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The early 1780s were a difficult time for the shogunate, Japan’s feudal government. Though the country was at peace, one of the worst famines on record was wreaking havoc across the land. Making matters worse, epidemics and natural disasters were rife. The peasantry was never far from open revolt.

In his late 20s at the time, Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), a painter and ukiyo-e print designer, was no doubt aware of the surrounding misery. But in Edo, the capital, a dynamic metropolis of more than a million inhabitants, its impact was limited. Besides, Utamaro’s congenial social circle of young artists provided constant entertainment that must have buffeted some of the social dislocation.

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