The Tale of Bunsho is one of a group of twenty-three otogi zoshi, short stories written during the Muromachi period and published in printed form with illustrations in the seventeenth century. Many, including the present example, were illustrated by anonymous painters and are known as Nara-e, or Nara pictures. Produced in Kyoto from roughly the fifteenth through the mid-eighteenth centuries, they were commissioned for special occasions and often given as dowry and New Year's gifts. Pigments are typically high-quality expensive products and the paper is embellished with cloud patterns in gold foil. The present example is painted in the indigenous yamato-e technique of narrative painting built up with conventional bright colors preferred by the clientele of Kyoto. The text paper interspersed with the illustrated sections is decorated with underdrawings of clouds and grasses in gold pigment.
Most of the extant illustrated manuscript copies of the Tale of Bunsho date from the early Edo period. There are four versions, in both handscroll and book form, in the Spencer Collection (see Miyeko Murase, Tales of Japan: Scrolls and Prints from the New York Public Library [Oxford University Press, 1986], no. 240). The tale was the ultimate success story of a man named Bunsho, who, thanks to his sincere veneration of the local Shinto deity, rose from being an impoverished menial laborer to a wealthy Minister of State. He owed his good fortune to the deity of Kashima Shrine, whose magical powers brought prosperity to the salt-making industry along the coast in the province of Hitachi (present-day Ibaraki Prefecture). Kashima was a center of the salt industry during the Edo period.