Fujiwara Sanekata's Obsession with Sparrows
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Fujiwara Sanekata's Obsession with Sparrows, 1890
Ink on Paper
14 1/2 in. x 9 13/16 in. (368.3 mm x 249.24 mm)
Note: XV (p.48-49) of "Yoshitoshi's Thirty-six Ghosts." Sanekata viewing sparrows: The poet Fujiwara Sanekata was exiled to the north of Japan for having argued with the Imperial Court calligrapher. Sanekata longed for the capital, and his thoughts turned to sparrows that flew to the Imperial Palace to report his distress. According to one story, the birds ate the Emperor's rice for revenge.
On mat, in pencil: Marer 447. Description on verso of mat. Artist's seal: Taiso. Signed: Yoshitoshi. Carver: Enkatsu to. Engraver: Enkatsu. Printed: 10 April 1890.
Colored ink woodblock on paper; oban.
Meiji period Japanese color woodblock print with an image of a man, sitting on the ground, watching birds fly above him.
Sanekata was a poet and high-ranking nobleman of the Fujiwara clan. He died in exile in 994. Toward the end of his political career, Sanekata quarrelled publicly with Fujiwara no Yukinari, a noted calligrapher. As punishment the emperor appointed Sanekata governor of Aomori in the far north of Honshu. This was on the very edge of the known world, and the posting was tantamount to lifelong banishment from the civilized capital of Kyoto. At his advanced age, Sanekata was not expected to return.
Sanekata endured the long journey north and assumed his duties. One day he noticed a flock of sparrows chirping happily in the weeds around his mansion. Lonely and miserable, he compared his lot with theirs, yearning to be as joyful and free from care. In the Noh play based on this story his implicit wish is granted and he becomes a sparrow, leaving the pain and weight of his duties behind him.
Two collections of old tales, the Kojidan and Fikkunsho, give a different story. As a successful poet, Sanekata had expected to be given an important position in the imperial archives. When this was denied him, he became extremely agitated. His thoughts were so highly charged with resentment that they turned him into sparrows, which flew away to the imperial palace and ate the rice off the emperor's table. Why this was considered an appropriate revenge is not clear, though the episode is similar to the tale of priest Raigo 25).
This second story conflicts with the popular concept of the sparrow as a symbol of gentleness. The sparrow has also come to represent loyalty in Japan, its chirping cry (chu-chu) sounding somewhat like the word for loyalty. Hokusai and Hiroshige depicted sparrows many times in their charming nature prints. A popular moral tale is "The Tongue-cut Sparrow," whose story is given as no. 36 of this series.
Though forgotten today, Sanekata was considered as great a poet as Ariwara Narihira (24) in his time. Two famous sanctuaries were dedicated at Kano Shrine, one to Narihira and one to Sanekata.
Yoshitoshi has reduced the design here to three distinct elements: the birds, the weeds, and the man. This simplification intensifies the impact of the print. Sanekata's face is a study in anguish. He has the wrinkled neck of an old man. His robes are torn, which cannot be meant to be taken literally and is presumably a convention to suggest his misery. In the original print, a subtle polished pattern enlivens the deep black of the robes, with embossing adding texture to the white undershirt.
Stevenson, John. Thirty-Six Ghosts. Hong Kong: Blue Tiger Books, 1992.
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