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The Buoyant World Of Japanese Prints

edo art japan

Ukiyo, the ”floating world”, was originally a Buddhist term referring to the transient nature of human life and experience. The message was, therefore not to cling to one’s desires, but instead to accept the flow of life without grasping.


In the hedonistic urban culture of early Modern Japan, the concept of a ‘’floating world” was given a new twist. The new spirit proclaimed that if pleasures are only momentary, than let’s enjoy them as much as possible when they appear, like the cherry blossoms that are all too soon lost to wind or rain.

Hokusai’s Great Wave, Hiroshige’s landscapes along the Tōkaidō road, Sharaku’s large-head actor portraits, Utamaro’s and Harunobu’s beauties from the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter are just a few popular examples of the tens of thousands of woodblock prints that were published in Japan from the mid-seventeenth to the early twentieth century.
This unique form of art mass-produced colored woodblock prints evolved and thrived only in Japan, predominately in Edo, a present-day Tokyo.


The Edo Period

The Edo period(1603-1868), a long period of peace, the city of Edo grew to be an economically and culturally thriving metropolis with a dynamic society that enjoyed kabuki theater and literature as well as sexual entertainments, the famous ‘’floating world’’ –ukiyo.
A censorship system, put in place by government to regulate the liberal, but highly commercial daily life, could not suppress the rapid interest in woodblock printed images of courtesans and actors.

Nowadays, they are highly treasured, often perceived as witnesses of a romantic, idealized past. In art sales, a well- preserved print, once sold for a few pennies as one of hundreds of impressions at the time of production, may now cost a fortune, much more than many paintings which are the only one of its kind.

In early modern Japan, this art form was an urban phenomenon of a purely commercial nature. Purchased by a large clientele of commoner townsfolk, but also by aristocratic samurai, these prints were perceived to be a special product of Edo.

Today, Japanese print collectors easily overlook the fact that these prints, during the time of their production, were not considered to be ‘’fine art’’ nor considered to be the creation of a single artist working alone.
They were a joint production of collaboration between several people, with the publisher in the center. Ukiyo-e was not form of art created by the lonely painter in a garret, but rather an up-to-the-minute visual medium for people at less than the highest level of society.
Just as we use posters and photographs as souvenirs and decoration so did everyday Japanese enjoy those woodblock prints.


A quintet of five parties was involved in the creation process of a print. At first, there was the artist who designed the image to be printed. Second was the engraver who cut the woodblocks for printing.
Third was the printer who printed the sheets from the blocks. Fourth was the publisher, a decision maker who oversaw and financed the entire process- from discussing the subject of a print with the designer to putting the final product on the market.
At least, the fifth was the consumers, who played an active role also; their taste determinate if the print would be a commercial success or not.

From the mid-seventeenth century onwards, prints were issued that focused on historical subjects- actors of the popular kabuki theater, legendary samurai warriors, and beauties from the pleasure quarters. But, during the Edo period, tastes evolved; a demand for novel ideas resulted in the creation of new subjects, such as pictures of flowers and birds or landscapes.
It was a publisher’s challenge and his own responsibility to have a feeling for the trends of the time, producing his prints in unison with the consumer’s interests. The choice of the right print designer was crucial.
A designer could be inventive and brilliant- but if the consumer disliked his choice of subject or the compositions, then the publisher most likely ended up in financial problems.

edo art japan

The large numbers of publishing firms existing in Edo period reflect how vital and competitive the market was. During the three centuries that these prints were produced, well over a thousand publishers existed in Osaka, Edo and Kyoto.
Many publishers simply continued to feed the market, according to the current taste, without a taking the risk of trying out new themes and styles. If a publisher turned to lesser known print designers it was not always a sign of his willingness to support an unknown, possibly talented artist.
Well-known designers charged higher prices for their images then lesser known artists. By engaging a popular designer the chance was raised that a publisher would be able to get his investment back, but he would have to invest more money upfront.
Commissioning a lesser known print designer meant fewer investments, but also assuming greater risk for failure of the operation. Those publishers who found the right balance between risk and security managed to survive.

Even though the print designer was not the only link in the chain, he was the crucial for the success of a print. The designer was the face and the flagship of the product.
He was allowed to sign his work, helping consumers to identify their acquisition even after time.


Starting at a young age, aspiring students first copied their master’s work, than competed sketches by the masters and assisted in cheep book illustrations. It was up to the master to decide when a student was ready for his coming-out.
After years of training, the master supported the student’s first self-work, so to speak, and the student was finally allowed to sign as well. The student received a name from the master with usually one syllable deriving from the master’s own name.
Utamaro’s student, for example, had the same ‘’maro’’ in his name. Being the student of a well- known print designer helped career advance. Chances were higher that such students found publishers for their designs, but the fees they would receive at the beginning were still small.
Accounts from the late Meiji period,1868- 1912, that are most likely also applicable to the Edo period, state that the young designers had to cover or even the entire costs of cutting the woodblocks and only if the designer was promising would a publisher bear the cost himself.

Publishers, in general, tried to offer a wide range of products, aiming at consumers with a wide range of interests. These products changed over time in accordance with the consumers’ interests and the technical development.
Technical limits did not allow printing in color until the 1730s/40s and earlier prints were hand-colored principally with an orange lead oxide (tan-e) pigment to make them more appealing. With the introduction of color printing with two blocks (benizuri-e, lit.
‘pink-print pictures’) it was not long until multicolor printing was achieved, in 1765. The so-called ‘brocade prints’ (nishiki-e), were well received and sprang up like mushrooms. In the following decades, the printing process was further enhanced by developing special printing techniques such as the use of gold, mica and silver simulating metal pigments, graduation, embossing and lacquer-like printing.


Originally prints were single-sheet compositions and this continued to be the chief item until the twentieth century. By the second half of the eighteenth century, multi-sheet compositions developed mostly diptychs and triptychs, showing a single image that evolved over all sheets.
Occasionally, larger compositions appeared, consisting of five, six, eleven or twelve sheets. Every period was dominated by a specific format that appealed most to the majority of consumers. The narrow, hosoban, format was preferred for actor prints during the mid-eighteenth century.
At the same time, prints of beautiful women were produced in the medium, chūban, format. At the end of the eighteenth century, the large, ôban format, became a principal size, mostly vertically for figures and horizontally for landscapes.
Smaller formats existed as well in size deriving from the ôban format- one quarter, one half etc.

The typical subject matters of these prints were popular Kabuki actors, yakusha-e, and fashionable courtesans from the pleasure quarters, bijinga, which was initially conceived by the term ‘’floating world’’- ukiyo. These subject matters were not only captured on prints, the ukiyo-e, but also in paintings called nikuhitsu ( lit.
‘Flesh brush’).


From the very beginning, erotica, shunga, was a major that was naturally high in demand in Edo, because of its dominant male population, deriving from the many retainers that had to be present by law to guard the provincial lords in town, and from the rapid development of Edo itself that attracted many male laborers from the countryside.
At that time, Edo was the largest town in the world with a population of one million people.

Bijinga and shunga were intertwined as they both addressed, from different aspects, the idealized icon of female beauty, derived from images of courtesans that were, in facts, prostitutes. Everyone had access to the pleasure quarters and their services, but a hierarchy of courtesans developed and the high-ranking, hence very expensive; beauties were unreachable for the most of people. Their appearance in luxurious garments and superb coiffures became the motifs of bijinga.
The initially full-length pictures of courtesans developed in the late eighteenth century to half-length, close-up portraits that focused, more intensively on the refined manners. As beauty pictures were pretty popular subjects, many of these prints were on the market and the publishers and print designers had to use new means to keep their products interesting to their clientele.
Imaginary comparisons called mi-tate and playful juxtapositions developed as a new trend. The beauties were depicted in settings derived from another context and puzzles were created that evoked the interest of consumers and became the latest thing.
A development that eventually would happen with actor prints as well, but at much later period.


The main purpose of actor prints was to portray the leading figures, actors at the height of their performance and to offer the audience a souvenir of the theater experience to take home. The kabuki theaters were frequented by a sophisticated audience demanding exiting, new plays.
Many plays were not repeated in exactly the same way, but often presented as slightly different versions, sustaining an ongoing demand for new prints. The actors themselves developed stylized ways of performing-kata, exalted poses and speech patterns-mie that became their signature and were passed onto the next generation along with their stage names.
On actor prints, the actor’s could be identified by the crests, depicted on their costumes or at other positions on the prints. In the first half of the eighteenth century, it became custom to inscribe the actor’s name on the print, but in the second half, the name disappeared and the actors could be identified by their crests.

In 1770s, Shunsho and Buncho conceived half-length actor portraits that turn out to be very well received by kabuki aficionados. They are the principle developers of ‘’likeness pictures’’, nigao-e, that captures the unique personality and individuality of an actor, as opposed to an earlier actor prints that concentrated on transmitting the beauty of the costumes and the lively motion on the stage.
These half-length portraits took the form of striking bust portraits that hit the market around the turn of the nineteenth century. The output of actor prints increased significantly in the nineteenth century and the competitive market gave way to more technical refinements.


Besides actors and beauties, many other subject matters became popular during different periods and several print designers specialized in certain subjects. Japan’s long tradition of heroic narratives and rich canon of legends found their way into so-called warrior prints, musha-e.

Serial novelettes supported the interest in historical subjects and warrior prints occupied a respectable share of the market in the nineteenth century. Other literary sources found also their way onto prints, especially the eleventh century, Tale of Genji- Genji Monogatari, and its nineteenth century persiflage A Country Genji by a Fake Murasaki, 1829-1842.
The popularity of the latter resulted in a new subject matter, the ‘Genji pictures, Genji-e, that were on the market from the 1840s until the early 1890s.


Another popular subject matter in prints, landscape views, derived from the Chinese theme of Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers, first found in poetry before it became a painting motif. The Eight Views of Ōmi, or Lake Biwa, is its Japanese pendant that was first illustrated in prints in the first half of the eighteenth century.
The travel and the pilgrimage boom since the early eighteenth century supported the wide interest in guide books and landscape pictures. Views of the fifty-four stations along the Tōkaidō road that connected Edo with Kyoto, famous sights in Edo, and views of Mount Fuji became the principal motif for hundred of print series.

The popularity of landscape prints, especially Hiroshige’s Tōkaidō series, provides an example of how publishers effectively returned their investment. For every design, publishers were alert as to how many impressions they had to sell to return their investment.
In an ideal situation, a design got sold out and the demand continued to be high enough to produce another print-run. With every additional print-run that followed, publishers gained more profit than with the first, as neither the print designer had to be pained again, nor the engraver, as the woodblock could still be used.
The publisher usually only paid the printer for the production, including his work, the colors, the paper and refinements, if any. After the engraver prepared the woodblocks, they became the property of the publisher and they kept those blocks for many years, waiting for an opportunity for reuse them.
Sometimes the blocks were brought to pawnshops, sold to other publishers, or the entire business was taken over by other publisher who then automatically came into possession of the old blocks.


In a few cases, the period of activity of a publishing house goes well beyond one hundred years, sometimes even over two hundred years. Usually, the leadership of the firm was passed onto the next generation who then took the predecessor’s name at the time of inheritance; much like the print designers and carvers did.

In order to assist consumers in identifying the sources of their prints and to increase the possibility of making them returning customers, published marked their prints with their trademark. Publisher trademark appeared in a wide range of styles depending on a number of factors like the time of publication.
Today, this makes publishing seals a means to assist in dating prints from a time when date seals were not in use. The trademark on a print could have been a logo without an obvious connection to a specific publisher up to an elaborate description of the publisher’s merits including his full name and address.

The print series are also important elements of this art form. Japanese woodblock prints developed from book illustrations, sequential, inter-connected images that tell a story. These images became dissociated from the text and released from their bound form to be published as untitled sets called kumimono.
Generally speaking, series are a clever invention by the publishers to bind consumers to their products. Titled series of prints with related designs were created to encourage customer’s loyalty. In the past, but also today, consumers were inclined to complete the series once another design got available.

The first monograph on a ukiyo-e master in any country was Edmond de Goncourt’s Outamaro: Le Paintre des Maisonos Vertes, 1891, and since then, there have been more catalogues, published scholarship and exhibitions on ukiyo-e then any other form of Japanese art.


There is a fascinating paradox in ukiyo-e; these paintings and prints were created to appeal to the fleeting moment, much like pop songs today, and yet they are now prized as one of the most famous artistic products of traditional Japan.
This has been due in large part of painters, collectors and scholars in the West who were the first to recognize their artistic merits when they were still generally regarded as ephemera in Japan. It has been estimated that at one time as many as 90% of extant Japanese prints had been brought to Europe and North America; some of the great collections now reside in museums in cities such as New York and Boston.
In recent decades, the flow has been reversed, with Japanese collectors and museums now buying prints from the West.

Ukiyo-e was a collaborative effort, rather different from most print making in the West, with individual specialists taking place the roles of carver, designer, printer and publisher. They combined to create the supremely high level of the prints that continue to provide us with interest and pleasure today, long after the world in which they were created has floated away.


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