Artist: Toyokuni III Utagawa (1786-1864)
Title: Three Fashionable Palanquin Bearers
Publisher: Otaya Tasuke
Size: (R) 25.2 x 35.7 (C) 25.2 x 35.8 (L) 25.2 x 35.8 cm
Condition: Backed. Minor spots on the white areas.
Edo city was a lively place constantly expanding. This period saw a growth in transport, triggered by the need to move from one corner of the city to another relatively fast, especially for merchants. Urban tradesmen such as hikyaku (express couriers) and kago-mago (palanquin bearers) were a major social group that wore tattoos as a distinctive mark of their trade. For ease of movement and because of Japan’s hot and humid climate during the summer months, they preferred discarding their clothes and wearing only a loincloth. Tattooing for them was an alternate means of concealing and adorning their bodies. Many foreigners who visited Japan after it reopened trade with the West enjoyed the spectacle of being carried around in a palanquin and took home photographs of palanquin bearers as souvenirs.
In this print, Toyokuni III portrays three kabuki actors as palanquin bearers in a popular play of the day. From left to right, the actors Ichikawa Kodanji, Kawarasaki Gonjuro and Nakamura Fukusuke are part of a mitate (parody) in the kabuki dance performance ‘The Returning Palanquin’. In the play, two palanquin bearers Azuma no Yoshiro (born in Edo) and Naniwa no Jirosaku (born in Osaka ) brag about the pleasure quarters of their hometowns while they carry the apprentice geisha Tayori (from Kyoto). They stop to rest in Murasakino in Kyoto where a field of yellow rapeseed and cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Then they call out the kamuro apprentice from the palanquin and talk about pleasure quarters in Kyoto, Osaka and Edo. Finally, however, the men retrieve objects concealed in each other’s breast pocket, revealing their true identities. The objects are a precious incense burner, and a scroll of names of those who are plotting against the government. Suddenly both bearers realise that in fact they are the thief Ishikawa Goemon (Edo hero) and the general Masashiba Hisayoshi (Osaka hero), two sworn enemies. They start to fight, but Tayori manages to separate them.