Sōtatsu lived in an era of profound social change. The warrior class led by the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616) and his descendants assumed political power in the early seventeenth century and, for the first time, permitted the spread of previously privileged knowledge. Classical literature and its interpretations and visual representations, once restricted to the aristocracy, gradually became available to a wider audience. Ancient narratives, such as Tales of Ise and Tale of Genji, were codified, and a standardized set of images—depicting key moments in the narrative plots—created a common pool for the public imagination. Sōtatsu was a singular force in devising those canonical images, and his folding fans served as portable image quotations from the past. Assertions of sophistication and learning but separated from their contexts, these snippets floated across many social boundaries. Association with a deep cultural past, even in fragments, was important to ambitious members of the new social order.
Very little is known about Sōtatsu’s life. But it is clear that by 1600, he was regarded as a skilled repairer of ancient sutra scrolls and had begun to collaborate with the distinguished calligrapher Hon’ami Kōetsu (1558–1637). He produced horizontal scrolls with hand-stamped designs and painted backgrounds over which Kōetsu rendered texts of ancient poetry in his distinctive hand. Sōtatsu was a partner in the process and not merely the provider of materials. His use of hand-stamped images (kataoshi) and the pigments on them was highly innovative; he manipulated them in complicated ways that allowed a wide variety of expression from a single mold.
He and Kōetsu were sponsored by a wealthy merchant, Suminokura Soan (1571–1617), for whom they produced deluxe printed editions of classical literary texts and nō librettos; these were known as Saga-bon, a reference to Soan’s village, Saga. This partnership enabled artist and calligrapher to transition from the single manuscript to works printed in multiples without sacrificing elegance.