As you begin to learn more about Japanese prints, you might find yourself wondering: what exactly am I looking at here?
Ukiyo-e were so much more than just beautiful landscapes. They were social media posts, portraiture, posters, erotica, advertisement and illustration.
In this post we will decode and unlock the hidden meaning behind the imagery we share with you, our community, every day. With this understanding, you will be able to interpret and appreciate Japanese prints in every major theme!
You will undoubtedly recognise the stunning landscapes of Hokusai and Hiroshige, which captured the Western gaze and imagination as soon as they were discovered and brought back from Japan. The first Japanese prints were exhibited in America and Europe from the 1830’s, and captivated Western artists through their romantic mood, innovative use of color and perspective.
The Japanese Satsuma Pavillion at the International Exhibition of 1867 in Paris
The prints and artists that we easily recognise now are the same as they were in the 1830’s. The beautiful landscapes of Hiroshige in particular shaped popular perception of ukiyo-e as a one-dimensional art form devoted to romancing the landscape. That is certainly the popular perception of the Western world today, perhaps owing to the universal appeal of these particularly beautiful landscape images.
But what are these portraits of cross-eyed, grimacing actors?
Who are these beautiful women with trussed up hair, sumptuous kimonos and exquisite make up?
Are they part of the same art movement, and how do they relate to the landscape prints and the great masters that are familiar to us?
There's so much more to the Japanese print than just landscapes
Ukiyo-e prints had distinct themes right from the beginning. Despite Western perceptions, landscapes were not the primary subject in ukiyo-e. The original ukiyo-e prints were heavily focused on Kabuki actors and Courtesans (or “Beauties”); the landscape genre would only arrive after 100 years of evolution in the art form.
Ukiyo-e was in-fact a rich medium with many varied styles, subjects and themes. We’ll explore them together in this introduction to the major genres of ukiyo-e prints.
Kabuki Actor Printswere the earliest commercially successful form of ukiyo-e. Known in Japanese as “Yakusha-e”, which literally means “actor prints”, they were usually bright, detailed and ornate.
As the theatre art of kabuki was actor-centric, the heroes and villains of the plays became celebrities. Much like how we display movie stars on posters or follow them on social media today, the Japanese public wanted images of their favourite actors on their walls.
With complex plots, stylized acting and spectacular production design, kabuki was an expressive form of storytelling. When ukiyo-e production began, kabuki was an exclusively male theatre art, and so female characters were played by men called ‘onnagata’. Artists would flatter the actors by feminising their features in portraits.
A flattering portrayal of an "onnagata" in a female role. Buy this art >>>
Actors wore elaborate costumes and heavy make-up. At the climax of a kabuki scene, the leading actor would strike a ‘mie’ pose, which involved dramatic movements and crossed eyes in to capture and convey intense emotion. This was usually the preferred pose in which artists would portray the actors.
An actor in an intense "mie" pose. Buy this art >>>
The genre was popular throughout the Edo period and most ukiyo-e artists designed actor prints at one point or another in their career.
Beauty Prints (or “Bijin-ga”)portrayed the beautiful women of the day: the courtesans and geisha of the pleasure districts. Part homage to the women, part advertisement for teahouses, they were ever-popular with the citizens of Edo.
‘Bijin-ga’ translates literally to “beautiful person pictures”, and although the name doesn’t specify a gender, the portraits were almost always women. They celebrated both idealised and realistic interpretations of female beauty.
Artists depicted beauties in fantasized scenes; entertaining, hiding behind fans, brushing their hair, all the while swathed in ornately patterned kimono without a hair out of place.
Over time artists came to depict women in a more realistic, sensual way.
Bijin-ga influenced and led beauty trends in fashion hair-styles, make-up and clothes. Artists had to work quickly to deliver new designs and meet the ever evolving mores of the pleasure districts.
"Kogiku" (1830) - A splendid courtesan from Eisen. Buy this print >>>
Along with Actor Prints, one could consider Bijin-ga a form of prototypical social media: part airbrushed-influencer, part-advertisement, they were an important part of popular urban and social culture. Rather than post an image to Instagram, actors and tea-house owners could commission artists to create favourable designs that created awareness and cultivated a desired image throughout the city.
Unlike many Western cultures, sensual pleasures were considered to be a sacred part of Japanese culture and an involved element in their religions. Erotic Prints (‘Shunga’ or “Spring Pictures”)were popular, widely produced and distributed – even if they had to be shared in an “under the counter” manner.
Shunga scenes can range from the flirtatious flash of a woman’s neck (the nape was considered to be a primary erotic area), to the outright pornographic, with multiple couples enjoying life to the fullest.
The most graphic parts of the scene were often enlarged beyond reality, emphasizing the sexual element of the artwork to heighten the contrast with more conventional prints.
Client and Geisha in a Brothel (1784) - by Kiyonaga
Many recurring themes within shunga were metaphorical, which we must bear in mind when looking at shocking elements such as replacing humans with animals. While we might see a bizarro sexual act, the Japanese viewer would recognise parodies and twists on traditional, legendary stories, such as the octopi in “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”.
The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife (1814) Buy this print >>>
Warriors, Myths and Legends were another much-loved element of Japanese popular culture. They were usually tales of adventure featuring ‘samurai’ (military noblemen), ‘ronin’ (samurai without masters) and ‘otokodate’ (commonly known as ‘street knights’).
Occasionally these prints would incorporate the unappeased spirits of warriors and the supernatural - known as Yōkai. (More on those later)
Kiyomori Encountering the Ghost of Yoshihira at Nunobiki Falls (1843) - a stunning tryptych from Kuniyoshi.
The first warrior prints, known as ‘musha-e’, were illustrations that accompanied classical war literature of Japan and China, known as ‘monogatari’.
Miyamoto Musashi Killing A Giant Nue (1830) - by Kuniyoshi . Buy this print >>>
Kuniyoshi was one of the most important designers of musha-e. He would go on to successfully train many pupils, of which the star was undoubtedly Yoshitoshi.
Mountain Moon After Rain (1885) - by Yoshitoshi
At the end of the Edo period there was a resurgence of warrior prints, as Japan experienced a fresh wave of nationalism and a nostalgic yearning for the glorious past.
Birds and Flowers (Kacho-e)were exquisite displays of the natural world - of which the Japanese had the utmost respect for. Many images have metaphorical and poetic meanings embedded within them, such as the flowering cherry blossom, representing the preciousness and the transient beauty life.
Weeping Cherry and Bullfinch (1834) by Hokusai. Buy this print >>>
‘Kacho-e’ translates as “birds and flowers”, but according to the Chinese tradition, kacho-e actually refers also to fish and insects, amongst other natural beings. Of course, artists didn’t limit themselves exclusively to birds and flowers, and made artworks of all manner of flora and fauna.
Two Carp in a Waterfall (1834) by Hokusai. Buy this art >>>
Supernatural Prints (Yōkai)ran the gamut of everything from ghost, to demon to strange apparition. Japan’s history is rich with folklore; exciting and spooky stories of mysterious entities that brought good and bad fortunes.
Yōkai could come in many recognisable forms such as ghosts, shape-shifters and witches but they could also be river monsters, house-hold objects and floating heads.
The Mansion of the Plates (1831) - by Hokusai. Buy this print >>>
The animistic nature of the shinto religion meant that many people shared a widespread cultural belief that all things are sentient. Therefore spirits existed in many forms, often sharing traits with the shinto gods, known as ‘kami’.
These beings were born of primal fears in the collective conscious, but after being so heavily illustrated in ukiyo-e much of the mystique around Yōkai disappeared for everyday Japanese folk.
The Ghost of Kohada Koheiji (1831) by Hokusai. Buy this print >>>
Landscape printswould capture the imagination of Edo from 1830 onward, and the world of Western art connoisseurs just a few years later.
When ukiyo-e printmaking began, landscape was employed as background for portraits and traditional scenes of the merchant classes. It wasn’t until the two great ukiyo-e masters Hokusai and Hiroshige burst onto the artistic scene with their landmark series: 36 Views of Mount Fuji and the 53 Stations of the Tokaido, that an independent genre for landscapes was developed.
1st Station Shinagawa (1833) - By Hiroshige - from 53 Stations of the Tokaido
Japanese people had a deep spiritual love and respect for nature, relishing its beauty. Waterfalls, for instance, were held as sacred by the animistic values of the Shinto religion, and were a frequent pilgrimage and subject matter in ukiyo-e.
The Amida Falls in the Far Reaches of the Kisokaido Road (1834) - By Hokusai. Buy this print >>>
The merchant classes wanted to view images of travel because they were unable to do so first hand in the harsh political landscape of the warring states period and early Edo period. Artists would travel across cities, prefectures and islands of Japan, bringing home views of their beloved country to the people.
As time went by in Japan became more stable and prosperous, travel became immensely popular amongst all those that could afford to do so. In this context, landscape prints became postcard, guidebook and inspiration for future trips. We see this epitomised in the works of Hiroshige and Kawase Hasui.
Pacific Ocean, Boshu (1925) - by Kawase Hasui. Buy this print >>>
Hokusai also captured famous views, however he went beyond the beautiful and towards the sublime, often exploring different artistic themes in his prints. While his prints were popular bestsellers, they were more than decorative, and held deeper spiritual and social meanings.