With the return of international tourism in Japan following the coronavirus pandemic, now is a great time to see some of the country’s outstanding cultural offerings. No trip to Japan would be complete without taking in the rich artistic tradition of ukiyo-e, the colorful woodblock prints that have an outsize influence on art and design around the world.
Understanding Ukiyo-e: A Window on Japan’s Floating World
The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by Katsushika Hokusai Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Ukiyo-e literally means “pictures of the floating world,” and is a genre of Japanese painting and woodblock print from the Edo period (1603–1867). The ukiyo or “floating world” was a euphemism for the licensed quarters and entertainment districts of Edo (the old name for Tokyo) and other cities. The beauties, prostitutes and actors from this celebrated demimonde, and associated hedonistic attitudes, were popular subjects of the genre. In recent centuries, however, ukiyo-e has been most strongly associated with landscapes. The most iconic example, The Great Wave off Kanagawa by the ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), has become one of the most reproduced artworks in the world.
Ukiyo-e were influenced by the realism of the emaki illustrated scrolls of the Kamakura period (1192–1333) but they broke new ground with their subject matter, production method and accessibility. Ukiyo-e artists began creating portraits of ordinary people and urban celebrities rather than nobles, historical figures or religious subjects. They were even eager to depict erotic subjects in shunga prints, scandalizing conservatives. This embrace of the everyday world was a significant break with painting tradition in Japan, which had imitated Chinese genres. The new ukiyo-e artists also used the painstaking process of carving out woodblock layers for printmaking so that works could be easily reproduced and made accessible to the growing numbers of merchants in Edo. These two factors made ukiyo-e a revolutionary force in Japanese art and assured the genre’s popularity with the public.
An (rather tame) example of Shunga by Keisai Eisen Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The first master of ukiyo-e was Hishikawa Moronobu (1618–1694), a printmaker who focused on the customs of the people of Edo, especially the actors of the Kabuki theater and prostitutes of the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter. Creating images for books and prints alike, Hishikawa enjoyed tremendous success. He not only began signing his works, a first for book illustrators, but started producing standalone single-sheet prints. His rise to fame saw the emergence of many imitators producing images of beautiful women and actors as well as an entire printmaking industry, with a division of labor shared among artists, engravers, printers and publishers. Meanwhile, ukiyo-e evolved from early sumizuri-e or black ink prints printed on washi paper to two- and three-color prints in the mid-18th century, followed by full-color prints in the following decades.
Courtesans parading with servants while carrying umbrellas by Hishikawa Moronobu Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
A woodblock for a woodblock print by Nishikawa Sukenobu CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
The 18th century also saw the advent of landscapes as a subject for ukiyo-e. This was fueled by a boom in domestic tourism in which commoners would travel to see famous spots such as Mt. Fuji and the Ise Grand Shrine. To get to such places, they would travel the main footpath “highways” of the day, such as the Tokaido connecting Edo and Kyoto. Artists such as Hokusai, Utagawa Toyoharu (c. 1735–1814) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) produced iconic travelogues of such experiences including Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, and The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido, which feature some of the most iconic ukiyo-e works in history. Just as the early ukiyo-e prints allowed commoners to indulge in art appreciation, the landscape genre enable vicarious travel for those who could not afford their own journey.
The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido, Okazaki by Utagawa Hiroshige CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
While essentially a Japanese genre, ukiyo-e also benefited from foreign technologies even though the nation was under self-imposed isolation from 1633, trading only with limited partners including the Dutch at Nagasaki. One enormously impactful import was Prussian blue, the dark blue pigment said to have been first synthesized by Johann Jacob Diesbach in the early 18th century. Around a century later, ukiyo-e artists absorbed Western graphical perspective from European copperplates imported by the Dutch, enabling them to add more realistic depth to their drawings in a subgenre called uki-e. The sense of depth and the vivid Prussian blue are two elements that help make Hokusai’s Great Wave so outstanding.
Other ukiyo-e artists took the form in new directions. Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798–1861), one of the last great masters, became known for portrayals of beautiful women, legendary heroes and renowned warriors. However, the Tenpo reforms of the 1840s, an austerity movement that banned depictions of courtesans and actors, may have led him to shift his focus to caricature, comic imagery, supernatural entities and animals including innumerable cartoonish cats. In that sense, ukiyo-e has been described as one of the roots of contemporary Japanese manga.
Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre by Kuniyoshi Utagawa Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Of course, the influence of ukiyo-e didn’t stop there. With the opening of Japan to foreign trade in the mid-19th century, ukiyo-e prints became a popular souvenir, soon fanning a craze for Japanese art and aesthetics that influenced Western impressionist and post-impressionist masters such as Degas, Whistler and Van Gogh. Overseas enthusiasm for ukiyo-e has hardly abated over the past century. Today, you can find ukiyo-e like Hokusai’s Great Wave on everything from mugs and footwear to toys and tattoos. Each one is a window onto the long-gone floating world of Edo.
If you’re keen to learn more about ukiyo-e and take in the beauty of original Japanese woodblock prints, here are a few museums where you can start.
Tokyo National Museum
Ueno Park 13-9, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Ota Memorial Museum of Art
1-10-10 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Sumida Hokusai Museum
2-7-2 Kamezawa, Sumida-ku, Tokyo
Japan Ukiyo-e Museum
2206-1, Shinkiri, Shimadachi, Matsumoto, Nagano
485 Obuse, Obuse-machi, Kamitakai-gun, Nagano
Kamigata Ukiyoe Museum
1-6-4 Namba, Chuo-ku, Osaka
- พิพิธภัณฑ์อุคิโยะเอะแห่งประเทศญี่ปุ่น (Japan Ukiyo-e Museum)
- โฮกุไซคัง (พิพิธภัณฑ์โฮกุไซ)