The hierarchy of social classes in Edo period Japan was notoriously rigid. Perched at the top of the pyramid, with a quiver of special rights, were the samurai (bushi). In theory, this "warfare class" deserved its position of honor because in the samurais’ hands lay the ultimate responsibility for safeguarding the nation.
On the next rung down the status ladder were placed the farmers (nômin), whose toil resulted in there being enough rice to feed the population. The peasants relatively exalted official status presumably made them feel better about their miserably over-burdened lot in life.
Under the farmers in rank were gathered the artisans (shokunin
), people who also produced things with their hands and thus needed to be acknowledged for their contribution to the commonweal
And finally, lower than everyone (except those considered outside the system, like untouchables, convicted criminals and prostitutes), was the merchant class (shônin) Never mind that it was these folk who made the economy function, such people followed unsavory pursuits like money-lending and speculation, along with the less suspect but equally intangible work like trading and shop-keeping
In a largely mercantile city like Osaka, much of the feudal governance consisted in enforcing sumptuary laws to keep the increasingly wealthy shônin — the class also included anyone who worked for merchants, such as shop assistants and domestic servants — in their place. Rules dictated what they could wear and the design of their house, and, during one infamous austerity campaign, even proscribed kabuki woodblock prints as a frivolous luxury!
All this is relevant to appreciating a tetraptych by Shigeharu (1803-53), an Osaka artist already familiar to followers of this page. The main title on the far right, Yakusha mitate haru no yuki koi, merely states the obvious: a passel of leading actors are enjoying the auspicious first sunrise of the year (1831?) — a custom practiced by Japanese to this day.
The arrangement of the eight actors follows a complex sequence (from right to left) based on prominence and seniority, with perennial superstar Nakamura Utaemon III (1778-1838) leading the parade. Similarly meaningful are the actors' outfits, recalling signature roles and replete with symbols associated with that celebrity. A game could be played seeking out evidence of assorted New Year’s rituals, and one could also try to sleuth out the publisher’s name ("Where’s Waldo?") and that of the print carver. (Hint: The latter is hidden in a rebus in the trailing obi of Sawamura Kunitaro II — fifth actor from right, d. 1836).