A Brief Introduction to Ukiyo-e

Written by
Madison Folks
Published on
September 10, 2022 at 1:13:28 PM PDT September 10, 2022 at 1:13:28 PM PDTth, September 10, 2022 at 1:13:28 PM PDT

While the mention of Japanese woodblock prints may call to mind lavish courtesans and dynamic actors, the roots of the medium can be traced to the 8th century. At this time, woodblock printmaking traveled east with Buddhism through China and Korea, to Japan. In 764, Empress Koken eagerly embraced this medium and commissioned the Hyakumanto Darani, or the “One Million Pagodas and Dharani Prayers.” Each wooden pagoda housed a dainty Buddhist sutra, printed as a declaration of devotion and a plea for atonement. The medium largely retained this religious association and spiritual function until the Edo period (1615-1868).

The rise of the woodblock print is inextricably tied to the historical and social factors of the Edo period. By the early 17th century, the ancient feudal wars had ended, and Japan entered an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. The Tokugawa shogunate shifted the center of power from Kyoto to Edo (present-day Tokyo) and instituted a policy of sankin kotai. Meaning “alternate attendance,” this edict required provincial lords (daimyo) and their households to rotate residence between their regional homes and Edo. This measure not only kept local power in check, but also spurred Edo’s rapid urbanization. Surpassing one million residents, Edo became Japan’s largest city and the merchant class thrived. For the first time in Japan, a middle-class emerged and created a culture of their own. At this time, the woodblock print became the popular artistic medium of Edo’s middle class in the form of ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world.” Ever adapting to the public taste, these prints were affordable, commercial works of art.

Toyokuni III. Fireworks over Ryogoku Bridge in the Eastern Capital: Illustration of the Prosperity of the River Opening. 1858. Woodblock print.

Ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world,” captured the urban popular culture of the time. While the Buddhist term ukiyo originally emphasized the transitory nature of human life, during the 17th century the term gradually shifted its reference to the ephemeral world of earthly pleasure and indulgence. Catering to Edo’s vast population, the floating world revolved around the Yoshiwara, Edo’s legalized prostitution district, and kabuki theater. Despite the harsh reality of the women who worked within the Yoshiwara, these women became the models of fashion and beauty trends through bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women). In the neighborhood of Tsukiji, highly stylized kabuki productions served as a major impetus for the growth of ukiyo-e. The two arts engaged in a symbiotic relationship: theaters depended on prints for advertisement, whereas the ukiyo-e artists profited and developed their art form through kabuki subjects. Presenting one or two characters in dramatic poses, yakusha-e (actor portraits) captured the distinctive costumes and recognizable makeup of favorite roles to alert the city to coming attractions. By the mid-18th century, ukiyo-e prints achieved extraordinary popularity. When the government restricted the depiction of actors and courtesans in the 1840s, ukiyo-e artists added landscapes, warriors, ghosts and scenes of everyday life to their oeuvre.

(Left)Kiyonaga. The Sixth Month: Fashionable Scenes from the Twelve Months. c. 1779. Woodblock print. (Right) Hiroshige. Dawn in the Yoshiwara. 1857. Woodblock print.

An ukiyo-e print is often described as the work of a single artist, but in truth, each design is the result of the joint effort of the ‘ukiyo-e quartet’—the artist, engraver, printer, and publisher. The artist designs an image that is then pasted onto a finely prepared cherry woodblock. The engraver follows the artist’s lines with a sharp knife, skillfully hollowing out the intervening spaces. Once carved, the key block is a work of art in of itself. This block is then inked with sumi (black ink) and a sheet of dampened mulberry paper is laid upon it. The printer rubs the paper with a baren (flat circular pad) until the impression is uniformly transferred. This key block impression establishes the design’s outlines and the kento (guide marks) used to align each subsequent color. For a color print (nishiki-e), the artist roughly indicates the color scheme, and a separate block is carved for each hue. The printer layers each color atop the key block impression. When the printing is complete, the publisher distributes the finished work to eager audiences and commissions new designs.

Hokusai. Mishima Pass in Kai Province . c.1833. Woodblock print.

The woodblock print became an unmistakable art form in the hands of Edo’s artists. While the product of Edo society, ukiyo-e equally shaped the development of this unique culture by promoting its humor, beauty, fashions, and heroes. Though the floating world began to crumble in the late Edo period, the woodblock continued to evolve as reactive medium: Yokohama-e (Yokohama pictures) recorded and circulated Japan’s first impressions of the foreigners that poured into Yokohama in the 1850s. Kaika-e (enlightenment pictures) reflected the search for modern Japanese identity during the early Meiji Period (1868-1912). Senso-e (war pictures) functioned as propaganda through the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and Russo Japanese War (1904-1905). During the 20th century, two major print movements emerged, each redefining the medium to reflect a changing Japan. Shin hanga, or “new prints,” artists ushered familiar genres into a new age through limited editions, Western artistic influence, and modern marketing, while sosaku hanga or “creative prints,” artists shed the delegation of labor and celebrated expressive self-carved, self-printed works. Though subjects, styles and materials shifted over time, the woodblock print continues to serve as a responsive artistic medium.

Hasui. Mt. Fuji Seen from Satta Pass. April 1935. Woodblock print.