Comic pictures and verses (toba-e), a handscroll painting


British Museum

British Museum

Toba-e were quickly executed, comical pictures with a lightly satirical element to them. They were highly popular in the Edo period (1600-1868). It is not known when they originated, or who first conceived of them, but the name is said to derive from a famous practitioner, Toba Sōjō (1053-1140), a high-ranking monk-painter. The figures in toba-e are usually highly caricatured, with very long, slender limbs, and exaggerated facial expressions, often laughing. Simple, deft brushwork is used, and only light colour.

A seventeen-syllable comic verse has been added to each picture. These are mostly humorous parodies of well-known sayings. The section illustrated here shows a demon forcibly removing a lump from the face of an old man. This is a reference to the folk-tale Kobu-tori ('pulling off a lump'). On the left a fox is riding a horse - alluding to hatsu-uma, the day of the horse, in the second month, and to the well-known craftiness of the fox.

The scroll is full of such comical scenes, for example, two men cutting a melon with a feather, and a man worshipping the radiant head of a fish. Together they create a world of wry humour, with a cheerful and relaxed tone.

Show lessRead more


  • Title: Comic pictures and verses (toba-e), a handscroll painting
  • Date Created: 1700/1799
  • Physical Dimensions: Height: 27.70cm; Width: 1017.80cm
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: painted
  • Subject: humour; fuzoku
  • Registration number: 1881,1210,0.562
  • Production place: Painted in Japan
  • Producer: Claimed to be by Miyagawa Choki. School of/style of Toba Sojo
  • Period/culture: Edo Period
  • Material: paper
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Purchased from Anderson, William