Eguchi was a beautiful courtesan of a brothel in a town of the same name on the Yodo River, between Kyoto and Osaka. In a thirteenth-century collection of tales, the Senjusho, there is a story of the meeting between a holy man, presumably the wandering priest-poet Saigyo (1118-1190), and the prostitute named Eguchi. Saigyo sought shelter at her humble cottage. At first she turns him away, but then relents and they spend the evening in conversation. She inspires him with her understanding of her sinful existence and desire for religious salvation. In the thirteenth-century Noh play Eguchi, it is revealed that the Lady of Eguchi (Eguchi no kimi) is in reality a manifestation of the bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Fugen). Fugen, an attendant of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, is always shown seated on an elephant. The message is that one must look beyond appearances.
In the Edo period the grand courtesans of the Yoshiwara were exalted and came to be viewed as manifestations of not only Fugen but also Monju and Kannon. Some aficionados of the pleasure quarters went so far as to advocate that intercourse with a prostitute was a positive means to salvation. In this painting we have the apotheosis of Eguchi, seated on a white elephant and wearing a robe decorated with lotus blossoms. In one hand she holds a long love letter that wraps around her like a scarf, and in the other she holds a thread that serves as a dainty leash tied to the elephant's trunk. For a definitive study of the Eguchi theme in ukiyo-e see Timothy Clark, "Prostitute as Bodhisattva: The Eguchi Theme in Ukiyo-e," Impressions 22 (2000): 36-53.