What to Look for in a Japanese Print

Hiroshige, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road, Spring Rain
Hiroshige Spring Rain from the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road, 1832

It is easy to slip into an enthusiasm, to think we know our way around a subject without standing back and taking an overview. As for early enthusiasts, the scope of a subject such as ukiyo-e can be dazzling and also baffling, confusing as it is enthralling. As dealers at the Toshidama Gallery, we have over the last decade online written literally tens of thousands of words on the subjects… sometimes this is describing the action of a battle or a kabuki drama, sometimes the background to a  series of prints and sometimes simply describing the mechanics of the things; how they are made, by whom or for what reason.

There are wider issues here also. Anyone visiting the Rijksmuseum these days or the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam will be made immediately aware of the pre-eminence of Japanese prints in the development of post impressionism and as a consequence of modernism, the modernist ‘eye’, and indeed the profound influence of Japanese Edo culture on everything from painting to Architecture.

Van Gogh, Japanese Bridge in the Rain
Van Gogh, Japanese Bridge in the Rain, 1887

This article is about the themes of Japanese prints. It coincides with the online exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery, Themes in Japanese Woodblock Prints. The ukiyo-e genre is very strict. The themes are narrow, consensus driven, anchored in tradition and bounded by cultural (also technical) barriers. The great print artists of the day strayed little from where they were comfortable and collaborated with fellow artists if they were required to work outside of their specialised field. It is also useful to consider why in the first place people have made images… what purpose, what cultural commonplaces they share with other countries and why sometimes we revere them so much.

Ukiyo-e of the nineteenth century, especially of Edo falls into three major categories: landscape, history (and myth), and theatre subjects. Of those subjects, the western audience would be certainly familiar with landscape, with history… one could include religion at a squeeze but not so much with theatre – the most prolific of the genres. If we expand theatre in Japanese woodblock prints to include narrative as well, we might include some western painting but there really isn’t an equivalent. In this way, the genre of kabuki theatre prints as a significant art form predicts the creation and popularity of pop art, popular media and fan art in a way which – when seen through the right lens – makes them seem oddly contemporary. Above all, ukiyo-e is a demotic art, an art of the people. The west did not find a way to equal that until the late twentieth century. Of course this is due to class… the imposition of high and low cultures as a way of defining quality and preserving ‘difference’. But there has rarely been such an ordered society as Edo, they managed somehow to make culture, ‘at the service of the people’ and to marginalise – even to this day – high art, the art of the samurai, as less relevant.

It is a commonplace to say that the Japanese have dominated the commercial art scene for so many decades… comic art, manga, anime – tattoo even etc. All of these genres find their origin in the world of ukiyo-e.

Hiroshige, Upright Tokaido, Ferryboats at Shichiri
Hiroshige, Ferryboats at Shichiri, from the ‘Upright’ Tokaido Road Series, 1855


Landscape in Japanese prints is almost entirely dominated by the artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). Woodblock prints of the nineteenth century are dominated by a school of artists known as the Utagawa School, which gifted the artists their first names. The Chinese introduced the landscape tradition into Japan in the middle ages, and Japanese painting developed as a refined pursuit attached to Buddhist and Shinto devotion, patronised by the court. In this, the medieval art of Japan and of the west share a great deal – religious inspired art carried out under the patronage of the ruling class. The development of coloured woodblock printing in the late seventeenth century changed all that. It was cheap and fast to produce and the process coincided with a boom in the town based, educated middle class. Suddenly everyone could afford original culture. This cultural revolution is I think very close to the contemporary world experience of the internet. A democratisation of culture leading to new, sophisticated and rapidly developed forms.

An unforeseen consequence of middle class prosperity was travel. The arterial roads across Japan – the Tokaido and the Kisokaido roads – enabled transport between the state and Imperial capitals… one inland and one coastal. Several artists – famously the great Hokusai – started to draw landscape views that were neither part of the venerable tradition, the religious sensibility, nor were they narrative… illustrating a war, an army, the journey of a hero. But it was Hiroshige who produced the first wildly popular set of pure landscape prints… his account of the 53 stations (hotels, in small villages) that punctuate the Tokaido Road. Published by Hoeido, the large set of prints – 55  in total – take the viewer the entire length of the highway from Tokyo to Kyoto. Tremendous vistas and crucially, mundane and everyday observations fill the sheets. It is a fabulous and still under rated achievement. It is both epic and personal… it serves not only as a travelogue but also as a personal appreciation and topographical guide. There is a sense of the religious about it… the relationship of the often tiny figures to the profundity of nature, but this approach is elegant and under stated.

Yoshitoshi, Fan Tokaido, Kusatsu
Yoshitoshi, Kusatsu, from The Fan Tokaido, (Folding Fan 53 Stages) 1865

Hiroshige continued to produce versions of this profound journey for the rest of his career. Some, such as the so called Upright Tokaido or One Hundred Views of Edo broke new ground in picturing the artist’s relationship to nature. Sometimes we are at sea on a boat, at others like a child among the hooves of horses in the market place. All of this of course had a profound effect on the way that we see the world because it informed the early ‘framing’ of the world in the viewfinder and changed completely the way of seeing in late nineteenth century landscape painting. Hiroshige’s landscapes were the innovations that also appear as the backgrounds of the work of artists in other fields… theatre and history genres for example. To be honest, after the Great Tokaido series, no one else made a significant contribution to landscape in printing… not, at least, until the early twentieth century when the Shin-Hanga school introduced tired forms of European illustration back into the culture.

Hiroshige, Famous Places of the Eastern Capital, Kasumigaseki
Hiroshige, Kasumigaseki, from Tōto meisho – Famous Places of the Eastern Capital, 1854.


More in keeping with tradition is the musha-e or warrior print. These often gruesome pictures of war, campaigns, heroes and monsters became wildly popular in the 1820’s. It’s very possible that the desire for these tales of the  past were connected very powerfully to the growing political instability of the time. The centuries old administration of the Tokugawa dynasty was dying in the face of modernisation and trade.

There was an existing tradition for the genre; the look and themes of these nineteenth century masterpieces was well established by both Hokusai and artists such as Shuntei, but it is another Tokugawa artist, Kuniyoshi (1797-1861),  who, like Hiroshige with the landscape tradition, reinvents it and makes it his own. Kuniyoshi’s great work was in reviving the stories of a period in Japanese history called the warring states. The epic pictures of warring samurai and gruesome and bloody warriors made Kuniyoshi rich and famous. Justifiably so; they are fine works of art but there was always a subtext as in the similar obsessions in Britain say in the nineteenth century for for the lost worlds of Kings Arthur and Alfred. The atavist yearning for myth… heroism, honour, duty, bravery and so on.

Kuniyoshi, Portraits of the Faithful Samurai of True Loyalty, Takanori
Kuniyoshi, Takanori from, Portraits of the Faithful Samurai of True Loyalty, 1853

The collection this month at the Toshidama Gallery has few Kuniyoshi but concentrates on the extraordinary and revolutionary prints of Taiso Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892). Yoshitoshi was a pupil of Kuniyoshi and his early work is sometimes indistinguishable from his teacher’s. We are showing an astonishing, early musha-e comprising six consecutive and interconnected sheets describing the great sea battle of Dan-no-ura which more or less decided the pre-eminence of the Tokugawa shogunate for five hundred years. Kuniyoshi and most of his colleagues and pupils had made versions of this famous battle, all in the great Kuniyoshi tradition. Yoshitoshi’s version of the 1860’s is bigger, better and bolder than any other. It plunders Kuniyoshi for composition and style and detail and is clearly the work of a young artist hoping to outdo his teacher. There is a message in this great work, as there was in so many of these highly motivated and intelligent artists. This print was made on the eve of a revolution in 1868 that would see the collapse of the old traditions and the resurgence of a Royal Family at the service of trade and industry, modern royals who had traded tradition for modernisation. The message here is a reminder of the great battles that were fought for Japanese values.

Yoshitoshi, Selection of 100 Warriors, Hida no Tatewaki
Yoshitoshi, Hida no Tatewaki, from Selection of 100 Warriors, 1868.

Only a few years… (five or six?) later, Yoshitoshi witnessed a battle first hand. This was in 1868, between the old Tokugawa army and the new mechanised Imperial forces at the site of what is now a funfair at Ueno Park in Tokyo. Yoshitoshi was clearly disturbed by the carnage he witnessed. He produced a large series that came to define  his style and his reputation. A Selection of One Hundred Warriors (he produced sixty-nine) is based upon a Kuniyoshi series of loyal samurai from 1853. In this series he draws, in an entirely western manner, soldiers, often brutally dismembered or dismembering, covered in blood or body parts, holding weapons. These portraits are designated heroes of old by name, but they are dressed for the present day – Yoshitoshi defending himself against censorship perhaps – Hida no Tatewaki Wearing a Red Wig (above) for example, being explicitly drawn as one of the then despised Americans. Warrior portraits then were highly political. They could be used as Kuniyoshi did, to evoke loyalty, patriotism, longing for national pride and values, or as Yoshitoshi did… as a means of political agitprop, or indeed disgust.

Yoshitoshi, Battle of Dan-no-Ura Hexaptych
Yoshitoshi, The Battle of Dan-no-Ura. Six Sheet, (previously unrecorded) 1860’s


Kunisada, Jiraiya Goketsu Monogatari
Kunisada, Jiraiya goketsu monogatari, 1852.

Theatre prints – perhaps equivalent to movie posters or Instagram posts today! – despite appearances, could be equally subversive and were the subject of the strictest censorship of all. Kabuki theatre grew up as an entertainment put on by brothel workers in a dried up river bed in Osaka in the seventeenth century. By the early nineteenth century kabuki theatre was the primary source of legend, myth, story, drama and entertainment for the townspeople of Osaka and Edo… millions of consumers. Kabuki differed from noh theatre which was ‘classical theatre’ for the aristocracy. Where noh was historic, poised, delicate, refined… kabuki was loud, melodramatic, brash and gaudy. It also did not turn away from controversy and real world stories. As a consequence it was the most criticised but it made heroes out of the great actors and playwrights of the day. Actors such as Ichikawa Danjuro IX, performing towards  the end of the nineteenth century, were phenomenal superstars. This adoration and pop culture was ably rivalled by the woodblock artists who commemorated every performance every role and every significant actor. Thousands and thousands of original, painstaking woodblock prints were produced, glorifying the theatre and it flourished alongside the theatrical world until both fell to the  increased popularity of film and photography and by the 1890’s there was a palpable embarrassment at the brash, unsophisticated world of the kabuki theatre. Prints such as the diptych shown above of Jiraiya and Ayame, two magician siblings fighting evil and oppression, were tremendously popular with Edoists everywhere.


Women were pictured in a variety of genres… sometimes as heroes in musha-e, more often as desirable prostitutes or escorts in prints like fashion plates. As the nineteenth century wore on though, there was a new revolutionary attitude to the depiction of females. The great print artists began to represent women not as stereotypes or objects to be admired or desired, but as individuals… characters in history or legend. Hence in the selection of prints under discussion, we are showing three prints from Kunichika’s masterful series Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties of 1876. Whilst hardly exemplars of third wave feminist theory, they are nonetheless very modern ways of showing women as a group. These are all strong individuals, known not for beauty but for action, for strength and so on. These new ways of picturing women became very popular and have a revolutionary enthusiasm to their titles… Virtuous Women for the Eight Views,  A Hundred Stories of Famous Women of Our Country, and so on. Of course there continued to be endless series of prints comparing beautiful women to flowers and so on.

Kunichika, 36 Good and Evil Beauties, The Nurse Asaoka
Kunichika, Thirty-six Good and Evil Beauties: The Nurse Asaoka, 1876.

A genre where women and men appear and which continues to be controversial is shunga. Explicit sex pictures are a long term part of traditional Japanese culture. A great deal has been written about what the west sees as ‘problematic’ works of art. The western mind seems to see all pictorial manifestations of sexual activity as being necessarily exploitative. Perhaps because of western conventions of ownership, the male gaze, and Christian values that place women at the service of men. In Japanese shunga there is a great deal of shared sexual pleasure, and there is a great deal of evidence that both men and women consumed these books and prints, using them as titillation but also as manuals on sexual technique. They do not really have an equivalent in the west which is what makes them so fascinating for us. The depiction of sexual acts in western art was always for covert male consumption lending these things a seedy and unwholesome reputation. Shunga goes out of its way to humanise sexual desire… it is funny, tender, violent, pleasurable and on the whole equal. Shunga is a rare and great art form, one that should be seen away from the context of western guilt.

Kunichika, Shunga Leaf Yakatabune
Kunichika, Shunga Leaf, Yakatabune from Geisha From the House of Spring Flowers, 1860’s

About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
This entry was posted in Hiroshige, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, ukiyo-e, Uncategorized, Van Gogh and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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