Its conception came about in the start of the 1650s and denotes aspects of Buddhism including changeability and fleeting pleasure. In our earthly domain the ukiyo-e represents transcendence of human desires and materialism (Koyama-Richard 38). Looking at these magnificent woodblock prints, one can take a glimpse into early Japan made possible by the visual representation of Japanese society, culture, customs, clothes, and insight. Before anyone can fully appreciate the ukiyo-e, one must understand the painstaking yet meticulous process of producing a woodblock print.
The artists behind the ukiyo-e prints that gained notoriety are typically painters that had no contributions toward the creation process of the prints themselves. In order for one design to be published, there has to at least include an artist, carver (horishi), and a printer (surishi). Each position in any production is artisans in their own rights (Sakata). They each spend years training in master’s studios or apprenticeships.
The artist sketches the design on a piece of thin yet strong paper with light ink, making numerous edits and studies. Once the artist is satisfied with the designs and drawing, it is passed onto the carver. The carver then pastes the drawing onto a block of cherry wood with rice paste and begins carving out the design. The inside of the lines are first carved out before finishing up on the outside lines. This main block is used only for the black lines. Any other colors must have separate blocks for each one accordingly to the artist’s original vision. Registration marks are carefully attended to, in order to ensure a perfect print between multiple impressions. Several proofs are made for pending approval of the artist. Once the blocks are carved out and accepted, it is given to the printer. The printer’s apprentices prepares the paper to be used for printing with sizing formula called “dosa,” consisting of alum and animal hide glue (to prevent bleeding). The printer maintains a tremendous amount of effort in considering the shrinkage of papers while moist and the registration prints. According to the artist’s design, the printer begins printing using organic pigments, dyes, and finely ground minerals mixed with animal hide glue and some water (Hirano).
The resulting effort of these artisans is ready to serve and distribute to the general public with beautiful images anyone can often afford. This collaborative and artistic process is slightly reminiscent of mass production of everyday products, inspiring artists of modern times such as Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami (which we will talk about later). The prints that brought pleasure and entertainment were just as fleeting as the history of ukiyo-e. Despite the allusion to an inevitable end of the popularity behind ukiyo-e prints, its history has stimulated a revival and a better appreciation in the later 20th century.
The progeny of ukiyo-e has rested on a foundation originating from the rise of a thriving new capital called Edo, a city that will become the modern Tokyo we know of today. In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) was appointed by the emperor to become a shogun. He decided to set up his new capital in Edo and a period of peace ensued for the people of Japan. The imperial capital of Edo rapidly gained momentum for economical expansion and growth of population due to the now stable nation in a period of peace (Koyama-Richard 37). One of the things the Tokugawa bafuku introduced to the political system at the time was the sankin kotai system, where alternate attendance is required by all daimyos so the shogunate can keep a close eye on political activities.
Though the daimyos suffered financial burdens due to spending alternate residencies between Edo and their domains, the new capital enjoyed financial gain. While they resided in their domain, their wives and children was left behind in Edo as hostages to ensure loyalty and fulfillment of duties (Schirokauer, Conrad, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay 145). Four classes have organized Japanese society: samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants. The samurai class grew richer alongside the merchant class, creating the middle-class (chonin). The daimyos’ crippling debt encouraged business with the merchants through money lending. The expanding economy allowed more indulgence amongst the samurai class, and simultaneously the artisans fed their creative appetite with a surge of cultural activities such as art, literature and performance art such as Noh drama. With a boasted economy, the opportunity for the market of ukiyo-e prints became a reality (Koyama-Richard 38).
In the flourishing markets of Japan, woodblock prints became wildly popular. This was the time that the merchant class was on the rise during the peaceful period of the Tokugawa rule. The increasing urbanization of Osaka, Kyoto, and Edo let to the growth of the pursuit for sensual pleasure, entertainment, and sometimes luxurious materials. The pleasure district of Yoshiwara was the epicenter for feeding such indulgence. The demographics of samurais and merchants who sought a secular city life overpowered the Tokugawa’s grasp on these activities in vain. The ukiyo-e prints, which also included books, provided urban delights for the fraction of the cost of the real luxuries Edo had to offer. Again, another example of how the concept of the “floating world” captures the concept of a transient human life and the ephemeral material universe (Kleiner 743). This concept alludes to modern Pop Art movement, blurring the distinction between lines of the high and the low by combining art and affordability.
Hishikawa Moronobu led the consolidation of development efforts of ukiyo-e. Similar to the history of cinema and film, the ukiyo-e prints began as black and white images. Then came more colors, with the overture of the red and green colors. Three- or four-color prints became common in the 18th century (Schirokauer, Conrad, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay 154). Ukiyo-e prints played many roles including advertising (such as silk, restaurants, and beauty products), portraiture with kabuki actors or courtesans of envied beauty, and entertainment (an initial ancestor of the mangas today). It continuously added to the purpose of communication, such as local news or medicinal recipes for cures. It served the quota for education as well, in telling children stories or illustrated encyclopedias (Koyama-Richard 38-40).
One who resides in the thriving Edo period can own a piece of ukiyo-e for the price of a bowl of noodles. “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Hokusai (figure 1) was just as frugal, on contrast to today’s perceived priceless value. The chonin class can acquire ukiyo-e and include them in albums or paste them onto walls. The processes of woodblock printing grew with the efficient system of publication distribution of Japanese graphic art. The artisans earned money by selling their designs to publishers or being hired for a commission of a specific design. The names of the artist and the publisher were present in all final prints. Women, more specifically wives and daughters, helped the artists to develop the intended designs (Kleiner 744).
The development of ukiyo-e prints rose due to the improvement of the materials used in woodblock printing and paper substrates based off of the bark of the mulberry trees. Expenditures by the publishers were alleviated by the utilization of inexpensive dyes derived from plants and animals, with the exception of occasional use of the much more lightfast (level permanence and protection against ultraviolet rays) mineral pigments. The introduction of synthetic dyes to Japan in the midst of the growing economy became exhibited in the woodblock prints beginning of the 19th century, like Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” shown in figure 1 with the use of Prussian blue pigment to portray the ferocity and realness of the infamous tsunami wave (Kleiner 744).