Suzuki Harunobu, ‘Parodies of Hichobo and Urashima Taro’, ca. 1770, Scholten Japanese Art

each panel signed Harunobu ga, the right panel with publisher's tomoe mark and seal Nishimura (Nishimuraya Yohachi) of Eijudo, ca. 1770

hashira-e 12 5/8 by 5 1/2 in., 32.2 by 14.1 cm

The figures on both panels are mitate (parody) of classical legends. Although there are a number of possible references for the subject of the beauty on the right seated on a flying crane while holding a long letter, it is most likely a parody of the Chinese Immortal Fei Changfang (Hichobo in Japanese). According to the legend, Fei Chanfang was an official who learned the secret of immortality from an old man he found hiding inside a large jar. The story makes no reference to flying on a crane, however, cranes are associated with longevity and the first two syllables of his name in Japanese can mean 'flying bird' if written with different characters. Thus in a typical Japanese fashion the Chinese legend is appropriated and with a play on words given a new meaning.

The left panel depicting a young man holding a fishing pole and creel while riding on a large minogame (mythical tortoise) through the surf is a mitate of the legend of Urashima Taro. In the legend the fisherman Urashima Taro is invited to visit the palace of Ryujin, the Dragon King of the Sea, as a reward for rescuing a small tortoise that was actually Otohime, the beautiful daughter of the King. Although Urashima Taro is quite taken with the Princess, he stays for only three days before he requests to return home to his family. A minogame brings him back to his village, only to discover that hundreds of years have passed by and no one knows who he is. In despair, or distraction, he opens a box that Otohime had given him with a warning not to open it, and with a puff of smoke he instantly ages to become an ancient man.

Harunobu illustrated both of these legends associated with immortality on other prints; in some designs the Urashima Taro figure is depicted as a beauty. However, other impressions of this print have not yet been located. In this possibly unique pairing, the tortoiseshell pattern on the kimono of the beauty on the right subtly references the minogame depicted on the left. There is a similar hashira-e composition of the Urashima Taro design in the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago. This print likely dates to circa 1770, around the same time as Harunobu designed an untitled Omi Hakkei (Eight Famous Views) series which was also published by Nishimuraya Yohachi (Eijudo).

Image rights: Scholten Japanese Art

Publisher: Nishimuraya Yohachi

Margaret O. Gentles, The Clarence Buckingham Collection of Japanese Prints, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1965, p. 79, cat. no. 130 (similar Urashima Taro)
David Waterhouse, The Harunobu Decade, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2012, p. 130, cat. no. 184 (legend of Hichobo)

About Suzuki Harunobu

Japanese, 1725-1770, Tokyo (formerly Edo), Japan, based in Tokyo (formerly Edo), Japan