Japanese Arts (VI): Ukiyo-e

Ukiyo-e is a Japanese art form that originated in the Edo period. It has a variety of contents, including historical stories, scenery, folk tales, and portraits. Not all the ukiyo-e are woodblock prints - there are paintings as well. Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa is the ukiyo-e that most people have heard of.

What is Ukiyo-e?


Ukiyo-e began in Edo (now Tokyo) during the Edo period (1603–1867). During the time of internal peace, the middle class had more money to enjoy themselves as a result of rapid economic development. Ukiyo-e was a depiction of this more hedonistic lifestyle. It is translated as “pictures of the floating world.” Asai Ryoi, a Japanese writer in the Edo period, interpreted “the floating world” in Ukiyo Monogatari as, “ was about 'Carpe diem'. One should focus on the beauty of the moon, sun, cherry blossoms, and maple leaves. There is no need to be depressed by poverty, just floating with the waves like a bottle gourd (calabash).” 

Although ukiyo-e was initially considered low culture, its aesthetics and techniques were remarkable. Furthermore, understanding a ukiyo-e painting required a high-level cultural literacy because most ukiyo-e was based on classical literature and historical stories. During those two and a half centuries, ukiyo-e had never stopped developing and reflecting current tastes and concerns. Ukiyo-e illustrates both history and the present.

History of Ukiyo-e


In the Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate placed merchants at the lowest level of social hierarchy. As their political power faded, the merchant class turned to art and culture in which they could compete equally with the upper classes (warriors, peasants, and artisans). It was the collaboration among merchants, artists, publishers, and citizens that endowed ukiyo-e with its distinctive charm. Ukiyo-e required an artist to design the print, an engraver to cut the woodblock, and a printer to ink the woodblock and press it onto paper.

The earliest ukiyo-e artists came from the world of Japanese painting. In the 17th century, yamato-e developed a style of outline forms, which became the prototype of ukiyo-e. Early ukiyo-e was a monochrome print - colors could only be added by hand. With the development of woodblock printmaking, full-color prints appeared in the mid-18th century. In addition to color, ukiyo-e also drew lessons from the geometric perspective. Ukiyo-e reached its peak in quantity and quality in the late 18th century. However, with the failure of reforms and economic recession, this unique art form declined at the turn of the twentieth century.

Contents of Ukiyo-e


There are many different contexts in ukiyo-e, including shunga, kacho-ga, bijin-ga, bunjin-ga, shiki-e, meisho-e, kanoha, yakusha-e, and so forth. Among all the subjects, portraits and landscapes are the most popular ones. We'll outline a few here:

Bijin-ga: These are paintings that portray beautiful young ladies, including noblewomen and folk women. Bijin-ga stressed the depictions of gorgeous costumes. The "joy of dressing" was no longer a privilege of the nobilities, but a common need of everyone. The colorful fabrics and floral motifs made each kimono a work of art.

Yakusha-e: They are known as “actor paintings.” In the Edo period, brothels and theaters were the main pastimes of Edo people. Geisha and kabuki were the favored idols at that time. Yakusha-e depicted all the subjects related to theaters, including geisha and kabuki, theaters, stage scenes, audiences, and architecture.

Kacho-e: It can be translated as "flower-and-bird pictures." Artists carefully studied the forms of plants and animals and artistically expressed them. Kacho-e is not limited to flowers and birds, and the flowers and birds do not necessarily appear in the every painting or even in the same painting.

Sansui-ga: They are paintings of landscapes. With the development of transportation and the development of the economy, a large number of paintings of scenic spots emerged. The landscape paintings created by Katsushika Hokusai and Kakegawa Hiroshige added a new highlight to ukiyo-e.

Shun-ga: These are paintings about sex. In the Edo period, merchants were affluent but of low social status, so many were inclined to indulge in lust. Also, before the Meiji era, various kinds of sex were not considered morally corrupt. Therefore, erotic prints became an intrinsic part of ukiyo-e.

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