Ukiyo-e – Woodblock Prints

Ukiyo-e are Japanese woodblock prints which flourished during the Edo Period (1603-1867). They originated as popular culture in Edo (present day Tokyo) and depicted popular geisha,sumo wrestlers and kabuki actors from the world of entertainment. Ukiyo-e, literally “paintings of the floating world”, were so named because their subjects were associated with impermanence and detachment from ordinary life.

At first ukiyo-e were monochrome, but by the mid 18th century polychrome prints were made. The woodblock printing technique enabled mass production which meant affordability, and therefore led to the popularity of these prints. New genres of ukiyo-e such as short story compilations and paintings of landscapes or historical events later became well received. The beginning of the 19th century saw the emergence of several outstanding ukiyo-e artists like Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro, who created famous prints that are celebrated to this day.

The Meiji Period (1868-1912) saw an influx of Western technology into Japan such as photography, leading to diminished interest in ukiyo-e within Japan. Interestingly, however, the prints gained some prominence in Europe where they had an influence in the works of Impressionist painters
It is an art form that is especially identified with Edo’s (present-day Tokyo) thriving culture of theatres, restaurants, teahouses, and the colorful world of geisha and courtesans. Many ukiyo-e prints were in fact posters, advertising theatre performances and brothels, or portraits of popular actors and beautiful women.

Reflecting the rapid rise of urban, merchant-class culture in the 18th century, ukiyo-e developed into a highly popular art form that was increasingly centered on life in Edo. At the same time, advances in woodblock printing techniques made it much easier to print copies. Books of illustrations by young ukiyo-e artists featuring familiar subjects like kabuki actors and beautiful women were in wide circulation by the end of the 18th century.

Over time, the subject matter of ukiyo-e pictures expanded beyond the sophisticated world of urban pleasures to include stunning Japanese landscape and natural scenes. The work of ukiyo-e artists had an enormous impact on landscape painting all over the world and were especially influential in the development of Europe’s impressionist movement.

Today, printmaking flourishes in Kyoto, and some of the old publishing houses are still active:


Has a showroom and a vast store of original key blocks from which it still produces re-strike prints.

Kyoto Handicraft Center

Visitors can see demonstrations and take part in classes in block carving and printing here.

Gallery Gado

You can find catalogues of currently practicing artists, as well as modern prints with traditional themes for sale here.


This studio shop combines modern designs with traditional Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock printing techniques to create a wide range of products from fans to book jackets to delicate handkerchiefs. In business for over a century, they also hold regular woodblock-making workshops.


Sells everything from classic Japanese paintings to modern Japanese design motifs in postcard form. They have specialized in art printing for over 120 years and offer more than 1,000 different ”art” postcards. They have a number of ukiyo-e design postcards including works by famous ukiyo-e artists like Hokusai, Utamaro and Sharaku. They also sell plastic folders, memo pads, round fans featuring ukiyo-e motifs.

Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849), the ukiyo-e master whose style, with its dynamic composition and innovative coloring, strongly influenced the French Impressionists, is perhaps Japan’s most famous artist. He was born in Edo (present-day Tokyo) and started working as an apprentice at a rental bookstore when he was only 6 years old. Recognizing his passion for art, after briefly studying with a master wood sculptor, he entered the school of Shunsho Katsukawa, an ukiyo-e painter, at the age of 19.

When Hokusai was 34, he was expelled from the school, because he had studied the art of another school — the famous and classical nihon-ga Kano School — without the permission of his own master. This, however, was very much to Hokusai’s advantage. Now he could freely study the art of nihon-ga and expand his artistic horizons to encompass Chinese and Western painting traditions as well.

Nothing could have suited him more. Hokusai was not the kind of artist who could be satisfied with just one subject or method. Diversity and experimentation were key to his artistic development. He was constantly trying new genres, which ultimately contributed to the extreme sophistication of his artistic talents. The fact that he changed his artistic name as many as 30 times clearly indicates that he was continually developed as an artist. And his artistic sensibility and skills remained sharp until very late in his life.

One episode, in particular, shows the free spirit for which Hokusai was well known. One day the Shogun Ienari Tokugawa asked Hokusai to paint in his presence. First, Hokusai drew the classical Ka-Cho-Fu-Getsu, or ”The natural beauty of flowers, birds, under a bright moon, in a cool breeze,” and showed it to the shogun. After that, he took out a long piece of Chinese paper from his kimono, placed it on the floor and drew a dark blue, thick line straight down the length of the paper.

Then he took a chicken he had brought with him, dipped its feet in red ink, and released it on the paper! Showing the ”work” with the chicken’s foot prints all over it, Hokusai proudly told the shogun, ”This is the Tatsuta River,” referring to a poem about the beauty of Nara’s Tatsuta River in autumn covered with bright, red maple leaves from One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets, a classic anthology of Japanese poetry.

Hokusai was a man who loved freedom and change. He lived in 93 different residences over his lifetime. Changing his life style continuously was probably how he kept his dynamic and innovative artistic sense alive and fresh. As they say, ”a rolling stone gathers no moss.” Hokusai would certainly have agreed.

Kitagawa Utamaro (ca. 1753-1806) is known especially for his masterfully composed studies of women, known as bijin-ga, although he also produced nature studies, particularly illustrated books of insects.

His work reached Europe in the mid 19th century, where it was very popular, enjoying particular acclaim in France. He influenced the European Impressionists, particularly with his use of partial views, with an emphasis on light and shade.

Biographical details for Utamaro are extremely limited. Various accounts claim that he was born in either Edo, Kyoto, Osaka or a provincial town in around 1753. It is generally agreed that he became a pupil of the painter Sekien Toriyama while he was still a child. He lived in Sekien’s house while he was growing up, and the relationship continued until Sekien’s death in 1788.

Utamaro’s first major professional artistic work, at about the age of 22, in 1775, seems to have been the cover for a Kabuki playbook. He then produced a number of actor and warrior prints, along with theatre programs, and other such material. In about 1791 Utamaro gave up designing prints for books and concentrated on making half-length single portraits of women rather than prints of women in groups, as favored by other ukiyo-e artists.

In 1804, at the height of his success, he ran into legal trouble by publishing prints related to a banned historical novel. The prints entitled Hideyoshi and his 5 Concubines, depicted the military ruler Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s wife and concubines. He was sentenced to be handcuffed for 50 days. According to some sources, the experience crushed him emotionally and ended his career as an artist. He died two years later in 1806, aged about fifty-three, in Edo (present-day Tokyo). Utamaro produced over two thousand prints during his working career, along with a number of paintings, and many illustrated books.

He alone, of his contemporary ukiyo-e artists, achieved a national reputation during his lifetime. His sensuous female beauties are generally considered the finest and most evocative bijin-ga in all of ukiyo-e. He succeeded in capturing subtle aspects of personality, and transient moods, of women of all classes, ages, and circumstances. His reputation has remained undiminished since. His work is known worldwide, and he is generally regarded as one of the half-dozen greatest ukiyo-e artists of all time.

Toshusai Sharaku is widely considered to be one of the great artists of ukiyo-e in Japan. However little is known of him, besides his ukiyo-e prints; neither his true name nor the dates of his birth or death are known with any certainty. His active career as a woodblock artist seems to have spanned just ten months in the mid-Edo period, from the middle of 1794 to early 1795.

One theory claims that Sharaku was not a person, but a project launched by a group of artists to help a woodblock print house that had aided them. In this theory, the name Sharaku is taken from sharakusai, or nonsense, and is an inside joke by the artists, who knew that there was no actual Sharaku. The rapidly changing style that Sharaku utilized, with four distinct stylistic changes in his short career, lends credibility to this claim. It was also common for woodblock prints of this time to involve anywhere from five to ten or more artisans working together.

Another speculation associates Sharaku with the great ukiyo-e master Hokusai. This explanation stems from Hokusai’s disappearance from the art world between the years of 1792 and 1796, the period when Sharaku’s work began to appear. Beyond giving a reason for Hokusai’s absence from the Edo art scene during this time the theory has little evidence.

Regarding Hokusai’s abrupt disappearance, one conjecture is that his master was unhappy with his retainer’s association with the demimonde of the kabuki theatre, instead of the more refined Noh theatre which the master supported. There is no evidence supporting or refuting this.

His career appears to have been so brief in part because the radical nature of his work aroused the hostility of the art world in Edo.

It seems likely that his prints, with their tendency to wring the last drop of truth from his subjects through close depiction of personal characteristics, left customers with a sense of unease, and made his prints difficult to sell. Further, it seems plausible that he was unwilling to compromise his art, and his critics hounded him from the art world.

Indeed, his work did not become popular among collectors in Japan until rediscovered by German scholar Julius Kurth in 1910. He is now considered one of the greatest of all woodblock artists, and the first ‘modern’ artist of Japan, and the extraordinarily rare extant originals of his prints command fantastic sums at auctions.

This may be in part be because some critics rank him with Rembrandt and Velazquez as one of the world’s three greatest portrait painters, and that he is considered the undisputed master of the actor print. His technique of presenting portraits against black or white mica grounds also makes him distinctive due to the striking effects of the mica.