You Cannot Buy Culture

Portrait of Otagaki Rengetsu

Although Rengetsu was usually happy to brush calligraphy for her visitors, on one occasion she refused. A high-ranking official with a retinue came to her hut, requesting that she brush several tanzaku (thin poetry cards) for him. Rengetsu did not care for his haughty attitude so she demurred.  Then the official offered her a substantial amount of money.  Still Rengetsu turned him down:  “In our world it is impossible to buy culture.”  In other words, refinement is something that must be acquired slowly, not something that comes automatically with high office.  Despite his entries the official had to return home.

In the beginning, there was no set price for her pottery. People gave what they could. One day, a wealthy customer left quite a tidy sum of money in a payment envelope. (In Japan, money is presented in an envelope to be opened later.)  When Rengetsu discovered how much he paid her, she became perturbed.  If regular customers found out that Rengetsu’s pottery was valued at such a high price, they would feel compelled to offer more money so that they would not look cheap, the market price would rise, and her work would be less affordable.  Thereafter, Rengetsu established a fixed price for her wares, the same cost for everyone.

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