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A large exceptional Japanese ema, or painted wood wishing board, depicting a ship

Edo period, 19th century


H. 65 x W. 87 cm

An ema is a votive plaque people hang in a ‘dedication area’, at a Shinto shrine, with their wish to the gods. Wishes usually would revolve around health, love, career, prosperity, and academic achievement, but in this case a wish for a safe sea voyage.

The present ema probably is a copy, depicting a red-seal, Shuyin-sen, ship at the beginning of the Edo period dedicated by its owner Suetsugu Heizou to the Kiyomizu-tera temple. A red-seal ship was officially approved by de Edo bakufu government to engage in international trading. Many Japanese men, including one foreigner (nanban-jin), probably a foreign navigator, are seated on open deck. Under a roof the captain of the ship Hamada Yahyoe is depicted, who played an important role in the so-called Taiwan Incident of 1628 (for more information on the Taiwan Incident see: Uit Verre Streken, November 2021, no. 44). Behind the foreigner and at the rear end of the ship several females can be seen. The Japanese characters seem
to read hõkai, meaning ‘donated and hung’, indicating that this ema was a gift to a Shinto temple.
At the Kiyomizu-dera temple in Kyoto, there
is an ema dated from the beginning of the Edo-period dedicated by Sueyoshi Sonzaemon of Osaka, who had received a red-seal letter allowing him to sail to Luzon and engage in overseas trade with a large red-seal merchant ship in three consecutive years from Kanei 9 (1632) to 11. A similar early Edo period ema is dedicated to the Kumata Shrine in Osaka. There are more identical ema in other temples and shrines, wishing for safe sea journeys too. They were reproduced or repainted till the end of the Edo period.

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