Ukiyo-e – Woodblock Prints

Sep 2nd, 2009 | By | Category: History & Culture, Museums

image When one thinks of items representative of Japan the list inevitably includes kimono, sushi and bullet trains but one shouldn’t overlook the beauty of Japanese woodblock prints or ukiyo-e.  The word ukiyo refers to the world of common people and e means picture. This art form originated in the late sixteenth century in the ancient capital of Kyoto and the first ukiyo-e were not woodblock prints at all but paintings of everyday life.

Over time ukiyo-e developed into popular art form and the subjects of the prints broadened. The equivalent of today’s movie poster were Yakusha-e or woodblock prints of kabuki actors in popular roles and Bijin-ga illustrated beautiful women of Edo.

In the early days, wood block prints were one color with two and three color prints first created in the 1740’s followed by multi-color called nishiki-e (brocade picture) in the early Meiji period.  Hiroshige’s 100 Views of Edo created during the first half of the 1800’s combined images of daily life in Edo, now Tokyo, with iconic landscapes and places.

Ukiyo-e offers a glimpse into life in early japan through its stunning visiual representation of the clothing, events and customs of the time.


How Ukiyo-e Are Created

Making traditional ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints is a complex process that involves the work of at least three artisans:

  1. The ukiyo-e artist sketches the design with sumisen (ink lines)
  2. The horishi (carver) pastes the sketch on a block made of wild cherry wood and carves out the design. This block, called a sumiita (ink plate), is only for printing the black outline.
  3. Other blocks are then carved out, one for each color; these are called iroita (color plates).
  4. The surishi (printer) applies color on the blocks under the artist’s supervision. The light colors and largest areas are printed first followed by darker colors and small details.
  5. Sheets of paper are then pressed on each woodblock to create the design.  Each block has a marking on the same spot relative to the finished picture to ensure that the image remains aligned throughout the process.

The artisans are so skilled that it is often hard to discern the steps or block used to create a high quality multi-color woodblock print.  It’s hard not to appreciate the beauty if the resulting prints once you are aware of the painstaking process required to create them.


Ukiyo-e in Museums

Visitors to most major museums in Japan will enjoy perusing a selection of famous ukiyo-e prints but one of the best collections of prints is not found in Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka but in a city in northern Japan better know for its ski slopes than its contribution to the art world.  The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum is located in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture and is home to the largest private collection of ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), paintings screens and old books in the world.  Over the course of five generations the Sakai family has amassed an amazing collection of over 100,000 pieces.

In Tokyo, visit the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art or the The Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints.

Ukiyo-e for Kids of All Ages

Kids-web Japan has a gallery of some famous woodblock prints and you can even create your own virtual Ukiyo-e to see if you have mastered the process.

Image Credit:  Wikimedia, Utamaro1, Red Fuji southern wind clear morning by Katsushika Hokusai & Dai-ichi no Gekijō Shintomi-za from Tōkyō Meisho by Hiroshige Utagawa III

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  1. We will need to go in the prefecture of Nagano, then! Thank you for this great explanation. I will try to visit these locations while in Tokyo.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this knowledge. I don’t know if I’d be able to ever visit Japan but if I would have a choice Japan will be the #1 on my list to go to. So much to see and to learn about different culture.
    Great article!

  3. thanks for naming those museums in tokyo.. will definitely try to check out at least one of them during my 4 days there mid-month as i am fascinated by ukiyo-e.

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