Ukiyo-e: The Floating World of Edo Japan

Ukiyo-e: The Floating World of Edo Japan

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Utagawa Hiroshige's Nihonbashi
Picture: AQ-taro Images / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
From beautiful bijinga to scandalous shunga, a history of the evolution of Ukiyo-e, and how it changed the world of Edo Period Japan.

Most people probably imagine one of two things when they hear Ukiyo-e: erotic Japanese art, or Hokusai’s signature waves. But there’s much more to ukiyo-e than this. At several points in Japanese history, this very art form was the trigger for major political reforms. Ukiyo-e played a role in completely revolutionizing not only the art world, but the world itself.  

A Floating Definition of Life

Ukiyo-e refers to the idyllic Japanese woodblock prints paintings the Edo Period that depicted life in the pleasure districts. Prominent themes were traditional Japanese aesthetics, and depictions of leisure activities, pursuits, and pleasures of the common people.

“E (絵)” means picture or painting, and refers to the print itself. “Ukiyo (浮世)” combines the two kanji, “uki(浮),” which originally means “sadness,” and “yo (世)” meaning “world” (forming the meaning, “sad world”). This original meaning reflected the Buddhist concept of life: birth, suffering, death, repeat. However, another meaning of uki is “to float”. When the art form reached its peak, it took on this meaning. This reflected the idea of life as a cycle of “floating along” through empty pleasures.

Ukiyo-E: The Beginning

Ukiyo-e prints have a long history, beginning in the early Edo Period. These were the so-called “peaceful years” when Japanese life and culture flourished without any wars, nor any outside influences whatsoever. The movement focused on strictly-Japanese concepts, fortified under the new social hierarchy. Warriors were at the top, and farmers, craftsmen, and merchants sat at the bottom.  

The ABC’s of Woodblock Print

The process of woodblock printing and the precursors of ukiyo-e date back much earlier. Woodblock printing originally developed in the 700s. It expanded in the 11th century as the main method for printing Buddhist text and other religious scripts for temples. It wasn’t until the early 1600s that it became more widespread. Previously there was no market for art and literature. But with the establishment of the new shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu advocated for literacy and education amongst the people.  

As as result many publishing houses, including the most famous and successful Tsutaya, began to appear. Printing techniques also developed. It began with monochromatic sumizuri-e, and developed into benizuri-e (prints incorporating crimson ink), aizuri-e (indigo prints), urushi-e (ink thickened with glue, and incorporating enhancing agents such as gold powder and mica), and nishiki-e (brocade prints, using multiple blocks for more complex and colorful images).  


Yamato-e: Setting the Stage for Art

Painting as an art form has much longer history. Two main types of art came out of the Heian Period (794–1185). Yamato-e style was strictly Japanese, and kara-e was inspired by Chinese art. Yamato-e focused on motifs such as Japanese classical literature and history. One of the most famous is the Genji Monogatari Scroll, based on Murasaki Shikibu’s classic novel, The Tale of Genji. Yamato-e painting techniques used a style of outlined drawings and dripped inks. This set the stage for what would become the dominant technique of ukiyo-e.

The Birth of Ukiyo-e

When Tokugawa Ieyasu unified the country under the new shogunate, he divided the social classes. But his emphasis on education and work lead to a quickly-growing merchant class, and a flourishing economy. These hard-working, middle-class merchants now had the time and money to pursue the leisures originally reserved for the wealthy. This lead to a wider availability of entertainment in the pleasure quarters, and a greater appreciation for the arts. It’s no surprise that the two soon developed hand in hand, leading to the birth of ukiyo-e. An art form for the working class, centered around the simple pleasures of their new daily lives.

The Process and Purpose of Ukiyo-E

A rendition of Daruma (Bodhidharma ), the legendary monk of the Zen Buddhist tradition, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi from his series Tsukinohyakushi. (Picture: Wikipedia)

The first ukiyo-e woodblock prints were created by artist and ukiyo-e pioneer, Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694). The first prints used the monochromatic sumizuri-e style, using washi paper and black sumi ink. By 1785, artists like Harunobu began to design mulitcolored prints (called nishiki-e or brocade prints). 

Prints required more than one woodblock, one for each color, and averaged between 10-16 separate blocks per print. Some complex prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige used up to twenty. Pigments for multicolored prints were usually water-based vegetable dyes, and mica (a metallic powder) was sometimes used to add shine.

A Tedious Production

Ukiyo-e production was a tedious process requiring four different roles. The main artist drew the original image free-hand with ink on paper. The craftsman then carved the image on the necessary amount of woodblocks. The printer painted the woodblock(s) with black ink or pigments and assembled them in order to recreate the image. Finally, the publisher would market and distribute the completed artwork.

The printer was an important role, also responsible for commissioning the artist, overseeing and coordinating the production process, and making sure images for mass distribution passed censorship regulations. Tsutaya Juzaburo is the most renowned printer, famous for commissioning master artists such as Utamaro, Hokusai, and Sharaku.

Woodcarving demanded an extreme amount of precision and patience. Craftsmen employed special techniques to achieve accuracy. “Kewari” was a difficult but important skill to master to carve the super-fine lines depicting strands of hair. Artist Kitagawa Utamaro was a master at this.

Style and Development

The Three Beautiful Women of the Meiwa Era (明和三美人; meiwa sanbijin)
The Three Beautiful Women of the Meiwa Era (明和三美人; meiwa sanbijin), a bijinga featuring three tea house women known for their beauty, including the famous Kasamori Osen.

With many techniques came many styles, and more developed throughout the years. Here is a quick overview of the main ones.

Bijin-ga (beautiful woman prints) were portrait-style prints depicting beautiful courtesans of the pleasure quarters. Yakusha-e (actor prints) were the promotional portraits of kabuki actors and other notable entertainment figures. Kacho-ga (bird and flower prints) were simple, black-and-white illustrations of nature, with no more than two subjects (such as one bird and one flower), and a lot of blank space to emphasize nature’s simplicity. Landscape prints depicted famous places along major highways (such as the Tokaido Highway which acted as the main postal route) and pilgrimage routes. (Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige are the most renowned ukiyo-e artists of landscape art.)

Nishiki-e (brocade prints) were the first to employ multiple colors using new pigments and dyes. Surimono (privately issued prints) were private commissions, usually for house decorations or as souvenirs. These were not generally sold to the public, and therefore not subject to the same censorship laws. These were usually much fancier, with more high-quality materials, intricate designs, and expressive images.

Finally, shunga (spring prints) were the most provocative form of painting, and probably one of the most famous styles. Shunga depicted erotic scenes, the name coming from the euphemistic usage of “shun” (春, the kanji for spring) as sex/sexuality. Abuna-e (dangerous prints) were a modest version of shunga, where sexual encounters were only implied but never depicted. (For example, a man gazing at a woman, or a peek at a woman’s foot as opposed to full nudity).

Shunga: Sexuality as Art

Shunga was, by definition, an erotic form of art. Ukiyo-e traditionally depicted daily life scenes, and sex was a part of everyday life. So, sexuality soon became a hot topic as well. Scenes were almost always romantic, with a focus on pleasure. They pictured mutual acts performed by young lovers, unlike typical pornographic content, degrading to women and focused on male domination. Because of this, shunga was enjoyed by men and women alike.

Along with the romantic depictions came more humorous styles. These used exaggerated imagery for erotic impact, such as grossly enlarged private parts. There was actually a reason for the development of these absurd exaggerations in Japanese erotic art. In Japan, customs such as public bathing have always been part of the culture. Nudity was never sexualized on its own. People saw each other naked every day. Because of this, people needed more “extreme” ways to convey something as erotic. This lead to the development of traditional shunga as blatantly sexual depictions. 

Schooling and Mastery

As ukiyo-e flourished, so did new master artists, and people studying under their tutelage. This resulted in a system of schools, each representing the specific style. About ukiyo-e 30 schools developed between the 1600s-1800s. The most notable were the Torii School (1670-1815, founded by Torii Kiyonobu), the Katsukawa School School (1750-1840, by Miyagawa Shunsui), and the Utagawa School (1770-1860, by Utagawa Toyoharu). 

The Schools of Ukiyo-E

While Toshusai Sharaku was controversial in his day, his painting of kabuki actor Otani Oniji as the character Yakko Edobei is one of Japan’s most famous ukiyo-e prints. (Picture: Wikipedia)

The Torii School was most known for kabuki-themed prints, as well as for bijin-ga. This school played a role in establishing kabuki actors as a main motif of ukiyo-e. Famous artists from this school were Suzuki Harunobu, the inventor of the nishiki-e, Kitagawa Utamaro, and Torii Kiyonaga.

Katsukawa School was famous for its realistic portrayals of people and daily life. One of the most famous artists known today, Katsushika Hokusai, was a student of this school in his early years. He was later expelled for incorporating western themes, an artistic taboo at the time. He would later realize the irony when the Utagawa School “modernized” the style with western perspectives in prints. This is the school from which most known surviving prints today were born, and ultimately became the most famous school. Notable artists were Utagawa Toyokuni and Utagawa Hiroshige, who would sit amongst the most famous landscape artists along with Hokusai.

However not every great artist chose to associate with a school. Some, like the enigmatic Toshusai Sharaku, preferred a more rebellious approach. He worked on his own. And though his career was short, he produced some of the most famous, yet controversial, pieces known today. Sharaku’s prints often strayed very far from what was acceptable. Many criticized his work as “too realistic” and unflattering. To this day, his true identity and birthdate remain unknown. And though many failed to appreciate his work back then, he lives on as one of Japan’s most famous painters.

Distribution and Purpose

Ukiyo-e were marketed differently depending on the purpose. They were popular as both decorations or souvenirs, and media outlets. Ukiyo-e even became known as the “mass media of the Edo Period.”Portrait-style prints were actually promotional posters for kabuki actors and other prominent entertainment figures. Others advertised cosmetics and clothing. Landscape prints suggested places to visit along major travel routes. Others generated awareness for places of importance to the Shinto religion, such as pilgrimage stops. Some even provided education and entertainment.

Because ukiyo-e were so common, they were of little value, the equivalent of magazines and newspapers today. Children would cut them up to make puzzles and paper dolls; older children and adults made board games. This was the Edo-day version of recycling by repurposing.

However, there eventually arose a deeper purpose than just fun and games. Ukiyo-e would soon become the main platform for the masses to push for political reform and social revolution.

Ukiyo-E: Rising Up From Oppression

A rendition of a sumou-e print by Utagawa Kunisada ( 歌川国貞). (Picture: AQ-taro Images / PIXTA(ピクスタ) )

Though a time of peace in relation to the outside world, the world within was quickly spiraling downhill. The perceived “peace” was only due to the tight control the government had on the people. But it was also a period of multiple political reforms and restrictive edicts, especially within the art world, the public’s only access to free speech. Tokugawa Yoshimune was the first to issue such edicts, beginning with the Kyoho Reforms. And with each new edict, the Bakufu sought even tighter control.

Taboo Art: Beyond Censorship

The Bakufu scrutinized everything, and limited what could be published. (Heaven forbid the people used their freedoms to criticize the government or stage an uprising). Laws were strictly enforced. Punishments could be as mild as fines for “public satire,” to as permanent as a death sentence.

Rules went beyond the typical censorship of erotic media and regulations against public slander. The biggest taboo was the direct reference to any important political figure, ESPECIALLY the shogunate, a crime punishable by death. Other taboos were references to and depictions of deities and important ancestral/religious figures, citing names of certain famous people, and any mention of the Tokugawa name whatsoever. And the list of taboos kept growing.

Not Naming Names…

Artists began to employ more creative ways to get their messages across indirectly. Ukiyo-e soon became a sort of “visual satire”. New motifs arose to represent new taboos in ways unlikely to draw attention from the government.

The banning of certain names and figures grew to bigger proportions. Soon, the mention of any high-class figure, including the samurai class and people from history, was forbidden. Even the popular portrait style okibu-e, depicting actors and celebrities, was taboo.

In response to this arose musha-e, or warrior prints, which featured fictional warrior figures from popular stories from Chinese literature. Because the figures were fictional and of Chinese origin, the government didn’t scrutinize them as harshly.

Kuniyoshi the Catfisher

One element of musha-e was to put caricatures resembling famous figures on animal bodies to disguise their identity. Utagawa Kuniyoshi was one of the most notable satirists who started the animal painting movement. He often got away unpunished for his works. He notoriously created works that pushed the limits to which he could bend the law. One of his unique responses to the portrait ban was to paint faces by putting together figures of random bodies like a puzzle.

One of Kuniyoshi’s most popular styles used catfish (or namazu), to reference certain figures and political events. (namazu-e, or catfish prints). A great earthquake in 1854 drew a very Shintoistic speculation from the public. That the disaster was a response from the gods against the Bakufu’s oppression, the catfish thrashing about in opposition. (An old folk tale suggests earthquakes were the result of catfish moving underneath the land.) From this point forward, catfish became a favorite motif of ukiyo-e satirists.

Flirting with Danger

The Tempo Reforms came about later, forbidding displays of luxury and pleasure. This saw the rise of landscape prints and kacho-ga. It also brought even greater fame to artists like Hokusai, who helped popularize the genres. Hokusai even produced several print series known as the Hokusai Manga. Despite being completely unrelated to comics, it is the very same term that is so popular cross-culturally today. Erotic arts also became forbidden, resulting in the shift from traditional, exaggerated shunga to the subtle displays of abuna-e.

The Comeback of Artistic Expression

Eventually, in 1868, the Tokugawa Shogunate collapsed due to other political upheavals too lengthy to discuss at this time. This marked the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, which redefined the government to a centralized bureaucracy. It also did away with the extreme artistic bans of the Tokugawa Shogunate, allowing art to flourish once again. With the introduction of Western ideas, the government also welcomed the portrayal of political figures, as long as it was positive. However, it also lead to the use of ukiyo-e as government propaganda as well as political satire. This was the closest to free speech that Japan had come since the Tokugawas had attempted to shush all but their breath.

Ukiyo-E Influences the Outside World

The Meiji Restoration worked both ways. While it brought in new Western influences, it also influenced western countries. Ukiyo-e became in European countries and was the catalyst that started the Japonism artistic movement. This movement influenced many prominent European artists, including Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, and even Van Gogh.

Unfortunately, those movements are also the very thing that lead to the decline of ukiyo-e, as modern art began to take over. Though many of these new art forms drew inspiration from ukiyo-e, and some schools made several attempts to revive the style, it never made a full comeback, and had all but died out by the end of the 19th century.

Ukiyo-E On Display (Or Not…)

In modern times, ukiyo-e have become somewhat of a rare delicacy even within the art world. You can’t just walk into an art museum and visit the ukiyo-e section as easily as you can go see the Mona Lisa or a classic Monet painting. But they haven’t completely disappeared. For the most part, they are just hiding.

There is a reason original ukiyo-e are rarely on display, and the location of famous originals is unknown. That is because ukiyo-e pigments fade with exposure to the light. Many of the most famous pieces are in dark vaults for safe-keeping. In the rare event they are brought out, it is usually only for very limited amounts of time.

Preserving Ukiyo-E Traditions

With most original ukiyo-e hidden behind closed doors, and no prominent artists taking the reigns to revive it, some modern art schools have taken matters into their own hands in order to preserve traditional methods. Very few professional artists today are able to reproduce ukiyo-e using their proper format. However, the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints is a school that formed for that very specific purpose. Opened in 1928, to this day have recreated over 1,200 classics by Hokusai, Utamaro, and even Sharaku.

Despite the process going out of style, ukiyo-e is finding its way back into the modern world in other ways. In lieu of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, Japan has made extra efforts to put its proud, artistic culture on display. Japan has released new passports featuring some of Hokusai’s most famous works. They are appropriately set to release in accordance with a new film celebrating his life on his 260th birthday. Ukiyo-e even appears on posters geared towards tourists, such as this anti-terrorism alert seen in a subway.

Without initiatives such as these to bring back awareness to these beautiful aspects of a lost art, and the efforts of schools like the Adachi Institute to continue the legacy of old print techniques, it is possible the traditional ukiyo-e methods of the Edo days would already be long gone. But thanks to this preservation of techniques and appreciation of the art, we can continue to pass down the beauty and history of ukiyo-e to future generations.

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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