Kubo Shunman
The Poetess Ono no Komachi

Signed: Kubo Shunman ga and kakihan; Red seals: Ka hori (“the engraver Ka”), and Iomaru (a poet, who probably commissioned the design); egoyomi (for the year 1792), surimono, 8.7 x 13.5 cm; nishiki-e with karazuri

From an egoyomi for the year 1792 Ono no Komachi, the famous 9th century poet is washing an old manuscript in which the envious poet Otomo no Kuronushi had surreptitiously included one of her poems, in order to later charge her with plagiarism. The old ink is retained while the fresh ink used by the swindler is washed out. The poem in question is at the top: “No one ever planted it – / From which seeds does the seagrass germinate, / that abundantly flourishes on the crests of waves?“

Provenance: Bing; F. Tikotin; Janette Ostier, Paris (January 1963)
Riese Collection #50

In one of the seven celebrated incidents in the life of the poetess Komachi, a male rival accused her of plagiarism during a poetry contest. To prove her assertion, he produced an ancient manuscript with her poem inscribed at the end. Her accuser had overheard her reciting her poem the previous day and realising that he had no chance of bettering it, inscribed it in the manuscript himself to discredit her. When the accusation had been made, Komachi asked to examine the manuscript. Without another word she asked for a basin of water, and to everyone’s surprise plunged the book into it. The old ink held, but the new ink ran, exposing the fraud, and the poetess was vindicated. In this print the short months of the year 1792 are concealed in the poem by Komachi written above. True to the spirit of the story, they are printed in a darker ink than the rest of the verse.

The Japanese lunar calendar was regulated by a government office which fixed the sequence of long and short months every year, and the publication of almanacs listing this information was a government monopoly. As early as the 1720s, however, prints had begun to appear in which the numbers for the long and short months were cleverly concealed in the design. This pastime became an art in the 1760s when a group of poets commissioned Harunobu and other artists to design calendar prints using the full repertoire of techniques of colour printing. The vogue for the extravagantly beautiful calendar print, or e-goyomi, as they were known in Japanese, was short lived, spanning the years 1765-1766, but the popularity of the calendar print did not abate, and hundreds of designs, most of them in tiny formats such as this one, appeared until the turn of the century, gradually being replaced by the equally elaborate, equally refined, and equally allusive surimono of the early 1800s.

Reproduced in: Cent Estampes Japonaises. Galerie Janette Ostier, 1965, no. 64g.
Ingelheim catalogue, no. 45b.