mitate-e (見立て絵) (genre 1638 –)



"In the past decades publications by Timothy Clark (1997),Iwata Hideyuki (2002), and Alfred Haft (2013) have provided fresh views on the multifaceted concept of mitate. The term mitate is frequently translated as 'parody', but instead of parodying a distant past, the focus is rather: how charming? how clever? how novel? how unexpected? how ridiculous? Clark's definition of mitate: "surprise comparisons between paralleled sequences of two apparently unrelated categories of things", seems to be more appropriate."

Quoted from: 'Surprise comparisons in Kunisada's print series Mitate sanjūrokkusen' in Andon 96 by Henk Herwig, Jos Vos and Paul Griffith, May 2014, p. 38.


"Mitate-e ("look and compare pictures" or analogues) were among the most common and important genres in ukiyo-e printmaking. The earliest use of the term mitate may have been in 1638 in relation to haikai poetry technique. In critical discussions of waka poetry, mitate is generally used as a term denoting figurative language of many kinds, much of the time involving indirect metaphors or comparisons."

This information is taken directly from Viewing Japanese Prints.

Charles J. Dunn described a mitate as "...a term often translated as 'parody,' but implying an imaginary situation, such as did not represent an actual event, therefore better translated in my opinion as 'imaginary scene'..."

Quoted from: A Kabuki Reader: History and Performance, edited by Samuel Leiter, p. 83.

In an article in "Impressions: The Journal of the Ukiyo-e Society of America, Inc." Number 19, 1997, Timothy Clark points out that this term has often been overused and misunderstood. In fact, sometimes it is "an inventive pairing of disparate things, what I described earlier as 'a brain-teasing collision.'"

"A very common pictorial device in Ukiyo-e prints and paintings - reflecting a common pattern of thought in Edo society as a whole - was that of mitate-e, variously translated, but not completely summed up, by such English words as 'parody', 'travesty', 'burlesque', 'analogue'. The basic form of such 'parody pictures' was already apparent in certain genre paintings before Ukiyo-e had ever appeared, and consisted of an ancient tale or incident, acted out or otherwise alluded to in some way by characters wearing contemporary dress."

"The range of subjects suitable for reworking in this way was expanded and codified in a series of printed books and albums by Okumura Masanobu [奥村正信 or おくむらまさのぶ: 1686-1724] during the early decades of the seventeenth century and was often drawn from Chinese and Japanese classical literature or lore, generally reworked in Japanese No plays, popular ballad singing, or Kabuki during the intervening centuries. The tone adopted varied from outright parallels..."

The use of the mitate was often necessitated by effort to avoid government restrictions. " avoid censorship by the military government of reporting of contemporary events, many plots are relocated in the distant Kamakura period and the characters given new, but similar-sounding names. Popular literature of the eighteenth century, too, made extensive use of such techniques..."

Source and quotes: Ukiyo-e Paintings in the British Museum, by Timothy Clark, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992, p. 21.

Donald Keene in Seeds in the Heart refers to mitate as 'taking one thing for another', as one example of its use.

Samuel Leiter in the New Kabuki Encyclopedia (p. 409) defines mitate as "Selections".

Roger Keyes refers to mitate as a modern adaptation.

Haruo Shirane in his Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900 (p. 87) has written: "...the emergence in the seventeenth century of a culture of mitate (literally, seeing by comparison), which moved back and forth between the two starkly different worlds, that of the Japanese and Chinese “classics” and that of the new popular literature and drama, each providing a lens or filter with which to view the other."


In Designed for Pleasure it says on pages 62-63 that Masanobu's "...extensive use of the witty literary allusions and parodies now known as mitate (or mitate-e, "mitate pictures," to distinguish graphic uses of the technique from written ones). In general, mitate means "selection" and signifies imagery that combines at least two completely different subjects, often drawn from the high culture and the popular culture respectively; for example, a scene from classical literature reenacted by fashionably dressed contemporary figures. A few designs that qualify as mitate-e predate Masanobu, but he developed the convention more than any other artist of his time, creating a stock of devices that themselves would be appropriated by ukiyo-e artists until the mid-nineteenth century.

Within the broad category of polysemic images called mitate-, Masanobu used several different methods of combining his disparate subjects. One technique introduces figures from the divine realm or the legendary past into the contemporary world, particularly the world of the pleasure quarters."


Christine Guth in Japanese Art of the Edo Period, 1996, p. 108 said: "[a]…playful device…in which a contemporary „equivalent‟ was substituted for classical subject-matter, giving the resulting work multiple layers of meaning. Mitate lent legitimacy to representations of contemporary subjects, and as the people of Edo increasingly took pride in their urban culture, local artists‟ representations of time-honoured secular and even religious themes became more and more satirical."

Hayakawa Monta described it as "„comparing one thing to something else.‟ In the case of mitate-e pictures, codified motifs are used to encourage you to look at a present world superimposed on a world of the past."


David Waterhouse wrote: "The term mitate literally means „witnessing with one‟s own eyes‟; hence it is used of making judgments or choices; seeing off a traveller; and making comparisons. In the last sense it became a technical term in linked-verse competition (renga) when a following verse would give a new twist to the meaning of the first one. This usage and this practice prompted the many mitate prints seen in ukiyo-e, in which a classical or otherwise well-known theme is re-interpreted in some new way, often facetiously, and often by being given a modern application."

Source: 'Some Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist Mitate-e By Harunobu' in Impressions 19, 1997, pp. 29-30.


Timothy Clark wrote about the etymology of mitate: "The noun mitate and the related verb mitateru are given a total of some eight or nine definitions in the largest standard dictionary of the Japanese language, the Nihon kokugo daijiten. These begin with the earliest appearance of the term in Kokiji (compiled by AD 712), when the God and Goddess Izanagi and Izanami descend from heaven to conduct their wedding ceremony, and „set up [choose?] a pillar to be the pillar of heaven‟ (ame no mi-hashira o mitate) so as to sanctify the hall. The basic meaning here, according to the dictionary, involves a sequence of 'looking' (miru), 'selecting' (sadameru), and 'erecting' (tateru). Other meanings for mitateru include 'to see someone off' (mi-okuru), 'to assist' (sewa osuru), or 'to nurture' (yōsei suru), and 'to liken one thing to another' (betsu no mono ni nazoraeru koto)."

Source: 'Mitate-e: Some Thoughts, and a Summary of Recent Writings' in Impressions, 19, 1997, p. 7.