Never heard of "Ukiyo-e"? This is it: Katsushika Hokusai's "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji – Kanagawa-oki nami-ura (The Great Wave off Kanagawa)". Courtesy of The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum.

Ukiyo-e Series #1: Japanese Floating Worlds

When you hear the word Ukiyo-e, you probably think of an old-fashioned type of Japanese art, or some hard to find antiques? Actually, these beautiful Japanese woodblock prints and paintings were produced between around the 17th to the 20th century. And we are sure that nearly everybody outside of Japan must have seen at least once Hokusai’s Great Wave Off Kanagawa: you will never forget this extraordinary image of smashing waves with their dramatically churning spindrift! A good point for PingMag to give a quick introduction to Ukiyo-e, a quite prolific genre in Japan that keeps on intriguing people all over the world – long after the European cubists and impressionists of the late 19th and 20th century got pretty influenced by it first.

Written by Ryoko
Translated by Natsumi Yamane

1. The meaning of “Ukiyo-e”

What exactly does “Ukiyo-e” mean? A direct translation would be pictures of the floating world. But in the dictionary, “Ukiyo” is described as the world filled with sorrowful events or an impetuous world. However, when you look at the Ukiyo-e depictions, they generally picture the cheerful lifestyle of the Edo period. So probably the meaning of Ukiyo-e comes down to pictures of blithe and cheerful scenes…

Women of the Edo period, a work by Utagawa Toyokuni. Courtesy of The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum.

2. Where does it come from?

Originally, Ukiyo-e began as… well, its origins are still unknown. However, before the Edo period the term referred to original drawings which painters drew directly onto paper or silk. At the time, most of the Ukiyo-e works were classified as high art and owned by aristocrats or the Samurai class. Common people like the townsmen rarely had the opportunity to see them. However, as the commoners’ economic power improved in the Edo period, diverse cultural aspects made their way finally from the higher classes to the masses: in the book stores, as many stories with illustrations began to get published. These became known as the woodblock printed Ukiyo-e. Because these were mass-produced, illustrations became hugely popular and gradually gained public appreciation as an art form of their own.

Could this be the true origin of Manga? – “Hokusai Manga” by Katsushika Hokusai. Courtesy of Ohya Shobo Co. Ltd.
Pop colours before this term even was invented: “Kyoka Hyakki Yakyo” from the Edo period. Courtesy of Ohya Shobo Co. Ltd.
“Dragon Ball”, the popular Japanese Manga and TV series, drew some ideas from “Satomi Hakkenden”, a book edited by Bakin Kyokutei. Courtesy of Ohya Shobo Co. Ltd.

3. The Making of “Ukiyo-e” woodblock prints:

Ukiyo-e works are based on several craftsmen and different manufacturing steps: first of all a painter produces the master drawing in ink. He will provide a rough sketch with the outer border, and a woodblock is cut out based on the sketch. The block will then be inked and printed to produce a relief print [see pictured below]. After that, individual blocks for different colours are cut out. The type of wood used for these blocks is cherry, which has a hard grain that enables finer lines to be cut out. Then each of the blocks is sequentially used to impress one colour at a time [see Pictures 2 and 3]. It’s done! By the way, an ordinary Ukiyo-e requires 5 to 6 blocks in average. However, for a work by Hiroshige there were 20 blocks used!

Manufacturing Steps:

Picture 1: first the relief print in black ink by Hiroshige Utagawa. Courtesy of The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum.

Adding colours: a test sheet of the red luggage section. Courtesy of The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum.

This one is for the blue sky. Courtesy of The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum.

Picture 2: other colours are gradually impressed on top of the main picture with the outlining border. Courtesy of The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum.

Picture 3: one more step just before completion. Courtesy of The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum.
Wow, nice colours! The final Ukiyo-e print that has been impressed many times. Courtesy of The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum.

4. “Ukiyo-e” Motifs:

Ukiyo-e works that flourished into the popular culture during the Edo period had a wide range of motifs – but still the central theme is about daily life and the customs of townsmen. Typical Ukiyo-e includes what is now known as gravure pictures, such as Yakusha-e which are also known as actor prints. And, of course, the ladies of Bijinga: pictures of beautiful women. Another would be Musha-e or Samurai prints. By the way, prints of actors and cute women served the role of advertisements at that time.

This is a contemporary photo of the very same Hakone landscape that was depicted earlier in the “Tokaido 53″ series by Hiroshige Utagawa. Look, there is Mt. Fuji in the back!
Similar view of the place above, but this time it is an “Ukiyo-e” also of the “Tokaido 53″ series by Utagawa Hiroshige. Courtesy of Ohya Shobo Co. Ltd.
A landscape print by Hasui Kawase, one famous “Ukiyo-e” painter coming after the Edo period. Courtesy of Ohya Shobo Co. Ltd.

Celebrities on a woodcut: Yakusha-e by Sharaku. Courtesy of The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum.

Cute girls: Bijingaby Eisen. Courtesy of The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum.

Another actor on a Yakusha-e by Kunichika Toyohara. Courtesy of The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum.

More girls: Bijinga by Utamaro Kitagawa.

5. The Gallery of the Famous: Major “Ukiyo-e” artists

Let’s get to the Ukiyo-e stars of the Edo period: everyone must surely know the works of Katsushika Hokusai, and there is Utagawa Hiroshige known for his “Edo Hyakkei”, the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. [pictured below]

A landscape print full of romantic colours: “Red Mt.Fuji” by Hokusai Katsushika. Courtesy of The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum.

From the above mentioned landscape series “One hundred views of Edo” by Hirosige Utagawa. Courtesy of Ohya Shobo Co. Ltd.

Also from “One hundred views of Edo” by Hirosige Utagawa. Courtesy of Ohya Shobo Co. Ltd.

There is one more popular painter: Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a representative Ukiyo-e artist of the late Edo period, received a broader public attention in the second half of the 20th century. He is followed by his pupil in the Meiji period, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, known for his distinctive prints of quite brutal scenes. We could go on here and name a lot more of “Ukiyo-e” artists – maybe someone would like to name a few more?

Samurai in heavy action! Musha-e by Kuniyoshi Utagawa. Courtesy of The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum.

Another Samurai involved with a sea monster: Musha-e by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Courtesy of The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum.

Ghosts motif: a yo-kai print by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka from the Meiji period. Courtesy of Ohya Shobo Co. Ltd.

More yo-kai print, meaning ghosts, by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka. Courtesy of Ohya Shobo Co. Ltd.

6. Places to see the real “Ukiyo-e”:

These days, Ukiyo-e can be found pretty much everywhere around the world: if you happen to be in Tokyo, check out the fine collections of the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Art Museum in Shibuya and the Ohya Shobo Co. Ltd. in Jinbocho. Also, the Tobacco & Salt Museum in Shibuya is currently holding a special exhibition called “Masterpieces of the Genre Paintings and Hand painted Ukiyo-e”, too!

Apart from Tokyo, you find the excellent The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum in Matsumoto, Nagano prefecture. In Chiba we have the Funabashi West Library.

Ukiyo-e overseas can be found at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Musée Guimet in Paris, the Museo d’Arte Orientale Edoardo Chiossone in Genova, Italy, the Brooklyn Museum in New York and the V&A in London.

I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction to Ukiyo-e, and I’m sure you might find some even at your local art gallery. Next time you come across one, you’ll know a bit more about it…

  • Clara

    I’m glad to have learnt abit more about Ukiyo-e and the museums housing such collections will be places I want to visit the next time I’m back in Tokyo.

  • Liam

    I’ve always been a fan of these kind of prints. You can just gaze at them for ages…

  • monkee

    I have a book from which features all this pictures here. I could search out the ISBN if interested (email above)

  • DC1974

    There is a show at the gallery at Vassar college (north of New York City in Poughkeepsie, NY) right now that is getting lots of press in the U.S. It features the work of Yoshu Chikanobu who who was largely forgotten (apparently) but trained under the previous era’s masters. His work is very beautiful as well. The work is normally held at the gallery at Scripps College in Claremont, CA. For the full release from Vassar (I think there was a write up in the New York Times as well.) See this link.

  • Ian

    If yo are in Tokyo, there’s a nice hands-on exhibit of ukiyo-e woodlblock printing at the Printing Museum in Edogawabashi. A nice way to reinforce the ideas physically. (They have a rad letterpress studio, too!)

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    I checked out the floating world a few years back in London… Was pretty amazing actually…

  • GK

    I managed to by a book of Ukiyo-e by Mondadori once for th e quite a round sum but never regretted of that. I was impressed from the very first page.

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    I love this type of art.

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  • sameer

    the process is as beautiful as the outcome! these artists have amazing eye for detail..

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  • rykky

    I read an article about the career of Vincent Van Gongh and it mentioned that he was deeply influenced by Ukiyo-e in developing his own expressionist style. I feel like reading a sequel of the article when reading this entry. Thank you so much for giving us this awesome introduction to Ukiyo-e! i really feel like know more about this… btw, i love the colours they use in them, they are so contrasting, like shocking pink and neon green, however they manage to make it so calm and elegant, but not campy or screaming. Exciting!

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    i have several files depicting a few of the ukiyo-e prints here! like Bijinga, for one. Always loved japanese art (:

  • Raghavendra

    great works of japan
    i love these ukiyo-e paintings mainly because of there unique style,
    im a big fan of the Hokusai wave (The great wave of Kanagawa) it has a great composition .Negative and positive space are properly balanced

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    Great introduction to ukiyo-e and a great guide to the process of woodblock printing…thank-you

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