Ukiyoe (Japanese woodblock prints) (浮世絵)

Ukiyoe is a genre of the pictorial arts established during the Edo period. The word "ukiyo" (this life) also means "modern," and Ukiyoe refers to Fuzokuga, in which paintings depicts the manners and customs of the day. while Ukiyoe is descended from Yamato-e painting (a traditional Japanese style painting of the late Heian and Kamakura periods dealing with Japanese themes), and consistent with the cultural background of the comprehensive pictorial art genre; by contrast, it depicts scenes from people's everyday life and things.

Generally, when it comes to Ukiyoe today, one is solely reminded of the multicolor woodblock print (Nishikie [colored woodblock print]) in many cases, but original drawings (Nikuhitsu Ukiyoe [single copy paintings created by brush]) and so on are also included.


Ukiyoe is divided into two categories: the original drawing and the woodblock print. An original drawing was created as a single piece of work, and drawings of prestigious Eshi painters were expensive, and also the numbers of works were limited. Contrastingly, the woodblock print benefited from the fact that as a print, the same picture could be inexpensively printed off many times, so even the general public of the Edo period was easily able to obtain such works.

The Ukiyoe woodblock print was a part of the popular culture, and prints were adored by being picked up and looked at. They were not framed and looked at from a distance as we know it today at art exhibitions, etc. They served as illustrations for Kusazoshi (Japanese chapter books), Emakimono (illustrated scrolls) and Kawaraban (commercial news sheets of the Edo period). Picture calendars called Egoyomi, which included works with diverse ideas, such as having hidden numbers in the pictures, were produced. As homecoming gifts from Edo, Ukiyoe were appreciated due to their beauty and small size. There was a type used for clipping play, like Omochae (toy pictures for children).

Ukiyoe is, in terms of expressiveness, characterized by clear-cut design, daring patterns, shadowless expression, etc. Perspective was also introduced. There was a type in which perspective was intentionally ignored, as demonstrated in Hokusai's "Tsuri no meijin" (Master of fishing), where a figure in the distance is conversely depicted as larger.


Ukiyoe originally appeared as paintings depicting the customs and manners of everyday life, 'ukiyo.'

The early stages
From the Great Fire in Meireki to around the Horeki era. Ukiyoe in the early stages mainly consisted of original drawings and single-color woodblock printing (Sumizurie [pictures printed in black India ink lines]). There appeared Tan-e and Benie, which colored Sumizurie with red pigment; there was also Benizurie, in which adding few additional colors, such as green on Benie. Immediately before the appearance of Nishikie, an extremely low-chromatic multicolor printing called Mizue emerged, in which profile lines are drawn by "Tsuyukusa" (blue Asiatic Dayflower) rather than India ink.

The middle stages
From 1765 to around 1806. A form of bright multicolor printing, Azuma-nishikie (brocade picture of the East) was devised, and it brought the Ukiyoe culture into bloom. The division of labor was beginning to be established among Shitaeshi (Ukiyoe artists), Horishi (carvers) and Surishi (printers).

The later stages
From 1807 to around 1858. Bijinga (a type of Ukiyoe portraying beautiful women), Yakushae (print of Kabuki actors), Mushae (Ukiyoe prints of warriors) and Meishoe (landscape drawings), as a result of travel boom, were developed.

The end stages
From 1859 to around 1912. From the end of the Edo period to the Meiji period, such Ukiyoe as Yokohama-e (Yokohama pictures), Kaika-e (enlightenment pictures), Nishikie-shinbun (newspapers) and so on played an important role in introducing Western things as well as Japanese society. Muzan-e (atrocity prints) and Senso-e (prints of war, or battle scenes), were well received, but Ukiyoe eventually began to decline, losing ground to other media such as newspapers, photographs, etc. Eshi painters changed careers and became illustrators and Japanese-style painters, and the tradition of Ukiyoe came down to other genres.

The early stages

This refers to the period from the Great Fire in Meireki to around the Horeki era. Ukiyoe in the early stages were mainly original drawings and single-color woodblock prints (Sumizurie).

After the mid-17th century, a person who made original drawings for woodblock prints was called Hanshita-eshi (professional draftsman), then Moronobu HISHIKAWA, who drew illustrations for picture books and Ukiyo-zoshi (popular stories of everyday life in the Edo period), made his appearance. The famous "Mikaeri Bijin zu (Picture of Looking-Back Beauty)," his most important work, is an original drawing.

Saikaku's "Koshoku ichidai otoko (Life of a Amorous Man)" (published in 1682) describes that Ukiyoe was drawn on a folding fan with 12 ribs, and this is the oldest literature in which the word "Ukiyoe" can be found.

When the days of Kiyonobu TORII began, there appeared a type of Sumizurie colored with ink brush. These were colored mainly with red pigments, but one with tan (red earth) being used was called Tan-e and the one with beni (rouge) used was called Benie. Furthermore, one with a few colors being added to Benie was called Benizurie. Since that time, the Torii school of Ukiyoe has closely been associated with Kabuki (traditional drama performed by male actors) and works on Kabuki billboards even today.

The middle stages

This refers to the period from 1765, when Nishikie (print) was born, to around 1806.

In 1765, Egoyomi (picture calendars) became fashionable, especially among Haiku poets, and Egoyomi exchange parties started to be organized. To meet the demand, Harunobu SUZUKI and others worked out Azuma-nishikie printed in multiple colors, and the Ukiyoe culture came into full bloom. As to the factors by which multicolor printing was made possible, it is pointed out that "Kento" (guide marks) were introduced to mark the points for overprinting, and that strong, high-quality Japanese papers that withstood multiple-color printing became available. Papers made of Kozo (paper mulberry), such as Echizen-hoshogami (heavy Japanese paper of the best quality in Echizen Province), Iyo-masagami, Nishino-uchigami and so on were used. Also, the economic development took an important role, as the division of labor was established for the complicated processes among Shitaeshi, Horishi and Surishi.

After Harunobu SUZUKI's death, Bijinga began to change from androgynous, doll-like patterns to realistic ones.

During the Anei era, Shigemasa KITAO enjoyed popularity for his Bijinga. Realistic delineation was also added to Yakushae, and bromide-like Nigaoe (portraits) were drawn by Shunsho KATSUKAWA.

Furthermore, Utamaro KITAGAWA made his appearance and drew many Okubie ("large-head" pictures), which was a type of Bijinga with a delicate, elegant, gracious touch.

In 1790, the 'Aratame in' approval seal system was established, and various restrictions were enforced for publications.

In 1795, a Hanmoto (publisher) called Juzaburo TSUTAYA, whose assets had been confiscated due to his breaking a ban, introduced Sharaku TOSHUSAI as a revival measure. Though he attracted public attention with his uniquely exaggerated Yakushae, his popularity made a poor showing due to the excessive exaggeration of features, and he was defeated by "Yakusha butai no sugatae" (likenesses of actors on the stage) by Toyokuni UTAGAWA, which were overwhelmingly popular.

Afterward, the largest school of Ukiyoe Eshi painters, the Utagawa school, consisting of Toyokuni's disciples began to take shape.

The later stages

From 1807 to around 1858.

After Utamaro KITAGAWA's death, the mainstream of Bijinga turned toward sensual, sexy beauty and loveliness such as Eisen KEISAI drew.

Hokusai KATSUSHIKA, one of Shunsho KATSUKAWA's disciples, along with the travel boom, drew the "Fugaku sanju rokkei (Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji)," which triggered the publication of the "Tokaido Gojusan-tsugi (The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Road)," by Hiroshige UTAGAWA. With these two artists, Meishoe (landscape drawing) in the category of Ukiyoe was developed.

In the category of Yakushae, Kunisada UTAGAWA, as the successor to his teacher Toyokuni UTAGAWA, drew strong Yakushae.

In Kusazoshi, Mushae, along with the boom in fantastical tales, came to be drawn by Kuniyoshi UTAGAWA and others.

The "Suikoden" (The Water Margin) series of Kuniyoshi UTAGAWA gained popularity at that time, and the "Suikoden boom" took place.

"Edo sunako saisenki" published in 1853 described "Toyokuni Nigao (Nigaoe), Kuniyoshi Musha (Mushae) and Hiroshige Meisho (Meishoe)."

The end stages

From 1859 to around 1912.

Yokohama-e (Yokohama Ukiyoe) became fashionable among people who were inspired by Kurofune (the "black ships" of Commodore Matthew Perry) and became interested in Western cultures. After the Meiji Restoration, Kaika-e (enlightenment pictures), which depict rare Western architecture and railways, replaced Yokohama-e.

While in Japan which was domestically disrupted by the Meiji Restoration, grotesque things appeared in Kabuki and other shows, Yoshiiku OCHIAI and Yoshitoshi TSUKIOKA, who were disciples of Kuniyoshi UTAGAWA, drew "Eimei nijuhachishuku," which depicted bloody scenes and were called Muzan-e, as well as illustrations for articles in Nishikie-shinbun.

Yoshitoshi TSUKIOKA, with his delicate, sketching-oriented patterns, drew not only Muzan-e but also many Rekishiga (historical paintings) and Fuzokuga, and came to be called "The last Ukiyoe artist." As he positively encouraged his disciples to learn about other categories of the pictorial art, many disciples achieved greatness as illustrators and Japanese-style painters, such as Kiyokata KABURAKI; thus the tradition of Ukiyoe came down to other genres.

Also, some artists of the Kano school, including Kyosai KAWANABE, started drawing Ukiyoe.

Kiyochika KOBAYASHI created new landscape drawings called Kosenga in which profile lines weren't used.

Yoshifuji UTAGAWA applied Ukiyoe on Omochae, which is now called paper appendices, and, due to the popularity of the idea, played an active role as an Eshi painter specializing in Omochae. He was even called the "Omocha Yoshifuji."

Ukiyoe gradually declined, losing ground to newspapers, photographs, new technologies such as lithographs, etc. Ukiyoe artists exercised their ingenuity against photographs, mostly in vain, and were forced to become illustrators and so on. The history of Ukiyoe, which was handed down from the Edo period, nearly ended with the Sensou-e depicting the Sino-Japanese War as the last one.

From the Taisho period to the Showa period, Hasui KAWASE and others intended to restore Ukiyoe with new woodblock prints, and left behind many works that utilized the woodblock multicolor printing technique of Ukiyoe.

Major Hanmoto (Publishers)

Jihon toiya, publishers and sellers that dealt with entertaining publications, became publishers of Ukiyoe.

At that time, townspeople weren't permitted to adopt surnames and wear swords; thus, TSURUYA and so on weren't surnames but Yago (the name of the store).

One of the long-established stores. He published the first part of "Tokaido Gojusan-tsugi."

He dealt with many of the works of Hokusai KATSUSHIKA including "Fugaku Sanju Rokkei."

Juzaburo TSUTAYA
Jinpachi MARUYA
Kanzaemon IBAYA/Senzaburo IBAYA (Ibaya/Ibasen)
Toukaido-harimazezue (Hiroshige UTAGAWA)
It was originally a purveyor of Japanese paper and bamboo products to the Edo bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun). However, even after caricatures and Yakushae were banned, it published Yakushae as "scribbling." It dealt with many Uchiwae (pictures on fans), currently it runs a fan, folding fan and calendar business in Nihonbashi (Chuo Ward Tokyo) and has branch stores at Isetan Shinjuku Store, Nihonbashi MITSUKOSHI, GINZA ITO-YA and so on.

"Tokaido Gojusan-tsugi, ARITAYA version" (Hiroshige UTAGAWA)
"Tokaido Gojusan-tsugi, Ehon ekironosuzu" (Hokusai KATSUSHIKA)
Eikichi UOYA (Uoei)
The emerging hanmoto, which joined the business later. He selected Kunimasa UTAGAWA, then just 22 years old, and enabled him to make a spectacular debut.

Kichibei KAGAYA
Iwakichi KAMEYA
"Tokaido Gojusan-eki no zu," "Tokaido, TSUTAYA version" (Hiroshige UTAGAWA)
"Fugaku hyakkei" (A Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji) (Hokusai KATSUSHIKA)
"Tokaido fukeizue" (Hiroshige UTAGAWA; description: Shuin YANAGISHITA)


Landscapes, portraits of kabuki actors, Sumo wrestlers and Yujo (prostitutes) were depicted. Many fall under the category of present-day comics and contain elements of caricature. Traditional themes, which were to be materials for Chinese paintings and Yamato-e paintings, were sometimes transformed for Ukiyoe.

As for Shunga (erotic arts) depicting love scenes, most well-known Eshi painters drew them. Shunga were often sold in package deals. Because their selling prices were high, much money was allowed to be used for production and high-level production techniques were employed. Having the element of mocking (lampooning) the real sex culture, they weren't necessarily sensational, and it has been indicated that they shouldn't be regarded merely as pornography.

Types of Ukiyoe

Bijinga: Pictures depicting young women. Kanban-musume (poster girls) and Yujo, who were popular at that time, were depicted.

Yakushae: Pictures depicting popular Kabuki actors and so on. Some were like bromides, and some served as chirashi (leaflets).

Caricature: Pictures comically drawn. Tobae was included. Humorous scenes and personifications appeared. They contained elements of caricature but consistently emphasized the entertainment aspect.

Tobae: Caricatures depicting long-limbed human characters. It was derived from the name of Toba Sojo (high priest). Early-stage comics are sometimes referred to in this way.

Comics: Etehon (art manuals). Pictures depicting all creation. They were different from the present-day comics. Hokusai Manga (Hokusai's sketches) were representative examples.

Shunga: Pictures depicting sex scenes and other sensuous things. There were brochures for sex toys and personified genital organ and so on. They were so prevalent in the countryside that Nishikie virtually meant shunga. It could be a part of a dowry.

Meishoe Landscape drawings
Pictures allowed common people of the period, who were unable to travel freely, to see their longed-for famous sights. They also served as travel brochures.

Mushae: warriors, who had appeared in legends, fantastic tales and history, were depicted. They became fashionable, particularly with the boom in fantastical tales. It was prohibited by the bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) to depict Nobunaga ODA and warriors after him.

Rekishiga: They depicted historically famous scenes. After the Meiji Restoration, there were works that depicted the past emperors in order to promote the legitimacy of the imperial family.

Omochae: There were works to be pasted on Sugoroku (Japanese backgammon) and Menko (Japanese-style pogs), miniatures of popular Ukiyoe, paper fashion dolls, works called Zukushie on which many specters and warriors were gathered, and so on. Many ideas were adopted for use in children's toys.

Mitate-e: Parodies of classical works.

Sumoue: Pictures depicting Sumo. Among them were bromides of performing Sumo wrestlers at the time.

Harimaze-e: Works on which several pictures were drawn on a single sheet of paper.

Shinie: Woodblock prints issued as the deaths of celebrities. Some were for famous Eshi painters.

Kodomoe: Pictures depicting children at play.

Nagasakie: Pictures depicting the foreign cultures that were seen in Nagasaki.

Yokohama-e: Pictures full of the exotic atmosphere of Yokohama.

Namazue: Pictures that appeared after the Ansei Great Earthquakes. It was derived from the popular superstition that Namazu (catfish) bring on earthquakes.

Hoso-e: Charms to avert smallpox.

Uchiwae: Pictures to be pasted on fans.

The production method for Ukiyoe woodblock prints

Persons who drew Ukiyoe were called Ukiyoe artists or Eshi painters (Edakumi [a painter]). Persons who carved the pictures drawn by Ukiyoe artists in woodblocks were Horishi (Choko [carvers]), and persons who colored the woodblocks and printed were Surishi (printers). Although Ukiyoe were collaborative works, customarily only the names of Eshi painters were remembered. At least four parties, including an additional party as the purchaser, became necessary.

"Kento" (present-day registration marks [printing]) were attached in order to check the position of the paper and prevent misalignment of the colors in multicolor printing. Some have theorized that it was worked out by a wholesale dealer for publication, Kichiemon UEMURA, in 1744, but others have asserted that it was practiced by a surishi named Kinroku in 1765. It is also said that it was invented by Gennai HIRAGA, who associated with Harunobu SUZUKI.. The phrases such as "Kento wo tsukeru" (to take aim at), "Kento chigai" (off the mark), "Kentou hazure" (out of register), which are used even today, derive from this "Kento."

"The colors" of Ukiyoe

The dyestuffs and pigments used for Ukiyoe woodblock prints were relatively inexpensive plant-derived and mineral ones.

Black was India ink. Early-stage works printed in a single color with India ink were referred to as "Sumizurie." White (Gofun) is made from ground clamshell (calcium carbonate).

In reddish colors

Deep red, crimson: Safflower


Vermilion: Mercury

Bengal red: Iron oxide

Tan (red lead): Lead

In yellowish colors

Yellow: Turmeric, aroma tree, Garcinia cambogia tree

Orpiment (arsenious sulfide, 生黄): 硫化黄 (arsenic sulfide)

In bluish colors

Indigo: Indigo plant (plant), blue Asiatic dayflower

And so on, while neutral colors such as purple were expressed through mixtures of these primary colors. Additionally, gold, silver and mica powder were used to obtain a luxurious look. Works on which mica powder was used for a plain background were called "Kirazuri."

They were so vulnerable to color fading that works which retain the colors at the time of printing are rare. The Spaulding Collection (approximately 6,500 items) of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts remains private in principle, respecting the intent of the Spaulding brothers, who donated their collection on the condition of "no exhibition permitted" (viewing digital images is possible).

From the end of the Edo period to the Meiji period, bright foreign-made pigments became available; these characterized the Nishikie during that period.

Indigo: Berlin blue (Bero-ai, or Prussian blue)

Aizuri, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanju rokkei), etc.

Purple: Murako

Pink: Rhodamine

Red: Aniline red (cochineal) - Kaikae, etc.

Appreciation and influence

In the Meiji period or later, Ukiyoe received little attention in Japan, and many of the works were taken out of the country. Consequently, no legitimate, systematic and academic study could be conducted for Ukiyoe as a pictorial art work, and opinions based on different knowledge sources were partially and continually repeated only by individual collectors and researchers.

Moreover, as it happens, there are counterfeits of many famous works, including those of Harunobu SUZUKI, Utamaro KITAGAWA and others distributed from the time of Edo period.

On the other hand, in Western countries Ukiyoe were found and highly appreciated by the great masters of the Impressionist school, whose works were influenced by Ukiyoe, and they were even reproduced in oil paintings. Apparently, at least 200,000 or more items of Ukiyoe are kept in storage in 20 or more of the most prestigious Western museums; moreover, various individuals have private collections, thus indicating that Ukiyoe is the only foreign art form that is collected in such great numbers. Many museums keep 10,000 or more items of Ukiyoe, such as Boston's Museum of Fine Arts with 50,000 items, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts with 30,000 items, and so on.

Ukiyoe is the world's only vivid-colored woodblock prints; Western pictorial art has no such category, which is thought to encourage its appreciation. Among the many Ukiyoe that have been scattered, works of comparatively simple patterns, including Utamaro, were large in number while Ukiyoe of richly colored (gaudy) complex patterns were unexpectedly small in number. As Ukiyoe remain domestically in multiples of those that have been scattered overseas, it is hoped that studies will further proceed for Ukiyoe as a rare art work in the world, so that appreciation of the form isn't limited to the West.

It is also valuable that Ukiyoe is the only material in the world that depicts the varied lives of ordinary people in the Medieval period.

According to the documents of the Meiji period, there were close to 2,000 Eshi painters until that time, if unknown Eshi painters are included. Because 100 to 200 pieces were printed for a work at that time, huge numbers of Ukiyoe appeared in the cities and, unlike anywhere else in the world, high-quality works of art were very popular among ordinary people.

Influence from overseas

While Ukiyoe influenced Japonism, it received influence from overseas. Synthetic pigment, Prussian blue ("Bero" came from Berlin), which originated from Germany, produced bright color and was used by Hokusai KATSUSHIKA and others. The Western perspective and shading technique were also adopted.

Influence on overseas

In 1865, the French painter Bracquemond showed his friends "Hokusai Manga," which were on the wrapping papers of earthenware goods, and ultimately this had a great influence on the Impressionists. This brought about the situation in Europe that Ukiyoe pieces were traded at high prices that were unthinkable in Japan at the time, while in Japan Ukiyoe were for ordinary people's entertainment and secondhand and defective ones were traded at prices so low that they were used as packaging material for sea cargoes.

It is well known that Vincent VAN GOGH drew Ukiyoe on the background of his work entitled "Portrait of Pere Tanguy" and reproduced Hiroshige's works in his oil painting, while the "Young Flautist" of Edouard MANET was influenced by Ukiyoe.

Furthermore, some planar designs similar to Ukiyoe are found in Art Nouveau due to the influences of Japonism and Bing, who dealt with Japanese arts.

Ukiyoe even influenced classical music, as Claude DEBUSSY was inspired by Hokusai's "Kanagawa oki nami ura (Behind the Great Wave at Kanagawa)" and composed "La Mer (The Sea)"(the print was used on the front cover of the full score published in 1905, and there is a photograph in which the print can be identified as an ornament in a study).

[Original Japanese]