October 31, 2019 7 min read

What is ukiyo-e?

‘Ukiyo-e’ refers to prints (and sometimes paintings) made in Japan within the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The prints were made using the technique of woodblock printing - where the design would be carved out of cherry wood and printed onto handmade paper, allowing multiples in the thousands to be produced. The subject matter of the artworks commonly varied around what was popular within the pleasure districts. This would be sumo wrestling, kabuki theatre and geisha, but inspiration also arose from the landscapes, warriors, eroticism and legends that formed Japan’s rich culture. 

 

How were they made?

The process of producing the prints was shared amongst a team, split into four groups: the artist, the publisher, the woodcarvers and the printers. But it was usually only the artist and publisher whose names was credited on the prints. 

A Modern Ukiyo-e Artisan Carver Works on a Woodblock

(A Modern Ukiyo-e Artisan Carver Works on a Woodblock)

As the artform progressed and gained popularity, the tradition of ukiyo-e ‘schools’ began. They were unlike the traditional idea of schools, as they were usually set up and run by a founding artist who taught many student apprentices. Once the head of the school died, the position would usually pass on to his leading student. Due to the social standing of women at the time, only men were involved in the process of ukiyo-e. 

 

The birth of the artform

The word ‘ukiyo-e’ translates to mean “pictures of the floating world”, which is an expression that refers to the rising social ambitions of the common people in the Edo period of Japan. While ‘Edo’ is the previous name for Tokyo, ukiyo-e actually spanned further afield and into the other main cities: Kyoto (which was the capital of Japan then) and Osaka.

The rise of ukiyo-e came about due to the social and political context of Japan at the time. After years of civil war, the country became unified by a shogun who ruled a military dictatorship. In this time, Japan’s social classes were tightly controlled within strict boundaries - you couldn’t ‘buy’ your way into a higher social rank than the one you were born into. Although these were times of hardship for many, it was an era of rapid economic growth and the merchants - the lower class - benefited the most. They had money to spend at their leisure, and would do so on entertainment within the cities’ pleasure districts.

"The courtesans Hanaôgi and Takigawa of the Ogi House" - Masanobu, 1784

(This is a piece by ukiyo-e artist Masanobu from 1784. It depicts courtesans strolling through the pleasure district named 'Yoshiwara' in the city of Edo, which is now Tokyo.)

These districts - the “floating world”s - were abundant with extravagance. The tea houses and theatres were extremely popular and were places to see and be seen. Owing to the popularity of luxuries such as geisha, actors, warriors and travelling, these quickly became subject matter for artists to make and sell artwork. It’s believed that the first ukiyo-e images were paintings on screens and fans - the printing process began later. The method of printing was actually imported from China - and was a process normally used for printing Buddhist scriptures with illustrations. It wasn’t until the 1660’s that Japanese artists adapted this process to be used for creating ukiyo-e. 

 

What are the themes and genres in ukiyo-e?

The subject matters portrayed in ukiyo-e varied widely - across a multitude of pleasures and leisures. Although mostly made for entertainment and to decorate the wall of people's homes, ukiyo-e was also very informative, such as erotic prints (shunga) which were given to young couples on their weddings. We've split our ukiyo-e collections into 7 different genres.

Landscapes were a common genre in ukiyo-e. At the time, Japanese people wanted to view images of travel because they themselves were unable to do so, due to the strict political landscape. But Japanese people also had a deep, spiritual love and respect for nature, relishing in its beauty. Some of the most famous landscape artists were Hokusai, Hiroshige and Hasui.

 "Kirifuri Waterfall at Kurokami Mountain in Shimotsuke" - Hokusai, 1832

"Kirifuri Waterfall at Kurokami Mountain in Shimotsuke" - Hokusai, 1832


Warriors, Myths and Legends were another much-loved element of Japanese culture. They were usually tales of the adventures of: samurai (military noblemen), ronin (samurai without masters) and otokodate (commonly known as ‘street knights’). 

"The Former Emperor from Sanuki Sends his Retainers to Rescue Tametomo" - Kuniyoshi, 1851

"The Former Emperor from Sanuki Sends his Retainers to Rescue Tametomo" - Kuniyoshi, 1851

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Beauty Prints (Bijin-ga) was one of the most popular forms of ukiyo-e. They depicted the beauties of the day: the courtesans and geisha of the pleasure districts. The artworks portrayed an idealised, traditional interpretation of female beauty. These works were also the main instigator of fashion and styles within hair, make-up and clothes. 

"Looking Tiresome" - Yoshitoshi, 1888

"Looking Tiresome" - Yoshitoshi, 1888 
 

Birds and Flowers (Kacho-e) were exquisite displays of the natural world - of which the Japanese had the utmost respect for. Many images are embedded with metaphorical and poetic meanings, such as cherry blossoms: which can represent a precious but transient life.

 "Swallows and Kingfisher with Rose Mallows" - Hiroshige, 1838

"Swallows and Kingfisher with Rose Mallows" - Hiroshige, 1838

 

Erotic Prints (Shunga) were artworks that portrayed sexually exciting scenes. Unlike many Western cultures, sensual pleasures were considered to be a sacred part of Japanese culture and were not frowned upon in religion. Types of shunga scenes can range from the flirtatious showing of a woman’s neck (the nape was considered to be a primary erotic area), to multiple couples engaging in exposed coitus, usually with enlarge genitalia.

 "The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife" - Hokusai, 1814

"The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife" - Hokusai, 1814

 

Kabuki Actor Prints (Yakusha-e) were one of the most popular forms of ukiyo-e. As the theatre art of kabuki was so actor-centred, the heroes and villains of the plays, and the actors who played them, became celebrities. Much like the famous actors of our time, the Japanese public wanted to display images of them in their homes.  

"Ichikawa Danjuro IX as Soga no Gorō" - Kunichika, 1898


"Ichikawa Danjuro IX as Soga no Gorō" - Kunichika, 1898

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Supernatural Prints (Yōkai) covered everything from ghost, to demon to strange apparition. Japan’s history is rich with folklore, the exciting and scary stories of spirits and creatures that brought both good and bad fortune. Originally these beings were incredibly feared, but after being so heavily illustrated in ukiyo-e, much of the belief in yōkai has disappeared.

"The Mansion of the Plates" - Hokusai, 1831

"The Mansion of the Plates" - Hokusai, 1831

 

The development of ukiyo-e

Ukiyo-e was a diverse artform, constantly adapted by the innovative artists and changing environment of Japan. Although it’s a movement in its own right, it was spread over a vast time span of 3 centuries, which can be split into 5 different eras, each a mini-movement in themselves: 

The Edo Period (1603-1868) is where ukiyo-e began when under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. The artform developed dramatically in this time and produced the most famous artists such as Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro. Artworks made during this time are considered to be the traditional form of ukiyo-e. 

The Meiji Period (1868-1912) refers to the period after Japan’s civil war, when the imperial government was restored and Japan was industrialised and westernised. This is when Edo became Tokyo, which then became the capital city. During this period, new print processes were introduced along with new styles and inks from the West.

Shin Hanga (1915-1942) translates to mean “new prints”. They were made using the traditional process of ukiyo-e making, but incorporated new European styles and sensibilities and were marketed for a Western audience. Often prints made during this period had a nostalgic romanticism of Japan, which stopped gaining momentum after WWII.

Sosaku Hanga (20th century) translates as “creative prints” and focussed heavily on the artist as the sole producer of the artworks. No longer did the artist delegate the different jobs involved in the process. The movement began as early as 1901, but only flourished in a post-WWII Japan when artists’ complete self-expression was encouraged.  

Modern Prints refer to prints that continue to be made today. Although it’s now a limited artisan process, specialist institutes such as the ‘Adachi’ in Tokyo preserve the artform at the same time as bringing it into the 21st century. 

 

Ukiyo-e's Legacy

Ukiyo-e is an awe-inspiring art, which also capture the attention of many overseas. In the 1800’s, Western ships began arriving in Edo and opened up trade routes, which were previously inaccessible. They saw the rich, unique quality to ukiyo-e and brought prints back to the large cities of Europe and America. This inspired the art genre ‘Japonisme’, which included many famous artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Fast-forward to today, ukiyo-e continues to inspire many elements of pop culture in and out of Japan, such as anime and manga. The most famous ukiyo-e print, Hokusai’s “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” even inspired an emoji. 

"The Great Wave off Kanagawa" - Hokusai, 1832

"The Great Wave off Kanagawa" - Hokusai, 1832

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"The Courtesan (After Eisen)" - Van Gogh, 1887
"The Courtesan (After Eisen)" - Van Gogh, 1887
 

Although many ukiyo-e prints fetch high prices at auctions, there is actually no ‘original’ print in ukiyo-e. The artform was designed to be reproduced in the thousands, then made and sold cheaply. At the time, one ukiyo-e print cost the equivalent to a bowl of noodles. The original sketches were destroyed by the artist, so the cost of a print usually depends on the name of the artist, the name of the publisher, the quality of the print and the vibrancy of the colours, amongst other things. 

To find more of the floating world’s treasures, keep on learning in our ‘Read and Learn’ section and browse in-depth or introductory articles. 

You can also visit specific artwork pages, or tune in to our specialist webinar run by Rising Sun Prints’ founder, Jack: 

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