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Corners of a Bento Box

Posted on by Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Our wonderful Research Associate in the Department of Japanese and Korean Art, Yuiko Kimura, has lent her wisdom and wits to The Bubbler. We know you’ll enjoy her writing as much as we do!

“Picking the corners of a bento (lunch) box” (jñbako no sumi wo tsutsuku) is a Japanese proverb that refers to the obsession with small details…

Typically it’s used to deride people who always find flaws in details while ignoring the whole picture, such as a fastidious micromanager or a nagging mother-in-law. With ukiyo-e, however, focusing on smallest details can be highly rewarding. Mass-produced and inexpensive ukiyo-e prints were meant for the common people in the Edo period (1615–1868). The designers, in an effort to make the images informative and relatable to a potential buyer, consciously included small facts and features about the subject matter. Although these details may contribute little to the visual impact of the whole design, they contain a great deal of information about the people and life at that time, and even reveal secrets of the artists. So, let’s pick the corners of a ukiyo-e lunch box with me! You’re going to get a taste for it. There is a quiz at the end.

Who is the man in the center?

Utagawa Hiroshige, 1797­–1858, No.1: Nihonbashi. From the series “Fifty-three Stations of the Tøkaidø Road, 1847–52.” Gift of Louis W. Hill, Jr., 81.133.111

For the first print from one of his Tøkaidø series, Hiroshige depicted here a scene at Nihonbashi, the starting point of the highway. In English, “the bridge of Japan,” Nihonbashi was the heart of Edo (today’s Tokyo), which reached a population of one million by the early 18th century. Spanning one of the canals forming an extensive shipping network within and beyond the city, the bridge was the busy center of commerce. Retailers had their distribution warehouses on the riverbank near the bridge (the white-walled buildings in this print). Edoites, whose vast majority comprised merchants, crossed Nihonbashi several times a day, thus causing heavy traffic from dawn until dusk.

This is one of my favorite prints partly because it reminds me of Tokyo. Despite the 160-year difference between my time and Hiroshige’s, the print conveys the metropolitan bustle and the comfort of being anonymous that only a sizable city can offer. Because there are so many details I can pick and dig in this print. Hiroshige depicted 27 people from all walks of life on the bridge—men and women, young and old, ranging from a shop boy bearing a bundle on his back to a group of samurai accompanied by a standard-bearer. Carrying shallow buckets suspended from shoulder poles are fishmongers, who have visited the fish market located on the northeast side of the bridge, just beyond the picture’s bottom edge (see a depiction here).

While everybody is actively heading for his or her destination, the man with a shaved head standing in the center of the bridge seems not to be moving. Instead, he is leisurely looking up the sky. I wonder what he is doing. Some passers-by are looking at and seemingly wondering about him. Is there anything interesting in the sky? Who is he? Why is he here? What did Hiroshige try to tell us? While I was thinking about this mysterious man, I encountered a portrait print of Hiroshige by Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864). Published in 1858, the print was made to commemorate Hiroshige’s death. In this portrait, Hiroshige is shown with his head shaved like the man in the center of this print. Does this mean the mysterious man is Hiroshige himself? Did the artist make a cameo appearance in this print?

While some believe Hiroshige hadn’t shaved his head until his 60th birthday(1), years after this print was made, another record notes that it actually happened in the mid-1830s, a little before the print’s release date(2). Besides Buddhist monks, highly accomplished individuals in certain professions in Hiroshige’s time, such as doctors, painters, and poets, often took the tonsure as a symbol of their deep devotion to the profession. By the 1840s, having published several successful series, Hiroshige had already reached this level of achievement—so it wouldn’t be unreasonable if he represented himself as a monk in his design. And if the mysterious man in this print were indeed Hiroshige himself, why is he looking up at the sky? He may be simply enjoying a sunny day in his beloved city, or thinking about his next trip along the Tøkaidø Road or one of the other highways that start from this bridge. After all, Hiroshige achieved his mastery of landscape by provoking in viewers a desire to travel.

1. Saitø Gesshin, Dainihon kokiroku: Saitø Gesshin nikki  (Historical Records of Japan: Saitø Gesshin’s Dairy), vol. 6, ed. by Tokyo Daigaku Shiryø Hensanjo. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2007.

2. Sekine Mokuan, Honchø Ukiyo Gajin Den (Biographies of Ukiyo-e Artists in Japan), vol. 2. 1899.

Quiz

At the lower right, two men are carrying a cask emblazoned with geometric patterns. Which of the following does the cask contain?

a) soy sauce

b) sake

c) rice

Answer

b) sake

The geometric patterns on the cask comprised the trademark of the sake brewing company Kenbishi(3). Located in the Settu province (modern day’s Osaka), the epicenter of pre-modern sake brewing, Kenbishi has been known as a maker of high-quality sake since the 16th century. Compared to other sake produced in Osaka in the Edo Period (1615–1868), Kenbishi’s product was deemed fine enough to be worthy of shoguns. Kenbishi brewery is still in business in Hyøgo prefecture, continuing to produce high quality sake.

3. Noriko Yamamoto, catalogue entry in Worldly Pleasures, Earthly Delights—Japanese Prints from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 271. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2011.

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