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Welcome to the World of Ukiyo-e – Edo’s Popular Culture in the Early Modern Times

Ukiyo-e, the popular culture of Edo (Tokyo) in the early modern ages, has been a major influence in such areas as 19th century Western art. Read on and discover the charms of Ukiyo-e that has fascinated the likes of Monet and Van Gogh!

What is Ukiyo-e?

Ukiyo-e is a style of genre painting that developed in the Edo period (1603 - 1867). It is sold at affordable prices because it can be mass-produced through woodblock prints, leading to its explosive rise as a form of entertainment for the populace.

Main Themes

Ukiyo-e has many different motifs, such as famous oiran (courtesans) and kabuki actors at the time, sumo wrestlers on the ring, landscapes and various other customs. It also served as a report of current news, memorializing events such as the death of famous personalities and the status of the opening of international trading ports.

Gaifu Kaisei (South Wind, Clear Sky) by Katsushika Hokusai

Sesshu Kobe Kaigan Han’einozu (Bustling Port of Kobe, Settsu Province) by Hasegawa Konobu

Major Techniques

Ukiyo-e is something that is created through the artistic collaboration of an eshi (an artist), horishi (a woodcarver) and surishi (a printer). The most common production method adopts this flow: the artist makes a rough drawing or sketch → the woodcarver carves out the design and creates a woodblock → the printer applies colors to the palettes created in every color or puts color to every piece of Japanese paper → gradation is applied to complete the ukiyo-e print. There is also this type of ukiyo-e that is called “nikuhitsu ukiyo-e”, which is not a woodblock but is something drawn by an artist using a brush.

Tokaido Gojusantsugi Kakegawa Akibayama Enbo (Fifty-Three Stations of Tokaido Kakegawa – Distant View of Mt. Akiba) by Utagawa Hiroshige

Early Years (1657 - 1764)

The founder of Ukiyo-e was Hishikawa Moronobu who was famous for his “Mikaeri Bijin-zu”(Looking Back Beauty). He worked as a book illustrator, but eventually he created a single-painting woodblock print for appreciation and decoration, and that was the birth of ukiyo-e. The woodblock prints in the early years were only in black ink, but “tan-e” that used pigments for coloring was born around the 1700s. Thereafter, colorful woodblocks were slowly created by artists, such as “beni-e” (red printing), “urushi-e” (lacquer painting) and “benizuri-e” (two-color printing with red and green).

Mikaeri Bijin-zu (Looking Back Beauty) (Painting) by Hishikawa Moronobu

Ichikawa Danjuro no Takenuki Goro (Tan-e) by Torii Kiyomasu

Middle Period (1764 - 1801)

Around 1765, the brightly colored “nishiki-e” that used more than 10 colors was born. Created by the artist Suzuki Harunobu in collaboration with a woodcarver and a printer, it is the complete form of the classic ukiyo-e style. This period also showcased the increase in ukiyo-e subject matters such as the popular beautiful women in Edo and romance, so it is called the golden age of ukiyo-e.

Setchu Aiaigasa (Lovers Sharing an Umbrella) by Suzuki Harunobu

Late Period (1801 - 1868)

The 1800s marked the further diversification in ukiyo-e, with subjects like gi-ga (cartoons), fukei-ga (landscape printing), kacho-ga (bird-and-flower printing), etc.) coming into play, making it the era of popularization for ukiyo-e. The market for ukiyo-e expanded nationwide in the 19th century. And from late 19th century until early 20th century, so-called Japonism became a trend in the Western world. The artistic value of ukiyo-e became highly regarded. It influenced not only artists like Van Gogh, but also writers, musicians and craft designers, among many others.

Souma no Furudairi (Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Specter) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Portrait of Père Tanguy by Vincent Van Gogh

Representative Ukiyo-e Artists

Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849)

Boasting a painting history of more than 70 years – the longest among all ukiyo-e artists, Katsushika Hokusai went through a string of artistic styles during that period. His major works include Fugaku Sanjurokkei (Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji).

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 – 1858)

Utagawa Hiroshige was an artist who excelled in landscape prints characterized by a poetic familiarity. His masterpieces are Tokaido Gojusantsugi (Fifty-Three Stations of Tokaido) and Meisho Edo Hyakkei (One Hundred Famous Views of Edo).

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753 – 1806)

Famous as “Sekai no Utamaro” (Utamaro of the World), Kitagawa Utamaro was an ukiyo-e artist who became synonymous to “bijin-ga” (beautiful women prints). His masterpieces include Kansei Sanbijin (Three Beauties of the Present Day).

Toshusai Sharaku (date of birth and death unknown)

Toshusai Sharaku was a mysterious artist who barely had any biographical materials on him, apart from the speculation that he created about 140 of his existing works in just 10 months from 1794 to 1795. He was famous for his “yakusha-e” (print of kabuki actors) inspired by kabuki actors and “sumo-e” (prints of sumo wrestlers). His representative work is Sandaime Otani Oniji no Edo Be-e

Museum for Appreciating Ukiyo-e

Japan Ukiyo-e Museum

Located in Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture, the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum holds more than 100,000 Ukiyo-e prints and related materials. It is the largest museum in the world when it comes to ukiyo-e in the 19th century.

Admission fee: 1,000 JPY

Japan Ukiyo-e Museum

2206-1 Aza Shinkiri, Oaza Shimadachi, Matsumoto-shi, Nagano

Sumida Hokusai Museum

The Sumida Hokusai Museum is an art museum in Sumida Ward, Tokyo – Hokusai's birthplace. It collects, exhibits and conducts research on Hokusai's works. Aside from permanent exhibitions, this museum also holds attractive planned exhibitions.

Permanent exhibition admission fee: 400 JPY

Sumida Hokusai Museum

2-7-2 Kamezawa, Sumida-ku, Tokyo

Possessing beautiful colors and depictions, ukiyo-e prints give off an allure that does not fade over time. So, if you are visiting Japan, please try to appreciate this genre!

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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