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Photo credit: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University

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Title: Sea Horses in the Ocean
Date: commissioned for New Year 1820, Year of the Dragon
Medium: Color woodblock print
Dimensions: 8 1/8 x 7 1/16 inches (20.6 x 17.9 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Joanna Haab Schoff, Class of 1955
Object Number: 2011.017.022
Label Text: Osamareru The well-ruled imperial realm
Miyo wa yutaka ni Rests in comfort
Nami no shiwa mo Legs of spring sunbeams
Uchi no hashitaru Run gently over
Haru no hi no ashi Wrinkles of waves
—Cho ̄cho ̄tei Somabito

Osamareru Well ruled, this imperial realm
Miyo zo nodokeki Is peacefully quiet
Hi no kage mo The rays of the sun
Shikai no nami mo And the waves of the four seas
Yutani tatsu haru At ease as the dragon spring opens
—Senzaitei Matsuna

This image of seahorses, drifting free of care in the ocean waves, is the very epitome of the ideals of ease and peacefulness associated with the New Year season. The assertion that “all is well under the sun,” here the rising sun of the New Year dawn, was not only a private wish, but in Japanese poetry (waka) has long had political connotations, implying a well-ruled realm. The sea horses floating in the water, for example, much resemble dragons, emblematic of the celestial forces underlying nature, which work properly when the world is in balance, and the connection with the Year of the Dragon (1820) is confirmed in the final line of the second verse, which could mean either “spring stands [begins]” or “dragon spring.”

The poems, like the image, both emphasize peace and gentleness. The connection between peace and good politics is brought to the surface in both poems with the phrase miyo, a classical poetic term referring to the imperial reign. Praise of the emperor was one traditional aspect of New Year verse, and the earliest model for surimono may be found in the New Year kissho, felicitous writings ritually presented to the emperor at the New Year. One way of challenging the authority of the Tokugawa shogunate was to raise the emperor as an alternate and deserving source of fealty, so these seemingly anachronistic throwbacks to classical verse may well have had a subversive political message.

NOTE: This electronic record is compiled from historic documentation which may not reflect the Johnson Museum's complete or current knowledge of the object. Review and refinement of such records is ongoing.