Pre-modern Japan had a rich and diverse print culture based almost entirely on woodblock printing. This technology permitted the cultivation of a close and creative interplay between text and image. It also made possible the reproduction of individual calligraphic styles, which were highly regarded in a culture where calligraphy was a high art form.
This article focuses on the characteristics of printing during the Edo period (1603–1868), which saw the flourishing of a commercial print culture that ranged from richly illustrated multivolume books, finely produced polychrome sheet prints, and maps to throwaway broadsheets and other printed ephemera. Particular attention is devoted to three areas—books, which achieved a high standard of design; instructional manuals created by and for craftsmen, artisans, and artists; and ukiyo-e, “pictures of the floating world,” single-sheet prints featuring courtesans, actors, and other popular subjects. Books—more so than ukiyo-e prints—were also the medium through which Japanese design reached the widest audience in the West.
The basic printing technique involved copying a text and/or image in outline onto a thin sheet of paper, pasting it face down on a carefully prepared woodblock—usually cherry—and then cutting away the wood to leave the fine lines of the inscribed text and/or image in relief. The printer inked the cut woodblock and then lowered a sheet of moistened paper onto it and rubbed the back of the sheet with a small round disk (baren) in order to transfer the inked lines smoothly from the block to the paper.
Whether books or pictures, all the effects encountered in Japanese printing—black outlines, multiple colors, gradations of colors, and impressed and embossed patterns—were achieved by means of this simple technology. Color could be applied by brush either freehand or over stencils. However, from the 1760s, it was usually achieved by using a separate cut woodblock for each color.
Woodblock printing was imported from China in the eighth century and over the following nine hundred years this technology was employed almost exclusively within monasteries for the production of Buddhist texts and devotional images. From the fourteenth century, some monasteries also issued a limited range of secular Chinese philosophical texts and poetry anthologies. Between the eighth and fourteenth centuries, nothing was printed in the Japanese language; Japanese-language literature circulated exclusively via manuscripts.
Movable type was introduced to Japan in the closing decade of the sixteenth century from two sources: the West, through the agency of Jesuit missionaries who imported presses and commissioned fonts for the printing of books in Latin and in Japanese scripts; and Korea, as a result of the invasion of that country by Japanese forces and the forcible relocation to Japan of Korean printers with their fonts of Chinese characters. The Saga-bon, a deluxe private printing of Japanese classical tales and Noh chanting books carried out in Kyoto from 1600 to 1615 are among the finest examples of Japan’s short-lived experiment with movable type. By the 1650s, the printing industry had abandoned movable type in favor of cut woodblocks.
Sound economic and practical considerations lay behind the rejection of movable type. The large number of Chinese characters (kanji) employed in conjunction with the two major syllabic scripts (katakana and hiragana) to write Japanese demanded enormous fonts. The effort and cost involved in producing and using the latter restricted the styles and sizes of type available to compositors, the ways in which text could be presented on the page, and the ways in which it might be combined with images. Cutting texts into woodblocks freed publishers from all these constraints. The exclusive use of cut woodblocks paved the way for the triumph of calligraphy over typography while also allowing for the seamless interplay of text and image in Japanese books and prints. Close integration of text and image on every page became a hallmark of Japanese book design whether in cheap, popular novels or deluxe poetry anthologies. Visual and verbal interplay was also characteristic of much ukiyo-e, which might include punning titles and poetic or other inscriptions, as well as artists’ and printers’ names and censorship seals.
Following the pacification of the country under the hegemony of the Tokugawa shoguns in the early decades of the seventeenth century, the national economy grew rapidly and stimulated the development of urban-based commercial printing free from clerical control. Increasing literacy and widely shared values and interests provided a ready and growing secular market for a wide range of texts in Japanese. Initially, the industry was centered in Osaka and Kyoto; by the eighteenth century, the administrative capital of Edo (modern Tokyo) surpassed them in volume of output, particularly in vernacular literature for a mass audience. Nonetheless, Osaka and Kyoto remained important publishing centers throughout the period. Additionally, a lively printing trade also developed in smaller, provincial centers such as Nagoya and Wakayama.
Books were objects of design in themselves as well as the means by which designs and design concepts were transmitted to artisans, artists, and craftsmen. A distinctive feature of Japanese book illustration is the predominance of the double-page spread as the basic unit of design rather than the single page. The earliest examples of double-page illustrations date from the 1650s. In nearly all cases the right and left half of the text and/or image are confined within discrete frames with the inner margins forming a clear break between the facing pages; neither text nor image bleed into the central well. Artists proved adept at creating designs that leapt this break and allowed the eye to combine the two segments into a satisfying whole.
The first artists to turn to book illustration worked in line only, printed in black ink from a single block to create black-and-white images. The early ukiyo-e artist Hishikawa Moronobu (1618–1694) and his contemporaries proved adept at exploiting the interplay of powerful, curving lines and solid blocks of rich black to create bold, flowing designs. In the eighteenth century, ukiyo-e artists such as Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671–1751) in Kyoto, and Suzuki Harunobu (1724–1770) and Kitao Shigemasa (1739–1820) in Edo, preferred a finer line and more detailed patterns, making significantly less use of areas of solid black than their predecessors. Artists of other schools, such as the Kano school artist Tachibana Morikuni (1679–1748) exploited the medium to reproduce bold brushwork that sweeps across the double-page spread.
The perfection of color printing from multiple blocks in the course of the 1760s did not render black-and-white images obsolete. Many books published between the 1780s and around 1805 were issued in line-only as well as in color-printed editions. The former were far less expensive than the latter. By issuing titles, mostly erotic works, in both formats, publishers assured themselves of a maximum return on their investment. Distinguished books continued to be issued in line only. Outstanding among them are albums (gafu) by Maruyama-Shijō school artists such as Yamaguchi Soken (1759–1818) and Nishimura Nantei (1755–1834), which remained in print for many decades. Color printing was expensive; most finely colored printed books were either verse anthologies subsidized by poetry circles (kyōka-bon) or erotic books (shunpon). In the nineteenth century, at least, the most elaborate of the latter appear to have been subsidized by rental libraries.
Commercially published woodblock-printed books proved a ready means of transmitting designs and design concepts. They provided ready access to designs for use on kimono, lacquers, pipes, combs, architectural transoms (ranma), pottery, fabrics, architectural features, garden ornaments, netsuke, and fabrics. Books also played a significant role in providing amateur and professional painters and calligraphers with a rich array of models from which to learn.
The first printed kimono pattern books appeared in the 1660s. They offer back views of kimono without sashes (obi) so as not to interrupt the sweep of bold patterns across the backs and broad sleeves of the garments. Leading artists, including Hishikawa Moronobu and Nishikawa Sukenobu, were among those who designed such books. They were intended for dyers and embroiderers and demand for them sustained their production into the twentieth century.
Picture books (ehon) by ukiyo-e artists were another rich source for kimono designs. Many of these books were without a significant text; they existed solely for their illustrations, in which poised young women dressed in the latest fashions were presented engaged in genteel pastimes. Hairstyles and kimono patterns are depicted with such care and precision that it is possible to date a book on the basis of the fashions depicted in it. Meticulous attention to fabrics, fashions, hairstyles, interiors, furnishings, and ceramics was also a feature of the images in explicitly erotic books (shunpon). The latter were produced to the highest standards and in substantial numbers, and circulated widely throughout the Edo period.
Instruction manuals intended to widen appreciation of the personal styles of artists of various schools bore titles that incorporated suffixes such as “instruction in” (shi’nan), “albums of paintings by” (gafu), “abbreviated drawing method for” (ryakuga-shiki), and “sketch books from” (manga). The images in these books did not reproduce existing paintings; they were all freshly created for reproduction in print. (The most common format for paintings, the vertical hanging scroll, did not lend itself for reproduction in book format on a scale that allowed a proper appreciation of the artist’s brushwork.) These publications presented the elements of an artist’s painting/drawing style for amateurs and professionals alike to master through copying. Publishers’ advertisements extol the efficacy of these books in allowing the purchaser to master a particular style of painting without recourse to a teacher. The rich store of visual imagery encountered in these books was accessed by adherents of all schools. Edo-based ukiyo-e artists such as Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1865) and Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798–1861), for example, based color woodblock prints on designs they encountered in albums of paintings by Kyoto artists of the Maruyama-Shijō school.
In Edo in the 1790s, Kitao Masayoshi (1764–1824) created a group of books demonstrating his “abbreviated-drawing method” (ryakuga-shiki). Individual volumes in this remarkable series are devoted respectively to the human figure, to animals, to plants, and to landscapes. In the early years of the nineteenth century, the Kyoto artists Kawamura Bunpō (1774–1821) produced two small model books, one devoted to the ordinary people of Japan and the other to Chinese figures. The latter provides an important guide to Chinese figural iconography. They were followed by six major instruction manuals, variously identified as gafu and shi’nan, that remained in print for nearly a century. In 1817, Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769–1825) produced a different kind of model book, Yakusha nigao hayageiko, which provides step-by-step instruction on how to draw convincing kabuki actor portraits and stage scenes.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) was the greatest nineteenth-century exponent of design books. He produced a three-volume model book crowded with designs for use on pipe stems, combs, and other decorative objects (Imayō kushi kiseru hinagata, 1823), and another devoted to fabric patterns (Shingata komonchō, 1824). Most remarkable is his single-volume book devoted to carpentry and architecture (Shoshoku ehon shin hinagata, 1836). It is unprecedented in its detail and scope, providing meticulous, highly detailed representations of bell towers, gates, pagodas, bridges, bells, and architectural ornaments. He also created numerous instruction manuals for painters. In the most didactic of these (Ryakuga hayaoshie, 1812 and 1814) he demonstrates how to draw figures, animals, and landscapes using a compass and ruler.
His greatest repository of designs is the fifteen-part Hokusai manga series (1814–1819, ca. 1834, ca. 1849, 1878). The first part appeared in 1814 as a stand-alone volume. Hokusai may well have been inspired by Masayoshi’s “abbreviated-drawing method” series and Bunpō’s model books when he created the first manga volume. In it he presented examples of everything on earth from human figures through the animal kingdom to plants, water, rocks, and landscapes. It aspired to be encyclopedic in its range. This volume proved so popular that a second set of blocks were cut to keep up with demand and over the following five years nine further volumes were produced. Some of them were devoted to particular subjects like the martial arts (volume 6, 1817), landscapes (volume 7, 1817), or warriors and heroes (volume 9, 1819). Five more volumes followed, the last three appearing after the artist’s death in 1849. A uniform edition of all fifteen volumes was finally issued in 1878. Volumes of Hokusai manga were among the first Japanese books to be widely noticed in the West.
The single-sheet woodblock print developed as a popular art in late seventeenth-century Edo (modern Tokyo) and was a phenomenon promoted by canny publishers. Publishing became a very competitive industry featuring subject matter that shaped and reflected celebrity culture, changing urban fashions in male and female dress, and government censorship of politically sensitive subject matter as well as the growth of domestic tourism. Standardization, speed of production, and economies of scale meant that prints could be priced within the range of consumers of all classes. Some, it is said, cost little more than a bowl of noodles. The colorful prints produced from the 1760s on, known as nishiki-e “brocade prints,” became favorite souvenirs of visits to Edo.
Today these Japanese prints are commonly referred to as ukiyo-e, “pictures of the floating world,” owing to the ephemeral nature of the kabuki theater and Yoshiwara brothel districts that provided their main subject matter until the nineteenth century, when the pictorial repertory extended to landscapes and warriors. Within this thematic range, individual artists developed many distinctive approaches. Initially, actor prints featured full-length portrayals of performers in role. Later, Katsukawa Shun’ei (1762–1819) and Tōshūsai Sharaku (fl. 1794–1795), among others, enriched the range of compositions with close-up actor portraits. This so-called “big head” (ōkubi-e) approach was also adopted for psychologically insightful portrayals of women by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806). Landscape depictions were informed to varying degrees by adaptations of Western perspective. Both Hokusai and Andō Hiroshige (1797–1858) used dramatically enlarged foregrounds with distant backgrounds in reduced scale to particular effect. In the early 1830s, some artists in search of novel effects experimented with printing using Berlin or Prussian blue, a synthetic pigment that produced a more saturated color than vegetable dyes such as indigo. Heroic warriors from Chinese and Japanese myth and literature provided the basis for the inventive designs of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1858). His bestselling series 108 Heroes of the Water Margin, issued from 1827, which drew on a Chinese work of fiction translated into Japanese, pioneered views of muscular figures in close combat. Since the representation of contemporary subject matter was forbidden in ukiyo-e, dramatic portrayals of the heroic deeds of loyal warriors of the past offered opportunities for disguised criticism of the corruption of shogunal authorities.
Initially, prints were issued in black-and-white (sumizuri-e). Hishikawa Moronobu, a prolific book illustrator, was the early master of this genre. Other masters included artists of the Torii school, who specialized in actors, and of the Kaigetsudō school, who specialized in courtesans. Torii Kiyonobu (1664–1764) and Kaigetsudō Ando (fl. 1671–1743) both produced prints in an extra-large format that resembled that of hanging scrolls used for painting, and in some cases added color by hand. The hand-application of color became standard practice in the 1720s, in a limited palette of pink (beni-e) sometimes further embellished with glossy lacquer (urushi-e). Two-color prints, in a palette of red and green (benizuri-e) were popular in the 1740s. Multicolor printing was developed by 1765, initially for privately issued calendars (e-goyomi) created by Suzuki Harunobu. Using as many as twenty separate printing blocks made it possible to produce stunning multicolor images. Perfect registration was ensured by a simple but effective device known as the kentō, where an L-shaped notch at a lower corner and a straight notch at the lower edge of each block allowed the printer to align the paper before lowering it onto the inked block.
Most polychrome prints were issued in a standard size of 39 × 26 cm (ōban), but many artists augmented this format by creating diptychs and triptychs. Kitagawa Utamaro was especially adept at exploiting the pictorial possibilities of triptychs for representing scenes of multiple figures interacting with one another in elaborate interior settings. Publishers and artists also promoted the commercial possibilities of series. Although artists such as Isoda Koryūsai (fl. 1769–1790) had designed a series of prints featuring courtesans in the latest fashions as early as 1760s, this approach became particularly pronounced with the advent of landscape prints. Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, first published around 1830, and Hiroshige’s Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road, first published in 1833–1834, are typical examples. Both series were so successful that they were reprinted many times.
Although commercial printing in Edo was dominated by popular ukiyo-e, luxury prints known as surimono (“printed things”) were also produced there as well as in Kyoto and Osaka for New Year’s greetings and other occasions. These were generally commissioned in limited numbers by members of poetry groups with no expense spared in their printing. Produced in a small and intimate format roughly 20 × 18 cm, they often feature embossing, metallic powders, and other decorative effects that make them among the most exquisite products of Japan’s woodblock printing tradition. Surimono combine images with witty poems whose composition and decoding provided an opportunity for the display of sophisticated cultural literary cultivation.