The history of ukiyo-e and its expansion around the world

The history of ukiyo-e and its expansion around the world

This love stems from the flexible creativity of the ukiyo-e artists, who developed forms of expression and different styles that matched the personal interests of everyday people and who prioritized beauty as a matter of course. In addition, their amazingly high aesthetic sense was a cause of this recognition.

Origin of ukiyo-e

Ukiyo-e, a beloved form of mass entertainment


Ukiyo-e was established during the Edo period and was cherished as a form of mass entertainment by common people across Edo (present-day Tokyo). Its origin can be traced back to around the late 17th century. Colorful ukiyo-e, with its bold contrasts of black and white, is full of a sense of freedom that is characterized by a peaceful and uneventful era that lasted for more than 260 years, and vividly portrayed the nature of the freehearted common people of the Edo era and what their social life was like at the time.
(*1) Tango no Sekku [Children of the Twelve Months : the Fifth Month] Utamaro (Kitagawa Utamaro)
From the melancholic world to the floating world

Kodomo Shishimai
[Lion Dance Performed by Children]
Harunobu (Suzuki Harunobu)

Prior to the Edo period, "ukiyo", during a prolonged period of civil war, meant the transient world. Compared to the Pure Land (heaven), ukiyo (this world) is struggling, transient and fleeting. However, once the Tokugawa Shogunate unified the country and Edo began to experience development and stability, the idea of enjoying a hedonistic lifestyle arose mainly among prosperous merchants, resulting in a changing of the meaning of ukiyo to floating world, which has a hedonistic meaning.

Ukiyo gradually began to have the meaning of “current, modern style,” which is a sign of accepting society, social life, customs and a prevailing way of thinking in a positive manner, which had a significant impact on the creativity of the artists. Professional artists who were drawing for wealthy people in the old days, such as court nobles and samurai, began to draw the social life of the early modern era, which captured the daily life of common people. It eventually resulted in ukiyo-e, reflecting the hedonistic mood of the time.

Ukiyo-e of the era

Arashi Kichisaburo
Hokushu (Shunkosai Hokushu)

The theme of ukiyo-e is to draw the present (this world) rather than the past or future. Therefore, ukiyo-e artists chose subjects in the forefront of social life and timely topics as a theme, and constantly pleased the common people with their elaborate paintings. Entertainment for most common people in the Edo period meant "amusement" and "theater." These were translated into prints of bijin-ga (prints of beautiful women) and yakusha-e (prints of kabuki actors) in ukiyo-e, which served like present-day fashion magazines, posters and photographs of kabuki actors, and they instantly spread among the common people.

Among people living outside of Edo, ukiyo-e was also called Edo-e. As visitors to Edo preferred beautiful, lightweight ukiyo-e as souvenirs when returning home, ukiyo-e became known in areas outside Edo. For their part, people in Edo called ukiyo-e beni-e* and nishiki-e**.

*Beni-e — A simple woodblock print, which is colored using a brush with red and a few subsidiary colors, over a black-ink only woodblock print.
**Nishiki-e — A general term for ukiyo-e woodblock prints made after 1765. Woodblock color print in various colors.

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Development of ukiyo-e

Hishikawa Moronobu, the pioneer of ukiyo-e
The first ukiyo-e artist was Hishikawa Moronobu, whose work is well known as mikaeri bijin (Looking Back Beauty). Moronobu was born in Boshu (present-day Chiba Prefecture) and moved to Edo (present-day Tokyo) when he was young, where he learned the techniques of painters patronized by the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Imperial Court. When he first became an independent artist, his work mainly consisted of drawing illustrations for books printed using woodblock print in black ink only, and were unsigned. He gradually emerged as a fine artist and diligently worked in the areas of one-piece black-ink only woodblock prints and drawings done by hand, which resulted in the laying of a foundation for future ukiyo-e development.
From black-ink only print to color print (Nishiki-e)

Origami Asobi [Play with Origami]
Sukenobu (Nishikawa Sukenobu)

In the early Edo period, ukiyo-e started as one-piece black-ink only woodblock prints that had become separated from illustration inserts in printed books. The drawings were circulated in towns and spread among the common people for their enjoyment. Eventually people became dissatisfied with simple black-ink only prints and demanded more colorful designs. As a result, a few techniques to add colors to black-ink only prints were invented to meet the demand, but these techniques could not be used for mass production as the prints were hand-colored using a brush.

Yatsushi Hakkei Setano
Sekisho [The Evening Glow
at Seta from the Series
Disguises of the Eight
Famous views of Omi]
Shigemasa (Kitao Shigemasa)

Color print began in the mid-Edo period. Alignment marks were placed on the printing blocks so that the colors would not get out of position during the color print process, which made it possible to mass produce colorful multi-color prints. Elaborate multi-color prints, which were made by layering impressions from more than ten color printing blocks, made an appearance. They were called azuma nishiki-e because they were as beautiful as nishiki, a silk fabric, and they became the new craze in Edo.

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Expansion of ukiyo-e in Japan

Ukiyo-e as an advertising medium


In an era when there were hardly any advertising media, ukiyo-e as entertainment often played a practical role. For example, hikifuda served as a newspaper flyer does today, and there were ukiyo-e with cosmetic and product names written in the drawings. Yakusha-e (Kabuki Actor Prints) and bijin-ga (prints of beautiful women) prints in fashionable clothes played the role of modern fashion magazines. Landscape prints also served as travel magazines that introduced popular sightseeing sites. Tokaido Gojusantsuginouchi (53 Stations of the Tokaido) by Utagawa Hiroshige is one example. Thus, ukiyo-e widely circulated in Japan as an advertising medium that delivered the latest information of the time.
(*2) Sohitsu Gojusantsugi [One of the Fifty-three Stations of Tokaido by Two Painters :Nihonbashi] Toyokuni III & Hiroshige (Utagawa Toyokuni III & Utagawa Hiroshige) <Collaboration>
(*3) Azuma Fuzoku Fukutsukushi Gofuku [Manners and Customs of Edo Bringing Good Fortune: Kimono Store] Yoshu (Yoshu Chikanobu)
Production of ukiyo-e

Ukiyo-e prints is the fruit of a collaboration among a hanmoto (a publisher), an eshi (an artist who draws the design), a horishi (an artist who carves the printing block) and a surishi (an artist who adds colors to the prints by printing block and prints). The artists who draw the designs tend to take center stage, but the publisher’s planning ability, the techniques of the carver and the printer made a remarkable difference in sales. Since ukiyo-e were made to be sold for profit in the first place, in most cases the hanmoto had the authority to decide on the artwork theme, which eshi, horishi and surishi to hire, and what carving and printing techniques to use. Thus it can be said that ukiyo-e is not a pure work of art created by one artist, but art created as a product or craftwork.

Ezoshiya, a bookstore in the Edo period

With a population that had grown to more than one million in the early 18th century, Edo (present day Tokyo) became one of the largest cities in the world. Along with the birth of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, the publishing world in Edo, which at the time was less renowned than Kamigata (current Osaka and Kyoto areas), began to develop in its own unique way.

Imayo Mitate Shinokosho Shonin
[Modern Social Classes of Samurai, Farmers,
Artisans and Merchants:Merchants]
Toyokuni III (Utagawa Toyokuni III)

During this period, most booksellers in Edo that sold academic books were a branch of a store in Kamigata or a store of Kamigata capital. On the other hand, publishing of ukiyo-e was considered to be the domain of ezoshi tonya (jihon tonya) which sold jihon, popular entertainment books that were printed and sold in Edo. Centering around Nihonbashi where many ezoshi tonyas were located, ezoshiya (retail stores that only sold books) were scattered around the Edo area. The reason common people could easily purchase ukiyo-e can be attributed to the fact that ezoshiya were readily available in their neighborhoods, which gave a boost to the popularity of ukiyo-e during this period.

Schools of ukiyo-e

The schools of ukiyo-e can be divided into four major categories in keeping with the times.

  • The Hishikawa School

    Otogibanashi Momotaro [A Nursery Tale:The Peach Boy]
    Harunobu (Hishikawa Harunobu)

    Hishikawa Moronobu, the pioneer of ukiyo-e, created many one-piece ukiyo-e drawing done by hand in the early years of ukiyo-e. The followers who admired his style created the Hishikawa School.

  • The Torii School

    Gyokukashi no Sekigaki [A Young Girl with a Talent for Calligraphy]
    Kiyonaga (Torii Kiyonaga)

    The only school that remains from the beginning of the Genroku era until now. It is a school in which Kiyonobu, the founder, and the following generations wrote programs for the kabuki theaters and established the foundation of yakusha-e.

  • The Utagawa School

    Furyu Terako Kissho Hajime Keiko no Zu (The New Years Calligraphy at Terakoya)
    Toyokuni (Utagawa Toyokuni)

    Founded by Utagawa Toyoharu, the largest ukiyo-e school became a power in bijin-ga and uki-e (perspective picture) from the end of Edo period through the Meiji era.

  • The Katsukawa School

    Shoichii Mimeguri Inari Daimyojin [The Highest Ranked Mimeguri Inari Shrine]
    Shunsho (Katsukawa Shunsho)

    Founded by Katsukawa Shunyo, the school raised a question about yakusha-e drawn by the Torii School, which did not differentiate the faces of the actors, and established a style that allowed for the drawing of realistic portraits of the actors.

How much did ukiyo-e cost?

In the late Edo period when ukiyo-e became readily available, an o-ban nishiki-e (39 cm long × 26.5 cm wide), a common size for multi-color woodblock prints, was sold for around 20 mon (approximately 400 yen). Yakusha-e in a hoso-ban (33 cm long × 15 cm wide) size was sold for 8 mon (approximately 160 yen), falling to 3 to 6 mon (approximately 60 to 120 yen) once popularity declined. Many ukiyo-e were intentionally printed in small sizes so that the price was low enough for people to buy. In today’s prices, buying an ukiyo-e was as easy and an inexpensive as buying a snack for less than 500 yen at a convenience store.

  • O-ban [39 cm long × 26.5 cm wide] = 20 mon (approximately 400 yen)
  • Hoso-ban [33 cm long × 15 cm wide] = 8 mon (approximately 160 yen)
Print formats and sizes of ukiyo-e

Ukiyo-e woodblock print size varies depending on the date and type of paper (A), and o-bosho paper was commonly used from the Meiwa period (1764 - 1772) onward when nishiki-e first appeared. Different sizes as shown in (B) below were chosen for different types of ukiyo-e work.

(A) Paper size (approximate)

Paper type Size
Takenaga Bosho 72-77 cm (L) x 52.5 cm (W)
Obiro Bosho 58 cm (L) x 44 cm (W)
O-Bosho 39 cm (L) x 53.5 cm (W)
Chu-Bosho 36cm (L) x 50cm (W)
Ko-Bosho 33cm (L) x 47cm (W)

(B) Ukiyo-e print format

Format Size Remarks
O-ban 39 cm (L) x 26.5 cm (W) Made by vertically cutting a sheet of o-bosho. (The most common ukiyo-e size in the late Edo period.) Ukiyo-e composed of two vertical o-ban sized prints were called Kakemono-e like a hanging scroll.
Chu-ban 19.5 cm (L) x 26.5 cm (W) Made by cutting a sheet of o-ban in the horizontal direction.
Sho-ban 19.5 cm (L) x 13 cm (W) One-quarter of an o-ban.
O-tanzaku-ban 39 cm (L) x 18cm (W) One-third of an o-bosho divided along its long axis.
Chu-tanzaku-ban 39 cm (L) x 13cm (W) One-quarter of an o-bosho divided along its long axis.
Ko-tanzaku-ban 39 cm (L) x 9 cm (W) One-sixth of art o-bosho divided along its
long axis.
Shikishi-ban 20.5 cm (L) x 18.5 cm (W) One-sixth of an o-bosho.
Cho-ban 19.5 cm (L) x 53.5 cm (W) One-half of an o-bosho divided along its crosswise axis.
Hashira-e 72-77 cm (L) x 52.5 cm (W) One-third of a takenaga bosho divided along its long axis.
72-77 cm (L) x 13cm (W) One-quarter of a takenaga bosho divided along its long axis.
Hoso-ban 33 cm (L) x 15 cm (W) One-third of a ko-bosho divided along its long axis.
16 cm (L) x 47 cm (W) One-half of a ko-bosho divided along its crosswise axis.

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Ukiyo-e flourished beyond the seas

Ukiyo-e exerted a considerable influence on Western art
As an art form that represents Japan, ukiyo-e exerted a significant influence on Western art. By being exhibited at the World Exposition held in Paris, France, in 1867, a major Japanese traditional art movement represented by ukiyo-e was brought to Europe in the late 19th century. This is what became called Japonism. At that time in Japan, ukiyo-e was not even considered to be valuable art and many ukiyo-e were exported especially around the beginning of the 20th century. This Japonism movement lasted from the mid-19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, for more than half a century, and exerted a considerable influence on Western arts and crafts, such as Impressionist works.
Departure from wrapping paper

As a matter of fact, it is said that ukiyo-e was disseminated outside Japan during the national isolation period during the Edo era. Ukiyo-e was used to wrap lacquer ware, pottery and porcelain that were exported overseas via the Dutch, the only people with whom the Japanese had diplomatic relations. Later, this “wrapping paper” became popular and some traders purchased ukiyo-e woodblock prints as art.

Attracted the attention of the Impressionists in their early years

Here is an interesting story. One day a European artist who saw the work of Katsushika Hokusai, which had been used as a wrapping paper for a parcel delivered from Japan, acquired the same artwork by selling his valuables and showed what he bought to his friends: Monet, Manet and Degas.

Van Gogh is known to have been an ukiyo-e enthusiast and was also a passionate ukiyo-e collector. 477 ukiyo-e prints that were owned by Van Gogh and his brother Theo are currently housed at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Ukiyo-e captured the hearts of the great Impressionists in their early years and they became aware of a new way of painting by studying ukiyo-e.

Achievement of Hayashi Tadamasa, an international ukiyo-e woodblock print dealer

Japonism cannot be discussed without mentioning an important Japanese person of the time, Hayashi Tadamasa, who worked as an art dealer in Paris and endeavored to further the expansion and awareness of ukiyo-e. He contemporaneously experienced a European society teeming with Japonism, where he interacted with critiques, art dealers and Impressionists, such as Monet and Degas, to aid their understanding of Japan.

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