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Edging Toward Japan: Shining a different light on familiar art works

"The Love Letter" by Suzuki Harunobu.

By Damian Flanagan

    Throughout my late 20s and early 30s, a picture called "The Love Letter" by Suzuki Harunobu (c.1725 - 1770) hung on the wall of the modest one-room apartment I used to rent in Kansai.

    In classic student fashion, I had no funds to frame it and hang it gracefully, so I attached it directly to the wall with blue tack at the corners. When I finally came to move home in my mid-30s, the poster alas did not survive the move: it was far too grimy for the pristine walls of my new place and into the bin it went.

    When, some years later, I restored a 19th century mansion in the UK and created a writing study, it was a no-brainer what picture I wished to hang over my writing desk: "The Love Letter" (in an even larger, framed version this time round).

    In the 10 years I spent in Japan looking at this picture of two people -- presumably the recipient and a friend -- simultaneously, leisurely reading a letter, a particular set of interpretations fixed themselves in my mind and were the reasons I wished to have it over my writing desk.

    Firstly, it reminded me that what you write should be capable of being read and re-read. It should be composed to last and to be mulled over. Second, it reminds me that the perspective of each person reading what you have written is different.

    Thirdly, it reminds me that if you communicate your passion on a subject, it will be of interest not just to your "intended" audience, but to all kinds of other readers as well.

    But when I came to order the half-remembered print after a 10 year gap, I suddenly discovered that it had a quite different meaning to what I had always assumed. Knowing it only by its English title of "The Love Letter," I had carelessly assumed it to be a picture of two female courtesans reading the same love letter.

    When I looked up its Japanese title, however, I was startled to see it was "A Man and a Woman Reading a Letter by a Kotatsu." The figure under the blanket is a man -- you can also tell this from the hairstyle, which often reveals much information in ukiyo-e prints. This rather changes the dynamic of the picture and adds a sharp satirical edge.

    But now, more than ever, I'm feeling this is a suitable picture to have hanging over a writing desk: reminding me than even the most familiar works of art have the ability to suddenly radiate in an unexpected light.


    (This is Part 5 of a series)

    In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


    Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. One of the books he authored was "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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