are someone / who has forsaken this world, / I naturally thought / you would not be concerned / with this temporary shelter.
(yo o itou / hito to shi kikeba / kari no yado / kokoro ni tomuna to / omou bakari zo)

While the inscriptions by themselves make the meaning of this print challenging, Harunobu adds yet another level of interpretation by depicting the woman astride a white elephant. Such iconography conflates the courtesan with Samantabhadra Bodhisattva (Japanese: Fugen bosatsu), who, along with Shakyamuni Buddha and Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva (Japanese: Monju bosatsu) forms the revered Shakyamuni trinity. Rather than a lost soul in need of spiritual salvation, the artist depicts the prostitute as far more enlightened than the priest himself.

—Stephen Salel, Robert F. Lange Foundation Assistant Curator of Japanese Art