Harunobu and His Sensual Sail Analogy
05 mei 2018 
2 min. read

Harunobu and His Sensual Sail Analogy

In this masterful design the ukiyo-e artist extraordinaire Suzuki Harunobu (d.1770) replaces the billowing sail of a ship with a towel that moves by the breeze. A young girl plucks hairs from the beard of a middle-aged man. She wears a robe with long, hanging sleeves. He gently holds her shoulder while kissing her on the mouth.

Returning Sail at the Towel Rack‘ (c.1768) from the series ‘Eight Fashionable Parlour iews (Furyu zashiki hakkei)‘ by Suzuki Harunobu (d.1770)


The intimacy of their embrace is accentuated by their faces reflected in the geisha mirror. Their age difference indicates that the man visits his young mistress. He probably sneaked in through the gate in the backyard, across the stepping stones.


Harunobu’s print displays the different levels of meaning that combine to create a complicated narrative. Initially, the series is a variation on the traditional theme of the ‘Eight Views of Omi (Omi hakkei)’, which was also parodied by Harunobu in his earlier renowned series ‘Eight Parlour Views (Zashiki hakkei, 1766)’. In the second place, the print title is a play on words on the ‘returning sails off a distant shore’, on of the Eight Views.


This erotic image hints at the earlier non-erotic version in the Eight Parlour Views, and the pun is clear from the included poem in the cloud-shaped cartouche above the couple.


The poem reads, ‘That boat over there with sails/ swelling to the front/ Is it coming to the harbour/ Ah yes it is coming in.’

The swaying towel on the rack on the veranda equates to a sail, and the depicted wave motifs on the screen on the left further increases the boat analogy.

Click HERE for more articles on Harunobu’s poetic erotic art…!!!


Japanese Erotic Fantasies – Sexual Imagery of the Edo Period’  by Margarita Winkel
Shunga, Erotic Art in Japan‘ by Rosina Buckland

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About the author
Marijn is the founder of shungagallery.com. With more than 20 years of experience within the sensual and erotic art of shunga he is an authority in the genre. During this time he served many customers with complementing their art collection.


on 15 Mar 2020

Thank you for this article! I find shunga with such 'hidden' things and analogies very interesting, at least, visually as I lack the cultural background. The closest example I can recall is the design by Shuncho from his 'Ehon kana meishi' (1782) where the woman's pubic hair seems to be visually compared to pine needles she dreams of and wrinkles on her clothing look like sea waves depicted on a folding screen.



on 15 Mar 2020

Thanks for your comments Darya. Yes, there are so many subtexts and references that even a devoted Japanese reader at that time would have difficulties to discern them all.

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