Tenuguikake no kihan (Returning Sail at the Towel Rack)

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Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770), Tenuguikake no kihan (Returning Sail at the Towel Rack), no date [ca. 1768]. Nishiki-e (Color woodblock print). From the series: Fûryû zashiki hakkei (Eight Fashionable Parlor Views). Purchased with funds from the Friends of the Princeton University Library in honor of Gillett Griffin.
Graphic Arts Collection GA 2008.01060

Why is the young woman in Harunobu’s print using tweezers to pluck hairs from her lover’s ear or nose? This is what we wanted to know as the print was being studied today.

We know the artist is associated with the early development of nishiki-e (full color woodblock prints). It was Harunobu who made nishiki-e popular and took the craft of Japanese woodblock printmaking to new heights. Within a few years, he used the new palette to create one of his most popular series, the Eight Fashionable Parlor Views or Fûryû zashiki hakkei.

The series is based on the Chinese model of the Shōshō hakkei (Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers). Originally, the eight views were a group of poetic episodes that captured the natural beauty of specific scenes while evoking emotional reactions. The model was appropriated by Japanese artists in the early seventeenth century, who created many variations on the theme based on indigenous geographical areas, such as Ômi, Kanazawa, and Edo.

In this parody, Harunobu playfully replaces the traditional landscape view with an interior scene of an Edo pleasure house featuring a courtesan and her patron. At the top of the sheet, in the cloud-shaped register, we find the corresponding poem filled with innuendo: “The boat over there with sails / swelling to the front / Is it coming to the harbor? / Ah yes it is coming in.”

We understand the sails are reflected in the billowing towel in its rack. The sea is represented in the screen painting to the left. An intimate moment is being shared as we wait expectantly for the boat to reach the harbor and come in. But what is the significance of the courtesan plucking a whisker from the man’s face, not once but seen a second time in the mirror’s reflection? We are still searching for that sexual metaphor.

See also: Chris Uhlenbeck and Margarita Winkel, Japanese Erotic Fantasies: Sexual Imagery of the Edo Period (Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2005); plate 18. Marquand Library Oversize NE1321.85.S58 U34 2005q

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Since his left hand is "down below", maybe it is a reference to being "shaved".
What does the writing at the top mean?