Sweepstakes tickets are nearly as prized in Japan as cherry blossoms, and can be viewed far more easily: not a week passes that you don't find them fluttering out of street corner kiosks up and down the archipelago.
So strong is the addiction to lotteries that one wonders whether even a tradition as venerable as exchanging New Year’s greeting cards (nengajô) would continue if the citizenry could not win prizes thanks to lucky numbers embedded in the cards.
Also at stake if lotteries disappeared would be the budgets of Japan's local and provincial governments; hospitals, schools and public works all rely today on lotto largesse.
Nonetheless, official sanctioning of this form of gambling is rather recent. Lotteries were completely banned for over 100 years after 1842 (a legacy of the Tempô Reforms), and during the two centuries prior to that, the custom enjoyed only intermittent periods of shogunate approval.
One such period, we can assume, fell within the bracket 1828-30, the time assigned to the publication of Fig 1. Pictured in this ôban triptych by the Osaka artist Shigeharu (1802-52; active c. 1821-1849) are eight top-drawer Kabuki actors openly conducting a prize drawing (in those days called tomikuji) on the very public verandah of a Shinto shrine.
In a scene not too dissimilar from an all-star celebrity raffle today, one actor can be seen turning the tombola, a second holds up a winning "ticket" just plucked from the drum with a litter pin-like tool, and the rest simply hang about posing in ways associated with fame and importance.
The crowd is animated and cuts across class lines, but no women can be seen, possibly due to the press of flesh and threat of jostling, at least up close near the idols.
Beyond that, very little about this off-stage actor fûzoku-e (genre print) is clear. The written notice at the bottom of the right sheet — from the Osaka publisher Wataki — implies that purchase of the print improves one's chances in the lottery. But which lottery?
An actual (church bingo-style) charity event in a shrine? The lottery of life? Or some kind of shady numbers racket of the kind that presumably operated in the demi-monde theater district of Dôtonbori?
Fuzziness about the contents of the Shigeharu good luck triptych applies even to minor details. What should one make of the characters on the actors’ fans: "rabbit" (right sheet) and "cow" (center)? Why the highly unusual shorthand term for each actor’s name? And in how many off-stage fûzoku-e does a dyed in the wool onnagata like Nakamura Tomijûrô II ("Sankô", far right) eschew his female attire in favor of a man’s hakama skirt, albeit one with an ultra-stylish bamboo motif?
One obstacle to understanding the lottery picture is that nearly all theatrical fûzoku-e show the actors engaged in genteel outdoor activities like cherry-viewing, enjoying the coolness of a summer evening, or (see Daruma 55) taking part in classic New Year’s rituals. This "raffle gig gang of eight" composition seems to be sui generis.
By far the larger challenge, however, is that ukiyo-e designers had the freedom of mitate, the license to present playful, unreal situations. This amused the public and allowed for multiple layers of meaning. An on-stage mitate-e, for example, might have a dream pairing of actors who never performed together, playing roles that did not even exist.
Hence, with Fig 1, you almost need to have been alive at that moment in Osaka history to say whether (a) the shrine event occurred as depicted; (b) it indeed took place, but with a less star-studded assemblage; or (c) that no raffle like that ever happened, but ... "Gee, what if it had? Wouldn’t that be neat!"
Feel free to draw your own prized conclusions.
This article originally appeared in Daruma, no. 65, Winter 2010. Copyrighted © text and pictures reprinted with permission.
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