Yoshitoshi’s Personal Encounters with the Supernatural

One of the most interesting (and last) ukiyo-e artists from the Edo period (1600-1867) of Japanese history, is Yoshitoshi. He’s actually pretty famous for his gory pictures (some of which are featured in recent books by Hatsumi) but these represent only a small fraction of his large, diverse catalog of paintings and prints.

Toward the end of his life, Kuniyoshi (Yoshitoshi’s teacher) was commissioned by the Okomoto family to paint a votive picture for the Sensou Temple in Edo. As his subject he chose the Hag of Adachigahara, an old woman who murdered her visitors to her lonely house on the moors. (Both Kuniyoshi and Yoshitoshi produced several designs of this memorably cruel figure.) A few weeks after the painting was dedicated, Kuniyoshi was persuaded to attend a play about the Hag, but became sick and turned back. Before he could reach home an earthquake struck Edo (the catastrophic Ansei earthquake of 1855), causing great damage and loss of life. Kuniyoshi was unhurt but badly shaken, and when he finally arrived home his household had given him up for lost. The Okomoto family were all killed in their house. Kuniyoshi was profoundly disturbed by the Okomotos’ fate and blamed it on bad luck associated with the Adachigahara story. Presumably the event reinforced any superstitious inclinations among the students living with Kuniyoshi, including Yoshitoshi, then an impressionable sixteen-year-old.

In 1871, Yoshitoshi traveled to Oiso, south of Tokyo, on a sketching trip with some of his students. On the way home they decided to spend the night at one of their favorite haunts in the lower-class pleasure quarters of Shinagawa. Yoshitoshi’s room was on the second floor; outside his door was a narrow staircase leading down to the main hall. When everyone had settled down for the night and the household was beginning to sleep, slow footsteps were heard climbing the ladder. One of the little kamurou, child attendants of the prostitutes, screamed. Yoshitoshi rushed to the head of the ladder and saw the figure of a pitifully thin woman. He backed away; she disappeared. The next day he learned that some years earlier a woman, trapped in her bitter life, had committed suicide in the room where he had stayed, and that many people who slept there saw her ghost. He later painted an image on silk of the apparition, who beckons to a customer in a parody of the agaru gesture of invitation (agaru means literally to ascend, and by extension to sleep with a prostitute). Less than fourty paintings by Yoshitoshi have survived, along with many forgeries; that three paintings, illustrated here, are of ghosts suggest the importance of the subject to Yoshitoshi. The incident in the brothel unsettled him and may have pushed him toward his temporary breakdown soon after.

–Stevenson, John. Yoshitoshi’s Strange Tales. Amsterdam: Hotei, 2005; (pp. 11-12).

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