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VJP title
Utamaro print showing


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Mu Tamagawa
(Six Jewel Rivers: 六玉川)


Hiroshige mutamagawa 1 Mu Tamagawa ("Six Jewel Rivers," also "Six Crystal Rivers": 六玉川 or 六玉河) was a popular subject in ukiyo-e prints. It represented rivers in six provinces, each associated with classical poems:

  1. Ide (Hagi) no Tamagawa in Yamashiro
  2. Mishima (Tôi or Kinuta) no Tamagawa in Settsu
  3. Noji no Tamagawa in Omi
  4. Kôya no Tamagawa in Kii
  5. Chôfu no Tamagawa in Musashi
  6. Noda (Chidori) no Tamagawa in Mutsu.

The subject of Mu Tamagawa might have developed as a response to the building of the great aqueduct to draw water from the Tamagawa in Musashi, began in 1652 and completed in 1654, while the iconography of the six Tamagawa was possibly the result of creating decorations for Edo Castle to commemorate the project. It appears that the Mu Tamagawa were not popular subjects for painters, as only 2 or 3 paintings survive (one by Sumiyoshi Gukei, 1631-1706; a handscroll by Sakai Oho, 1808-41; and possibly some no longer extant wall paintings at Edo Castle by Kanô Tanyû, 1602-74).

In contrast, the six rivers were quite popular among Edo printmakers, as in the works of luminaries of the ukiyo-e school such as Suzuki Harunobu, Kubo Shunman (1757-1820), Kitagawa Utamaro, Katsushika Hokusai, and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). Their works include not only treatments of the subject as meisho-e ("pictures of famous places"), but also as allusion pictures (mitate-e) in which beautiful women (bijin) or courtesans were situated in a context related to the Mu Tamagawa. The Mu Tamagawa also appeared in works by performers of dance and song (for example, in the nagauta or "long-song" style).

The context of meisho-e should be explained further. Meisho, literally "place with a name," is a term often translated as "famous places" or "celebrated locations." The earliest known meisho-e were probably painted as a sub-genre of early yamato-e ("Japanese painting") and were first linked as well to shiki-e ("pictures of the four seasons") and tsukinami-e ("pictures of the twelve months"). Commonly found in the titles of ukiyo-e prints and series, the connotation implies a place with literary and historical attributes. There were standardized poetic associations as well, often more significant than the actual geographic or topological characteristics of the place. Seasonal associations were also important, and when linked to specific seasonal poems became the conventional time of year for depicting a famous site, even when that season would not present the site at its most beautiful.

The meisho of traditional views were most frequently linked to the old capitals of Nara and Kyoto, while the popular culture of Edo used the term for more immediate sights and locales (note especially Hiroshige's series Meisho Edo hyakkei or "One Hundred Famous Views of Edo"). By the Edo period (1603-1868) a distinction may have developed between meisho-e and the more traditionally bound shiki-e and tsukinami-e in which meisho-e tended to emphasize a public and specifically site-oriented expression (sometimes even political in nature), compared to the more private function of traditional pictures.

The print on the upper right is by Utagawa Hiroshige and depicts the Kinuta River. It bears the title Settsu Kinuta ("Fulling Block in Settsu Province") and is from the series Shokoku mu Tamagawa ("Six Jewel Rivers in the Provinces"), issued in 1857 by Marukyû (Maru-ya Kyûshirô), whose seal is in the lower left margin. The date seal (reading mi jûichi = snake 11) and aratame ("examined") censor seal are at the upper right. Hiroshige designed at least eight other prints on the Kinuta subject in addition to this evocative version.

Two women are cleaning and thickening layers of cloth with heavy wooden mallets as they sit by the Kinuta River below a full moon silhouetting flying geese. True to his Edo sensibility, Hiroshige shows us a famous and specific place, with a convincingly real physicality, but his atmospheric design also alludes to the poetic possibilities associated with a famous place. This is supported by the poem usually linked to the Kinuta theme, which is here inscribed at the upper right. It is by Minamoto no Toshiyori (c. 1055 - 1129) from the anthology Senzaishô (1187-88), and speaks of the "sighing" of the wind through the pine trees and the loneliness of autumn amplified by the sounds of beating cloth. Besides being the name of a river, kinuta also meant "fulling block," which was associated with a kind of attractive sadness and a reminder of the passing of the seasons, as well as with the loneliness of a woman separated from, or abandoned by, a husband or lover. The repetitive sound of the beating of the cloth echoed the monotony of separation and thus a woman's melancholic emotional state. This association had ancient antecedents, such as in verses by the Chinese T'ang poet Po Chü-i (772-846), who was well-known to educated Japanese; in the early eleventh century masterpiece Genji monogatari ("Tale of Genji") by Murasaki Shikibû (dates uncertain); or in Japanese verse anthologies such as the Shinkokin wakashû ("New Collection of Ancient and Modern Poems," 1205).

Hiroshige mutamagawa 2A second example by Hiroshige of the Kinuta subject is shown on the left. It is titled Settsu tôi no Tamagawa ("Fulling Block, Jewel River, Settsu Province") and the series has the same title as the previous example, Shokoku mu Tamagawa ("Six Jewel Rivers in the Provinces"). This horizontal format version was published by the firm of Tsutaya Jûsaburô about two decades earlier than our first example (circa mid to late 1830s).

Although the elements of the composition are similar to the later vertical design and it is a good scenic treatment of the Kinuta theme, the horizontal version seems to lack some of the expressive poetic power of the later example. The receding space is shallower in the horizontal format (later impressions of this version lack the background hills, creating an even shallower depth of field), while the figures of the women (plus the additional figure of the young boy standing behind and grasping his mother's arm) are featured more prominently and are closer to the frontal plane of the pictorial space. This creates the effect of a more action-specific or prosaic interpretation of the conventional theme, as though the task set before the women were more important than the famous place itself. In the later vertical format design the two women are shown at a greater distance from the viewer and are more assimilated into the vista of a poetically evocative landscape — overall, there is more of an iconographical aspect to the later vertical composition.

For more discussion related to Hiroshige, see Meiji Recuts and 36 Views of Fuji. © 2000-2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Murase, M.: "The Evolution of Meisho-e and the Case of Mu Tamagawa," in: Orientations, 1995; 1:94-100.
  • Murase, M.: Bridge of Dreams: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection of Japanese Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, pp. 319-331.
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