Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife

Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife is a woodblock print created by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. It was a ukiyo-e made around 1814. Ukiyo-e is a Japanese art genre that was popular from the 17th to the 19th century and commonly depicts female beauties, sumo wrestlers, kabuki actors, flora, fauna, travel, landscape vistas, scenes from folk tales and history, and erotica. The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife falls on the last category. Sometimes, the Hokusai painting is known as the Girl Diver and Octopuses or the Diver and Octopuses. To date, it remains to be one of the most iconic erotica paintings from Japan and the art world.

Dream of the Fisherman's Wife

Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife Context and Story

History and Title

The painting was made during the Edo period. It was one of the most iconic images in Kinoe no Komatsu, a shunga or erotic art drawn in the ukiyo-e genre as most shunga is. The book was published into three parts in 1814. Due to its popularity, many artists have remade the painting.

Although the painting is now known with a name, all the art included in the shunga were untitled. Generally, this painting was entitled Tako to ama in Japanese which has a variety of translation in English. However, it’s roughly known translated as “Diver and Two Octopi.”

During the Edo period, Shinto was rising again, so it influenced animism in Hokusai’s work as well as its playful take on sexuality.


The painting depicted an ama or a shell diver sexually intertwined within the limbs of two octopuses. The bigger of the two sea creatures perform cunnilingus on the woman while the smaller was depicted kissing her lips and fondling her breasts. It is believed that the smaller of the two octopuses was the son.

A text above the image indicates a mutual sexual satisfaction for all the parties involved.

Translation and Inspiration

According to scholar Danielle Talerico, the image would often remind people who knew the story of Princess Tamatori, a tale that grew famous during the Edo period – the same period when the woodblock was created.

The story goes like this: Tamatori or Ama was a pearl diver who married Fujiwara no Fuhito of the Fujiwara clan. They met when Fuhito was trying to retrieve a treasured pearl which was stolen by Ryujin or the dragon god of the sea. The pearl was a gift from the Tang dynasty emperor to the Fujiwara clan.

In his search, Fuhito reached an isolated island where he met Ama. The two fell in love, and Ama soon bore Fuhito’s son. Vowing to help in his quest to retrieve the stolen pearl, Ama would dive every day to the sea hoping to get into the dragon king’s lair.

When finally Ama was able to lull the grotesque creatures and Ryujin through music. However, after retrieving the pearl and trying to escape, the creatures and the sea god awakened and tried to capture the woman. One of them was an octopus.

In her attempt to escape with the pearl, Ama slit her breasts and hid the pearl inside her. The blood from the cut blurred the sea, and she was able to escape. But while she was successful in her task, she died because of her wound after reaching the surface.

The Tamatori story was a popular subject for ukiyo-e art. Most depictions include an octopus and a bare-chested woman trying to escape its clutch.

Censorship in Japan

While Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife may be a little shocking and unique to some Westerners, the depiction of a woman having sexual intercourse with a sea creature is not uncommon. In fact, many of the ukiyo-e shunga artworks revolved around women and sea creatures in some sort of sexual practice.

This may have come from the censorship that the Tokugawa shogunate implemented during the Edo period.

Since publishing texts have become more popular during the time, the shogunate censored anything that tacked Christianity, information about the Tokugawa clan and their activities, as well as criticism of the shogunate.

With the Tempo Reforms, the censorship reached erotic publications. Anything depicting sexual activity between a man and a woman was seized. Shunga artists then turned to a creative but rather uncomfortable solution: depicting sexual intercourse between a man and a creature.

Until today, what we know as “tentacle erotica” is a huge part of the adult industry in Japan, often portrayed in animations and art.

The popularity of Shunga in Japan

Shunga was well loved by both men and women of all classes, and there were also superstitions that revolved around it. For one, it’s considered a lucky charm by samurai to bring along a shunga as it apparently avoids death. Merchants also have some shunga as they believe it’s a protection against fires that could ruin their home and businesses. That said, it’s deduced that workers and their wives would all get shunga.

There were also records from book lenders that survived stating that women also obtained shunga for themselves.

Apart from the customs surrounding it, shunga was also popular as conjugal separation was typical during the Edo period. Samurais would live in a barracks that could last for months at a time and merchants would often travel to sell their wares.

It was also a tradition to present an ukiyo-e that depicts erotic scenes from The Tale of Genji to the bride. The erotic artwork may have served as a guide for both the sons and the daughters of wealthy family who are entering married life.

Related Paintings/Artists

Here are some of the artists that are associated with ukiyo-e paintings (not necessarily shunga or erotic artworks):

  • Hishikawa Moronobu – Most known as the painter who popularized ukiyo-e genre of woodblocks and prints.
  • Okumura Masanobu
  • Toshusai Sharaku
  • Kitagawa Utamaro
  • Utagawa Hiroshige
  • Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Apart from Shunga, Hokusai also worked on a variety of ukiyo-e paintings that depicted the feminine figure, landscapes, and scenes from folk tales.

But perhaps Hokusai’s most famous painting of all is The Great Wave off Kanagawa which is the first painting from his 36 Views of Mount Fuji series. The painting also remains to be one of the most well-known Japanese paintings of all time.

Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife Resources

Wikipedia. Hokusai. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hokusai

Wikipedia. Ukiyo-e. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ukiyo-e

Wikipedia. Censorship in Japan. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship_in_Japan#Edo_Period
Wikipedia. The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dream_of_the_Fisherman%27s_Wife

Leave a comment: