Home Japan Travel GuideUkiyo-e: Japanese Wood-Block Prints

Ukiyo-e: Japanese Wood-Block Prints

Ukiyo-e (浮世絵) in Japanese literally means ‘pictures of the floating world’. It is a genre of traditional art which uses wood-block printing. The subject of the artwork commonly are female beauties, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, landscapes, folk tales, and flora and fauna.

This art genre flourished from the 17th to the 19th century and now it is greatly valued for its cultural and historical significance. Ukiyo-e gives us a glimpse into life in Japan during that period.

Highlights

  • “The Great Wave” by Hokusai is one of the most well-known ukiyo-e prints in the world.
  • Ukiyo-e prints use carved wooden blocks to make mass-produced prints.
  • The dyes and paper used for ukiyo-e are susceptible to discoloration and fading, especially with exposure to light.
  • Several museums in Japan offer large collections of ukiyo-e.

History of ukiyo-e

In the early 17th century, ukiyo-e started to become popular in Edo (modern Tokyo) where the city economy was developing rapidly and the merchant class was becoming wealthier.

People started to indulge more in entertainment such as kabuki theater, courtesans, and geishas. The term ukiyo-e, which means ‘pictures of the floating world’, was initially a depiction of the hedonistic lifestyle that they were indulging themselves in.

Asai Ryōi, a 17th century Japanese writer, described this spirit in the novel Ukiyo Monogatari ("Tales of the Floating World", 1661):

"Living only for the moment, savoring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo."

Moronobu was one of the earliest successful ukiyo-e artists who painted beautiful women. Initially the prints were monochromatic, but gradually color prints started to be more popular. By the 19th century, there were more ukiyo-e prints of landscapes.

Two ukiyo-e masters from the 19th century, who are famous for their landscape prints, are Hokusai, who painted “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”, and Hiroshige, who painted “The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido”, which is a set of 53 landscape paintings with train stations.

After the death of these two masters, and along with the modernization following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the art of ukiyo-e went into decline.

Styles and themes of ukiyo-e

There are various styles and themes of ukiyo-e. The basic categories are as follows:

Bijin-ga (beautiful women)

Bijin literally means ‘beautiful people’, but really what they mean is specifically beautiful women. From this genre of painting we can see how the standard of beauty has changed over the centuries.

For example, if you see the work “Three Beauties of the Present Day” by Utamaro in 1793, you will see that what defined beauty were very small and slanted eyes, small mouth, and neatly arranged traditional hair-buns. There are stark differences when comparing with the current Japanese beauty standard.

Shunga (erotic prints)

In the earlier years of ukiyo-e, shunga, which is the erotic genre, was a major genre of ukiyo-e. Even though during the Tokugawa regime (1603-1867) there were censorship laws, pornography was not considered a serious offense and was met with censors’ approval. This genre only started to be suppressed in the Meijiera, with the changing morals.

Yakusha-e (kabuki portraits)

Yakusha-e refers to portraits of actors of kabuki, which is the traditional Japanese theatre that is known for its elaborate make-up and dramatic style of performance.

Kacho-ga (nature)

Outward displays of luxury, including the depiction of courtesans and actors, started to be suppressed during the Tenpo Reforms in 1841-1843. This caused ukiyo-e artists to paint more of nature, especially birds and flowers, as well as landscapes.

Landscape

Even though the landscape genre of ukiyo-e was only developed much later than the other genres, it became the most well-known in the west. Compared to the western style of landscape painting, the Japanese ukiyo-e landscape painting involves less observance of nature and more imagination.

Production of ukiyo-e prints

Ukiyo-e initially started as paintings made with sumi (black ink). Eventually color was added in, and the number of colors and complexity increased. Woodblock printing technique was developed to mass produce these paintings, and this helped ukiyo-e to become more widespread and popular.

Method

Creating ukiyo-prints is not a one-man-show. It commonly involves a team of four. A publisher, a painter, a carver, and a printer. There are three stages to making ukiyo-e prints:

1. Painting a design with ink (by painter)
2. Carving the design onto a wooden block (by carver)
3. Applying colored ink to the blocks and pressing sheets of paper on them to print the design (by printer)

Each of these stages takes a lot of skill and time, and requires a specialist. So, the painter will not be the person who carves the design or prints the design. While carving the woodblock involves a lot of hard work, once it is done, it becomes much easier to mass produce prints of the same design.

Material

Pigments for colors were derived from both mineral and organic substances such as safflower, ground shells, lead, and cinnabar. Synthetic dyes, imported from the west, were also added later. The dyes in ukiyo-e prints are susceptible to fading, especially when exposed to light.

For surfaces, they commonly used silk or paper hanging scrolls, handscrolls, or folding screens. Often this paper was hand-made. The paper is also subject to discoloration so should avoid contact with acidic materials and humid environments.

Classic collections of ukiyo-e

Even today there are many well-known ukiyo-e. Here are a few that you may have come across:

Three Beauties of the Present Day (1793) Artist: Utamaro

Utamaro was a leading ukiyo-e artist in the bijin-ga genre in the 18th century. The three ladies in the picture were famous celebrities of the time, a geisha (middle), and two teahouse waitresses (left and right).

Kabuki actor Ōtani Oniji III (1794) Artist: Tōshūsai Sharaku

The actor Otani Oniji captured in this print here was performing the role of Yakko Edobe who is a manservant used to do violent deeds in the play “The Colored Reins of a Loving Wife”. Sharaku portrays his subjects with exaggerated facial features.

Under the wave off Kanagawa (c. 1830-32) Artist: Katsushika Hokusai

This very popular painting is also known as “The Great Wave”. This print actually belonged to a large series of prints by Hokusai, depicting Mount Fuji from various angles and in many different weather conditions.

Museums for viewing ukiyo-e

A lot of effort and care have been put into preserving ukiyo-e, as these are of great cultural and historical value and provide a glimpse into the past. Large collections of ukiyo-e are displayed in many museums and galleries in Japan.

Here are a few that you should consider visiting:

Museums Location What’s Special
1 Tokyo National Museum Ueno Park Oldest and largest
2 Sumida Hokusai Museum Ryogoku, Tokyo Focuses on Hokusai’s works
3 Japan Ukiyo-e Museum Matsumoto Town, Nagano Collection of the Sakai family; ~ 100,000 art pieces
4 Japan Hokusai Museum Obuse Town, Nagano Focuses on Hokusai’s works

Explore ukiyo-e with Asia Highlights

You can make the most out of your trip to Japan by visiting a museum to see first-hand a collection of ukiyo-e prints. Contact us and let our trip advisors help you organize your memorable trip!

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