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"The Suicide Note Writing Coach"

Gabriel Mitsubishi

Son of a Dutch mother and a Japanese father, Mitsubishi spent his entire career unsuccessfully attempting to explain 17th-century Dutch customs and traditions to his Japanese relatives. His approach was to frame a Dutch scene within a Japanese concept, as we see here.

To a Dutch observer of the time the painting might speak of a lover clandestinely sneaking into his mistress's chambers as a surprise, only to find her writing him a "Dear John" letter. To a Japanese observer at the time of the newly-founded Tokugawa shogunate, this explanation would have been beyond comprehension, if not actually disturbing.

Thus the catalog entry for Mitsubishi's first gallery exhibit in Edo during the autumn festival of 1665 describes the painting quite differently:

"The maiden Anke, having been sold by her parents as a child to be raised as a geisha specializing in the cello ("tcherro," a kind of vertical koto) has failed her audition before the Imperial Music Master and must as a consequence commit ritual suicide. She has engaged the services of a writing-master to be sure her suicide note is in the correct form, with all the proper classical allusions and expressions of regret for having disappointed the Shogun. The writing-master carefully observes every nuance of her brush technique, for his own reputation is at stake. Upon the nearby dressing-stool is a kimono in the white color representing death, along with the iron knife, appropriate to her rank and level of disgrace, with which she has chosen to dispatch herself."

Mitsubishi was himself ordered to commit seppuku by order of the Shogun in 1667 after the display of his painting "Feast of the Bean King," in which a royal personage is depicted dining among peasants without so much as a serving-man or taster present. The artist furthermore has had the monumental effrontery to depict several of the peasants with their heads elevated above that of the royal personage, itself a capital crime according to the Imperial decree.


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