Sharing an Umbrella. Japanese Tanzaku woodblock print. Artist unknown. Colour and ink on paper. 2 x 9 and a quarter inches
Private collection Great Britain

This month we focus on a Japanese Tanzaku woodblock print from the Meiji Period (1868-1912). What is a Tanzaku print? A Tanzaku print, or ‘poem slip’ print, is a narrow, vertical woodblock print with a verse already printed on it or, alternatively, a space where a poem can be handwritten. Tanzaku prints typically feature landscapes or nature subjects. This traditional Japanese form of poetic expression dates back centuries, and is still in use today, with Tanazaku prints decorating bamboo branches for the annual Tanabata Festival held in Japan on the seventh day of the seventh month.

This charming little print is waiting for a poem to be written on it. But what can the scene already tell us, and what sort of poem might it suggest to the poet? We have two figures, male and female (the star-crossed Tanabata lovers perhaps?), sharing a (lacquered) paper umbrella; perhaps they are walking out together for an early evening stroll. They are barefoot and not dressed particularly warmly. The rain, and the willow branch above them is in leaf, suggesting a time during the rainy season (the middle of June to the end of July in Japan) which would also coincide with the Tanabata Festival there. The Manji motif on the umbrella is an ancient symbol in Japan, and throughout much of Asia, implying something fortunate, lucky or auspicious. It’s invariably found in Shinto shrines and in some Buddhist temples. Does the umbrella belong to one of those shrines or temples, or perhaps to an inn associated with one of them? The most curious feature in the print are the diagonal lines running from right to left. They suggest a mosquito net, but who would be peering out from a mosquito net at this couple taking an early evening stroll in the rain?