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  • Japanese: 見立 (mitate)
A mitate-e painting by Hokusai, depicting a courtesan juxtaposed with Daruma, the founder of Zen.

Mitate is a technique used in ukiyo-e images, as well as in other creative forms, in which many layers of meaning are layered atop one another, often to humorous effect; that is, a technique by which references to historical or fictional events or personages, or ideas, are embedded into images. This most often manifests in a juxtaposition of high and low cultures, a common example being the depiction of a Yoshiwara courtesan standing in for, or representing, Bodhidharma, founder of Zen, or one of the classical Chinese Paragons of Filial Piety. Such images are called mitate-e (見立絵), or "mitate pictures."

Mitate is often translated as parody[1] but is in fact more complex in its multiple layers of meaning and in the logical or thematic links which tie references and images to one another, creating new meaning.

One oft-quoted definition focuses upon subtle thematic or symbolic similarities between different things, and the puzzle or riddle of interpreting and discovering these hidden meanings.

Though often drawing upon references to historical or literary figures and themes, mitate-e actually drew upon one another just as much as they did with the past, vying to be the most novel or the most clever reinterpretation of a given image. Moreover, though the implied meanings and symbolisms hidden in these images can be quite deep, ultimately mitate-e were for entertainment, and were not intended to serve didactic purposes. They played with set themes and familiar legends and stories, historical or literary accuracy reflected more often than not, but not being an intentional goal or standard by which mitate-e should be judged.


Etymology and Origins

Mitate is a kanji compound composed of the character 見, meaning "to see" or "to show", and the character 立, meaning "to stand." The core meaning of mitate might therefore be said to be something along the lines of standing something up to be shown (displayed) or seen as serving a particular purpose, or representing a particular idea.

The earliest instance of the word appears in the Kojiki, in which Izanagi and Izanami "'set up [choose?] a pillar to be the pillar of heaven' (ame no mi-hashira o mitate), so as to sanctify the hall.[2]" The term continues to appear in the Kokinshû, and other materials, the term nazoraeru (to imitate, to pattern after) appearing quite frequently in later, medieval (Muromachi period) documents.

While Japanese literature and other arts have always employed layers of meaning, references, and symbolism, the particular Edo period flavor of mitate can be said to have first appeared in haikai verses, before becoming employed widely in ukiyo-e.


While the term mitate does very frequently appear in the titles given to prints by their authors, prior to Suzuki Harunobu (fl. 1765-1770), terms such as fûryû (lit. "elegance, refinement, taste"), fûzoku ("manners and customs"), and yatsushi ("disguise") were much more widely used to title images which art historians, collectors, others would typically classify as "mitate-e." Furthermore, while many works titled mitate by Harunobu, and later artists, do fit the parodic form expected of mitate-e (e.g. a courtesan dressed as Bodhidharma), many illustrated books or print series from Harunobu's time use mitate in a very different way. These works, known as mitate ehon (picture books) and mitate hyôbanki ([actor] critiques), consist of running comparisons of two things which would normally be bizarre to compare, for example, comparing kabuki actors to different kinds of trees, each actor described (or simply implied through the images) as somehow embodying certain characteristics of each tree.

Yatsushi, which literally means "disguised" or "being absorbed or lost in (something)," is also used to refer to the common plot type or theme of someone high-class or high-ranking coming to live among, or as, lower-class people. Such a theme was quite popular in literature around the Genroku era (1688-1704), and would be seen in a major type of mitate-e paintings and prints, juxtaposing lofty figures with commoner settings or situations.

Types and Forms of Mitate-e

It is difficult to account for all permutations of the mitate-e form, or to classify them all into a limited set of categories. However, the following represents some of the most common types.

Perhaps the most typical form of mitate-e depicts courtesans or other contemporary and relatively low-class Edo period figures as, or accompanied by, figures from history, literature, or legend. Courtesans are often depicted as, or accompanied by, Bodhidharma, implying not only a humorous juxtaposition of austeries and sin, high and low, and religious versus popular culture, but also implying some thematic or metaphorical connection between the two. Perhaps the courtesan's knowledge of the ways of the floating world (ukiyo) are being compared to Bodhidharma's knowledge of the "world of suffering" (also ukiyo but written in different kanji). Perhaps there is the implication that, just as Zen teaches that enlightenment can be found in any activity, whether it be ikebana, tea ceremony, or swordsmanship, so too can enlightenment be found in the activities of the pleasure quarters.

Another common theme in this mode, to provide one more example, could be considered a "parody" of the classic Chinese concept of the Three Vinegar Tasters. Confucius, Lao Tzu, and the Buddha, as representatives of each of China's chief philosophies, stand around a large vat of vinegar; though they may disagree on many things, they all agree that the vinegar is sour, i.e. that the world is filled with bitterness and/or suffering. Mitate-e often replace these three figures with a Chinese court concubine in the style of Yang Guifei, a Heian period court lady, and an Edo period courtesan, gathered around a large vat filled with what many art historians claim is saké, representing an agreement across time and space that life is about pleasure.

Text can also play a large part in mitate-e. The core concept of many works lies in the juxtaposition of text with images that depict the text's content either too literally, interpreted strangely, or in an otherwise jarring manner.

Another quite prevalent type of mitate-e paints kabuki actors in roles they never played, or alongside costars with whom they never appeared onstage (at least not in those roles). Largely lacking the more complex layering of meaning generally associated with other mitate-e, these yakusha-e (actor prints) are mitate-e only on account of their use of juxtaposition and imagined situations. The layers being simply the actors juxtaposed with roles and/or costars they normally would never be seen with.


  • Clark, Timothy. "Mitate-e: Some Thoughts, and a Summary of Recent Writings." Impressions vol. 19 (1997). pp6-27.
  1. Morse, Anne Nishmura et al. The Allure of Edo: Ukiyo-e Painting from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (江戸の誘惑: ボストン美術館所蔵 肉筆浮世絵展, Edo no yûwaku: Bosuton bijutsukan shozô nikuhitsu ukiyoe ten). Tokyo: Asahi Shimbun-sha, 2006. p140 passim.
  2. Clark. p7.
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