Heian Period Tale of the Nightingale in the Plum Tree


The term ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world,” refers to a genre of Japanese artwork that flourished in the Edo period (1600–1868). As the phrase “floating world” suggests, with its roots in the ephemeral worldview of Buddhism, ukiyo-e captured the fleeting dynamics of contemporary urban life. While being accessible and catering to “common” tastes, the artistic and technical details of these prints show remarkable sophistication, their subjects ranging from portraits of courtesans and actors to classical literature. This print by Kitao Shigemasa (1739–1820) illustrates an 11th-century tale from Ōkagami (Great mirror). The story begins with the emperor grieving about the death of a plum tree in his garden, in which a nightingale used to sing and announce the coming of spring. A court official happens upon a magnificent tree standing next to a house, and negotiates with the owner to relocate it to the emperor’s garden. Upon parting, the owner ties to its branches a verse about the lament of a nightingale that has lost its home. Surprised by the talent of its writer, the emperor discovers that the owner of the tree was the daughter of a great 10th-century poet, Ki no Tsurayuki; the court official had unknowingly uprooted a precious memento of her father. Thereafter, the tree is treasured as the Ōshukubai (plum tree in which the nightingale resides).

Last updated: September 18, 2015