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Egoyomi: Picture Calendars for the New Year



Until 1873, the Japanese calendar was based on a lunar system.

Months were divided into dai no tsuki (long months) of 30 days and sho no tsuki (short months) of 29 days. Because the order of long and short months changed annually, artists subtly and skillfully incorporated the year’s sequence into the lush prints known as egoyomi.

Egoyomi flourished during the Meiwa era (1764–71), when the laws of the ruling shogunate dictated that only a handful of publishers were officially allowed to produce calendars for the public. Nevertheless, wealthy patrons often privately commissioned egoyomi and exchanged them with their peers. It has been argued that because these independent egoyomi were in defiance of the law, the calendar markings were hidden to obscure the purpose of the prints. To what extent the designs actually misled the authorities, however, is a matter of some debate.

This pair of egoyomi shows Chinese Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) summoning a vision of his deceased consort in a column of smoke. Numbers on his robe—written in a stylized script—indicate the long months of the year. The short months are incorporated into the pattern of her sleeves.

While technically illegal, these private egoyomi prints and their patrons’ competition to have more elaborate and lavish designs gave rise to the development of printing with multiple colors, a watershed moment in the history of printing in Japan. The egoyomi of 1765 mark the first dated examples of such multicolored prints.

In anticipation of the New Year and an influx of new calendars to be filled, this exhibition brings together over 30 egoyomi, showcasing the genre’s beautiful scenes, cleverly incorporated calendar markings, and historic developments.


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