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Reference » Ukiyo-e »  History of Ukiyo-e


Japanese Art (17C-19C)

Ukiyo-e woodblock prints are one of the most popular forms of Japanese Art, which flourished and progressed significantly during the time period ranging from mid-seventeenth century to mid-nineteenth century.

What Does ‘Ukiyo-e’ Mean?

The term ukiyo-e, used to define the artistic genre of Japanese woodblock prints, finds its root in Buddhist literature. It was originally translated to mean “sad world”, but with the evolution of language, literature and the usage of the term, the most recent translation of Ukiyo-e pertains to the phrase “floating world” or fleeting images of the world.

Ukiyo-e primarily describes the concept of liberation from the worries and concerns of the world and indulgence into the leisure of transient pleasures. Hence, the term was found to be appropriate to describe the Japanese woodblocks, which were depictions of an ideal existence and/or view of the world. Ukiyo-e prints and paintings were usually patronised and supported by merchants, who avidly invested in the valuable depictions of these “pictures of the floating world”.

The study and understanding of the Ukiyo-e paintings and artworks will remain incomplete without the comprehension and interpretation of the philosophy that entailed the concept of Ukiyo-e. Key subjects of exploration of Ukiyo-e art were theatre, geisha and famous and unique sceneries.  

Ukiyo-e is not only an outlook on the philosophy of the carefree and liberated living, in fact, if studied in greater depth the artworks relay the rich history that surrounded the Japanese culture.

Renaissance and the Life of Samurai

Sixteenth century saw the abolition of wars between feudal lords that had plagued Japan for a considerable time period and an end to these wars presented a picture of unified Japan. This preceded an era of renaissance and new birth of traditional Japanese art, a prominent aspect of which remains to be the samurais’ and military class’ endeavours to renovate and re-embellish their castles with appealing works of art.

During wars, the upkeep of these castles was completely neglected and restoration of peace provided an opportunity for the beautification of these otherwise dull and grim fortresses. Sliding doors, panels and ceilings were adorned with the works of commissioned painters and artists, and weavers and seamstresses were hired to create and drape the castles in extravagant and luxurious fabrics. Art and paintings was incorporated into the architecture of castles, palaces and temples to transform those into an elegant and exemplary presentation of comfort and luxury.

Pursuance of luxury and comfort was not only limited to the samurais of historical Japan, but merchants from Kyoto and Sakai who have been the chief financers of guns and ammunition for the samurais, also sought these pleasures of life. However, merchants occupied a lower tier of the social order and did not regard themselves equally deserving to have access to aristocratic art forms, which the military class avidly sought. These merchants pursued pleasure in paintings of pretty courtesans, new kubuki dances and read famous books and works of literature that were an extravagant representation of illustrations by hand.

These books and literary stories gained widespread popularity and were made available in the form of bound scriptures and scrolls. However, with exponential growth in their demand, it no longer remained possible for the illustrators to cope up with the increasing demand. Resultantly, the idea of printing these illustrated manuscripts through printed woodblocks originated and came to the forefront.

Woodblock Printing

The origin of the art of printing in Japan started many centuries ago. It was not until 1650 that the first recorded woodblock appeared. Titled as Ise Mongatari, it illustrated and relayed a traditional Japanese tale.

Traditional woodblock printing included the depiction of crude imagery which was created to complement the text description. However, with the growing appeal for these illustrations, the pictures soon exceeded text in terms of prominence and people had access to an affordable art form. These books appealed to all including the illiterate.

Many perceived the illustration displayed through Japanese woodblock prints to be works of various designers and illustrators. In reality, these illustrations were a result of the combined skills of various artisans including artists, woodblock cutters and printers.

In woodblock printing, the first design is created by the master artist which is pasted on a finely prepared cherry woodblock. A woodblock cutter then traces the lines of the design with a sharp chisel on the woodblock. The print is finally completed after inking and being covered with a damp sheet of paper. The back of the paper is gently rubbed until the illustrated design is perfectly imprinted on to the sheet of paper. The resultant key print is re-sent to the artist who selects colours and decides their placement in the design. After colour placement is decided, for printing each colour a separate woodblock is prepared. A printer then employs the use of mulberry paper and vegetable dyes to colour illustrations on the woodblock and transfer these to the register.

Cities of Edo

Present day Tokyo, previously known as Edo, served as the mecca for Japanese illustrators who were working for publishers during 1660s. One of these illustrators was Hishikawa Monorobu and he convinced his publisher to publish his illustrations without any complementary text. These illustrations received widespread appreciation and this led to the wide scale popularity of printed woodblocks and illustrated books. Each of the works of Hishikawa Monorobu had his signature, which spoke of the artist’s serious consideration of his talent, skill and creativity. He was titled as Yamato esho- master of Japanese painting.


The term kabuki is believed to be derived from the work kabuku, which literally can be translated as ‘fashionable’. Since kabuki, at the time of its origin, was a fashionable, trendy and widely popular dance form, it was named so. One of the main reasons behind its popularity lies in the fact that back then it was the only source of entertainment for women outside their homes. Prestigious wives and daughters of wealthy merchant were regular visitors to these theatre performances and on days when the entertainment was free, court ladies too attended these.

Women were fond of male kabuki actors, and publishers, who were aware of this information commissioned artists to depict various aspects of the life of kabuki actors, portrait prints of which were kept and treasured by many women.

Print artists had numerous subjects to depict in their illustrations and the printed woodblocks depicting kabuki illustrations facilitated the publicity and promotion of the theatre and the actors.

Kabuki theatre performances fascinated males, as much as women. However concubines, courtesans and geishas remained to be the major focus of leisure activities for males. Craftsmen and merchants back then had enough resources to spend on such activities and in order to meet their demands an industry for licensed pleasure quarters emerged and grew by 1627. Concubines, courtesans and geishas were concentrated to the Yoshiwara area in Edo.

 Subject of Prints

Courtesans became the main subject of illustration for print makers and displays of these beauties. The print makers depicted fashionable courtesans in their works, donning luxurious kimonos and stylish hairstyles, often seen enjoying the luxuries and comforts of life. These prints illustrating courtesans were widely accessed and availed by avid admirers of the courtesans.

Style of Prints

Signing of prints by Hishikawa Monorobu and his declaration of himself as a master artist set a new trend among print makers and artists and led to the establishment of master pupil relationships. This also led to the emergence of specialised print making styles and genres, as well as, schools that taught the art. The masters and students were collectively referred to as families as it was a common practice among head students to marry into their masters’ families. Few of the most prominent of these families which gained popularity during the early eighteenth century included the Hishikawa family, the Torii family and the Kaigetsudo family.

Development of Print-Making

The early eighteenth century marks a period of tremendous development in various aspects of the print-making field. Few of the major developments during this era concerned the improvement of the paper quality, introduction of polytychs and availability of a variety of print shapes and sizes. Printing techniques were incorporated with higher expertise and became more advanced. This period also marks the introduction of urushi-e, the lacquer print, in which black regions were made to glow through the mixing of glue into the printing ink.

Perhaps, one of the most important developments during this phase pertains to the introduction of using one block to print three colours, by Okumara Manasobu. Through this technique, he introduced beni-e, translated as ‘red pictures’. However, this technique did not let the dye to remain confined within the design contours.

It was in 1769 that the first authentic polychromatic print appeared that was referred to as nishiki-e, translated as the ‘brocade picture’. Suzuki Harunobu printed a series of illustrations in which colours were confined within hard edges and outlines. These became really popular and Harunobu gained widespread appreciation for his work which usually displayed elegantly posed young men and women.

All along this era of innovative developments, Japan remained aloof from the outside world. The arrival of Admiral Perry in 1854 paved way for Japan to communicate with the outside world, which led to the worldwide popularity of the Japanese art of ukiyo-e prints.

 Though, natural disasters have severely damaged some of these exemplary works of art but the remaining prints still provide deep insight into Japanese history, culture and art.