I am very fond of comical prints, and this one is a particular favourite. It is from a series called Edo meisho dōke zukushi (Comical Views of Famous Places in Edo), designed by Utagawa Hirokage in 1859, and shows a fortune-seller reading the facial features of a female client with the aid of a magnifying glass. The practise of discerning a person's character or fortune from their facial features is called physiognomy. By the end of the eighteenth century, physiognomy had become incredibly popular in Edo. It was considered to be a credible science and its practitioners were in great demand all over the city. This resulted in an increase in the number of professional physiognomists - at one point there are thought to have been around a thousand of them in Edo.
The idea was that the fortune-teller could tell by examining his client's face - the curve of her brow, the length of her nose, shape of her mouth and so on - whether she had been born a lucky or unlucky soul. He could also discern her character - if she was fickle, hard-working, lazy, prone to talking too much, etc. Her receding chin gave away her impatient nature... her glibness could not be concealed, as her eyes were quite obviously bulging. With ears that small, it was no wonder that she didn't have a penny to her name! By adding all of the information together, he could tell her why she was having a hard time getting a job or finding a husband - she was born unlucky and was too lazy to do anything about it, for example - and then suggest ways in which she could counteract her naturally unlucky state.
Of course, for every practitioner who took physiognomy seriously there was another who saw it as nothing more than a way to fleece every man, woman and dog who happened to cross his path.
From A. B. Mitford's 'Tales of Old Japan' (1910):
'At Asakusa, as indeed all over Yedo, are to be found fortunetellers, who prey upon the folly of the superstitious. With a treatise on physiognomy laid on a desk before them, they call out to this man that he has an ill-omened forehead, and to that man that the space between his nose and his lips is unlucky. Their tongues wag like flowing water until the passers-by are attracted to their stalls. If the seer finds a customer, he closes his eyes, and, lifting the divining-sticks reverently to his forehead, mutters incantations between his teeth. Then, suddenly parting the sticks in two bundles, he prophesies good or evil, according to the number in each. With a magnifying-glass he examines his dupe's face and the palms of his hands. By the fashion of his clothes and his general manner the prophet sees whether he is a countryman or from the city. "I am afraid, sir," says he, "you have not been altogether fortunate in life, but I foresee that great luck awaits you in two or three months;" or, like a clumsy doctor who makes his diagnosis according to his patient's fancies, if he sees his customer frowning and anxious, he adds, "Alas! in seven or eight months you must beware of great misfortune. But I cannot tell you all about it for a slight fee:" with a long sigh he lays down the divining-sticks on the desk, and the frightened boor pays a further fee to hear the sum of the misfortune which threatens him, until, with three feet of bamboo slips and three inches of tongue, the clever rascal has made the poor fool turn his purse inside out.'
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