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Japanese Woodblock Prints

By Love Liman

Katsushika Hokusai: Travellers Crossing the Oi River

Katsushika Hokusai: Travellers Crossing the Oi River
Courtesy Jim Breen for Jim Breen for Katsushika Hokusai


In Edo period (1603-1867) in Japan, a new urban bourgeoisie emerged, mainly consisting of merchants and artisans. Despite being of a low rank on the social scale, many of them were very wealthy and could afford to enjoy themselves in the pleasure quarter of the city, where kabuki theatres, tea houses and brothels were a common feature. Among the artist of the time was a widespread interest in depicting different aspects of this life and the term ukiyo-e, meaning pictures of the floating world, is applied to the school of paintings, book illustrations and woodblock prints that do so. The woodblock prints were the most prominent of these.

The objective of this essay is to give a brief account of the woodblock prints made in this period and explain how they were made. Not all of the different subjects and categories within ukiyo-e will be covered due to the limited space of this essay. Neither will specific artists be covered in depth; rather will a couple of them be mentioned at a certain stage of the development of ukiyo-e where they contributed significantly.

Ukiyo-e and Japanese woodblock prints

The Edo period, coinciding with the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867) in Japanese history, started with the relocation of the capital from Kyoto, where the imperial family resided, to Edo (modern Tokyo). While the preceding period had been characterised by chaos and civil wars, the Edo period marked the beginning of more than 250 years of peace. Under the Tokugawa shogunate, a highly centralised feudalistic society was built, where the feudal lords were given the role of administrators and distinctions between the statuses of warriors, farmers, artisans and merchants were heavily enforced, leading to a segmented society.(1)

The period fostered economic stability and prosperity. Commercialism had begun to flourish already during the times of unrest and increased further along with the growth of cities and industries. Despite being on the lower end of the officially established social scale and lacking political power, successful merchants and artisans rose to constitute a new and wealthy urban bourgeoisie, called chonin, in the recently established capital of Japan. As they prospered, they had the means to enjoy the cities’ leisure activities.(2)

The concept of ukiyo, meaning floating world, has its origins in Buddhism. According to Buddhism, the joys in the world are transient and detachment from desire and craving will lead man to enlightenment. In earlier periods, ukiyo carried with it the connotation of a sad and lamentable world, especially in the 16th century, during the time of intense civil wars. During the Edo period, however, the interpretation of ukiyo was twisted to mean that if material joys are fleeting, you might just as well enjoy them to the fullest. The suffix “e” on ukiyo-e means picture and hence, ukiyo-e is the term used for the pictures – that is the woodblock prints, the paintings and the book illustrations – depicting these joys of the common people that first appeared in the 17th century.(3)

Beginnings of ukiyo-e woodblock prints

Moronobu: Young Couple

Moronobu: Young Couple
Courtesy Carol Gerten-Jackson for Hishikawa Moronobu

While paintings was an art mostly enjoyed by the aristocracy, the ukiyo-e colour prints was a popular school that was dependent on the emergence of the wealthy bourgeoisie that loved the pleasures of the city and were avid for novelty. New art forms developed in response to their growing demand for leisure activities, such as the kabuki theatre. Literacy was also increasing in among people of this class, and formed a market for a large amount of popular, illustrated literature.(4) While the woodblock printing technique had been used from the 8th in Japan by Buddhist scholars for disseminating religious teaching and sacred images, there had been no other movement that demonstrated a need for this relatively simple technology for more than 800 years. However, with the growing demand for popular texts in Edo period, the woodblock printing technique came into use for the purpose of illustrating the publications of the day. This was the beginning of the ukiyo-e woodcuts.(5)

The early ukiyo-e artists, however, who first developed a distinct identity in the 17th century, expressed themselves solely through painting. The origins of the style are complex but are traceable to different artists who were active at the turn of the 16th century. What they shared was the unusual interest in the passing scene and in the fashion, and they were seeking a way of expressing their worldly outlook. The paintings were limited in number and made for relatively wealthy patrons and it was not until in the mid-17th century that book-illustrators adapted to the style, making it available to a wider audience. Indeed, the illustrated book was a success, but traditionally calligraphy had been considered a higher art form so the texts were more important than the illustrations in these books. But the pictorial effects made by Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694), the first major individual artist of ukiyo-e prints, so delighted the readers that the image dominated the text. In time, the printed image came to be viewed as a work of art in its own right and there was a demand by common people for pictures that could be displayed. This led to a production of separate broadsheets of larger size than a normal illustrated book. The broadsheets were initially in black outline only, but soon some colours were being applied by hand. The colour woodprint, however, on which the colours were applied on separate woodblocks, did not appear until about 1740, when the use of two colours, mostly light red and green, was introduced. It would take about another twenty years until more colours were applied on the prints.(6)

Ukiyo-e depicting life in Yoshiwara quarter

Shunsho: Court Woman Observing Dew on Autumn Grasses

Shunsho: Court Woman Observing Dew on Autumn Grasses
Courtesy John Fiorillo for Shunsho

In Edo, Yoshiwara quarter was a major pleasure centre where brothels, teahouses and all the Geishas, courtesans and musicians that went along with them, were thriving. The town-dwellers were always interested in the gay life of this particular area and there was a demand for pictures of famous beauties.(7) The publishers of woodblock printings saw an opportunity to profit from printings depicting these pre-modern stars. Thus, one important source for the ukiyo-e prints was the life in the Yoshiwara quarter.(8) Another development was the relationship between the ukiyo-e prints and kabuki theatre that was firmly established in the late 17th century. Kabuki theatres were common in the Yoshiwara quarter and a demand for portrayals of kabuki actors created a market for souvenirs. The ukiyo-e prints that targeted this mass-market depicted famous actors but prints were also used to make posters and playbills.(9) Actors and beautiful women were the main subject matters until the early 19th century but had their peak in the last quarter of the 18th century. At that time Katsukawa Shunsho (1726-1792) and his pupils dominated the genre.(10) Katsukawa found his own style of portraying actors. As opposed to the artists following the school of Torii Kiyonobu, who dominated much of the ukiyo-e print world during the first half of the 18th century and were making generalised prints where it was difficult to tell one actor from the other, Katsukawa’s prints of actors showed distinctive personalities that were easily recognisable to the viewer.(11)

The development of the colour print

The period 1765 until 1810 is considered to be the golden age of the colour print. The knowledge of how to make colour prints was known since earlier but so labour-intensive as to be uneconomical. However, in this period, a sophisticated elite in Edo who amused themselves by designing elaborate pages for calendars spurred the development of the colour prints. Calendar manufacture was a government monopoly, but privately commissioned works were common. The calendars were disguised within innocent-looking pictures to avoid censorship. In 1765, a group of people in this elite commissioned the artist Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770) to replicate the originals in the woodcut medium. These, colour woodblock prints, called nishiki-e, meaning brocade pictures, were then sent to their friends as New Year’s greetings. Even though calendars of this kind were not widely distributed, they excited general audiences to the possibility of extending the product range to include colour woodblock prints. In time, publishers began to enter full-colour production.(12)

Landscape prints

Hokusai: Under he Wave at Kanagawa

Hokusai: Under he Wave at Kanagawa
Courtesy Jim Breen for Jim Breen for Katsushika Hokusai

The Japanese had from earliest times developed devotion for nature and birds and flowers appeared quite early among the ukiyo-e prints. But landscape as an independent genre appeared rather late in the prints. These fukeiga, or landscape prints, were often produced in sets as a travelogue and became very popular both in Japan and abroad. Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), who had trained with Katsukawa Shunsho as a young man, was one of the main artists who developed this last achievement of the ukiyo-e art.(13) Some of his best early work had been in the production of surimono prints, one category of ukiyo-e prints. The surimono was a privately commissioned, small edition of prints of highest quality. They were published for occasions such as publications of poet groups and artist name change and were also sent as New Year’s greetings. On these printings popular legends and myths could be the motif as well as popular Sumo wrestlers.(14) However, Hokusai is perhaps most well known for one of his landscape series: “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”. One of the pictures in the series – “Under he Wave at Kanagawa” – depicting a giant wave engulfing fishing boats, with Mount Fuji as a background detail, is a very well known piece of Japanese art.(15) The popularity of the landscape themes has been attributed to different factors. In part it could have been one result of government restrictions: At some instances, the government intervened in the printing industry for different reasons, as with the introduction of censorship of prints in the late 18th century because of some artist criticising the aristocracy in their pictures. The objective of these policies was also to impede the townspeople from spending their time and money on the frivolous entertainment that were promoted on the prints. Hence, this could be one of the reasons to new motifs being introduced, such as landscape, heroic and legendary subject matters.(16) Another reason to the demand for fukeiga has been ascribed to the restrictions on travel in that time – also imposed by the government. Pictures of views along the road that led between the imperial palace in Kyoto and the shogunate capital in Edo may have been appealing to those who could not see it themselves.(17)

Conclusion/Deterioration of ukiyo-e

The ukiyo-e prints of the last decades of the Edo period, which ended in 1868, when imperial power was restored and under the Meiji emperor, are not considered to be of the same high quality as earlier works. Society underwent significant changes as the Tokugawa government’s closed door policy came to an end and a part of the explanation of the decline could be increasing competition from modern technologies, such as photographs and newspaper illustration, that were introduced to the country.(18) Thus, it seems that the ukiyo-e prints disappeared in part because the society changed, and thereby the market for them, and in part because new techniques could replace many of their social functions. However, woodblock prints still fascinate and are today being collected around the globe.

Making of the woodblock prints

The process of making traditional colour woodblock prints normally included four kinds of craftsmen. There was the artist who drew the prints and, in case of polychrome prints, decided the colour scheme for each of them. There was the publisher who commissioned the work and the carver who cut the prints out of the wood – normally cherry or pear wood, as it is hard and fine-textured types of wood. Finally, there was the printer, who made the actual prints. Of these people, the publisher had the most dominant role and decided the subject matter of the print, oversaw the production of the wood blocks and also marketed the finished product.(19)


The artist first sketched an under-drawing that was of the same size as the finished print to be completed. After the government had introduced censorship, the under-drawing had to be submitted to the censor prior to being used for making the prints. When approval had been obtained, the artist had to transform the drawing into a form that could function as the basis for the woodcarving. This was commonly done by placing a sheet of thin, strong paper – usually a Japanese paper called minogami – on the under-drawing. The artist would then use black ink to trace the outlines of the sketch on the minogami. In addition to the image itself, it was necessary also to add guide marks to secure accurate register in the printing process.(20)

Making the key block

Next, the work passed on to the carver who would paste the minogami paper, face down, on a dried block of straight-grained cherry or pear wood. This led to reversing the image for the block. The paper was gently rubbed, removing most of the fibres and leaving the image clearly visible on the wood. The block would be carefully carved, leaving the outlines of the drawing in relief. Different instruments were used in accordance to the amount of details to be carved. The guide marks were being carved along with the design to ensure synchronisation of the different colours used in the polychrome printing. As a measurement of the necessary skill for carving, it can be mentioned that an apprenticeship of about ten years was required before a carver was considered to have mastered the craft. With this so-called key block ready, the work on colour separations could begin.(21)

Colour separations

A number of impressions – proofs – were printed from the key block, corresponding to the number of colours in the final print. First the ink was placed on the block. Then, a paper was placed on the block and, using a tool called baren, the printer would scrub the entire image, including the guide marks, and thereby making the impressions. The artist would be using one proof for each colour and marking on them the areas that were to carry that particular colour. The areas were not marked with the actual colour to be printed – rather with anything that was handy, just to indicate the area to be coloured. It was common for a vermilion pigment to be used to delineate each coloured area. Areas left blank on all proofs would appear as blank white in the finished print. The areas that were marked for colouring on more than one proof would appear as areas of overlaid colour on the finished print, thus making it possible to mix colours. The colour carvers would paste down the proofs on a piece of wood – again face down – and then carve them. The individual colour areas remained in relief as well as the guide marks.(22)


After the carving process was finished, the colour blocks and the key block were handed over to the printer who had prepared the sheets of printing paper by moistening them. The paper was made from the bark of the mulberry tree. The printing process would be carried out in the same order as the carving. Thus, it would be as follows: first, the key block was be placed on the printing stand and painted with black ink. Then, a sheet of printing paper was placed on upon the block in alignment with the guide marks. Finally, the printer used the baren to rub the paper, creating an impression of the block. After followed the same procedure for the colour blocks, resulting in the finished print. First printing the key block, followed by the colour blocks, made it possible to adjust each colour block to fit the colour between the outlines. The pigments were mostly of a transparent type, so there was no problem with opaque pigment covering the lines.(23) The size of the editions varied, but around 200-300 was usual. At larger amounts problems would arise because of the printing blocks absorbing water and thereby expanding. A fine edition of that size would have taken about two weeks to complete. However, use of fewer colours and less care could reduce the time required significantly.


(1) Japanese Colour Prints, p. 5-7
(3) Japanese Colour Prints, p. 7 & 9 and
(4) Japanese Colour Prints, p. 14-15
(8) and Images from the Floating World, p. 58 & 116-117
(8) and
(9) Japanese Colour Prints, p. 17-18 &
(17) and
(18) and
(20) and
(21) and
(23) and


Hillier, J.: Japanese Colour Prints. Phaidon Press Limited, 5 Cromwell Place, London, 1966.
Lane, Richard: Images from the Floating World. Konecky & Konecky, New York, 1978.

Internet sources
Encyclopædia Britannica – “East Asian arts”
Encyclopædia Britannica – “Japan”
Kamimura Gallery
Sweet Briar College Art Gallery
Tokugawa Gallery

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About The Author:

Love Liman is a student of Thai Boxing who attends the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. When she was researching the Internet on Woodblock prints for a research project, she came across a article on the subject by Christopher Caile and contacted the site. We requested she submit the final paper which appears above.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

ukiyo-e, Japanese art, nishiki-e, fukeiga, surimono prints, Katsushika Hokusai, Hishikawa Moronobu, Katsukawa Shunsho, Torii Kiyonobu, Suzuki Harunobu, Katsushika Hokusai

Read more articles by Love Liman

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