Urbanization and the Woodblock Print in Edo Period Japan
by Jeff Matt
Occasionally something taken for granted as
ordinary by its maker is viewed by another who is removed culturally, socially
or chronologically from the works original production. Sometimes, upon being
experienced from a new perspective, a mundane object achieves a transcendence.
One of the richest examples of a commonplace object achieving a deservedly
elevated new station in the world is the print work of Edo Period Japan (1600-
Considered to be vernacular art in Japan, Edo
period prints were discovered by westerners in the nineteenth century. Soon
after this discovery, the styles of the Japanese print began to influence
avant-garde western art as seen in the works of Gauguin, Monet and Van Gogh, to
name a only a few. Today, not many would mistake the style of Japanese prints.
Examples can be seen in many facets of American pop culture: in tattooing,
surf culture, the fine arts, and for better or worse, in advertising.
One of the most enduring and recognizable images
in the graphic arts of any culture is Hiroshiges famous composition
"Under the Wave Off Kanagawa (The Great Wave)" from his series of
prints entitled, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (see accompanying image). The
profound influence of Japanese woodblock printing on western imagery might seem
surprising when it is revealed that these prints were a type of popular art
intended for fairly large distribution; an art form which grew out of the red
light district of proto Tokyo and was, in essence, the dirty comic book of its
Edo period Japan was a time of vast cultural
change and perhaps the most profound period of change to affect Japan after the
establishment of the shogunate. In 1615, the Tokugawa shoguns came to power and
ended a century-long period of civil war. This peace was to last two hundred
and fifty years. These were centuries of tremendous prosperity and development
in Japan. Rural towns sprung up around warlords castles and grew to become
great urban areas with large trade and merchant classes, classes that became
wealthy by servicing the needs of those who made up the new urban communities
of Kyoto (Japans capital at the time), Edo (present day Tokyo) and Osaka.
Japans urbanization was unparalleled in its day. By 1740, Edo had become the
seat of the shogunate and the largest city in the world with a population of
more than one million people.
Throughout its history, Japan had been a country
of social castes, and the Edo period was not exceptional in this respect. There
were four officially recognized classes: the samurai or warrior class, a
farming class, an artisan class and a swelling merchant class. The balance and
well-being of Japanese society depended on the continual reinforcement of these
divisions especially as urban centers swelled with migrants from rural areas.
A natural by-product of this huge population
shift was the development of a cash economy which enabled a new group that was
not the traditional nobility to indulge in new found leisure activities. This
factor, coupled with rising literacy rates, improved state infrastructure, and
a burgeoning publishing industry, generated a cultivated leisure class
accustomed always to new and more refined forms of entertainment than what was
always currently available. This strong demand for novelty created a firestorm
of creative activity in the arts and letters.
The wants of Japans new leisure class were
indulged at every level including the most base. Prostitution became a
pervasive problem in the cities; one that was not to be stamped out by official
means. To control the flesh trade, pleasure quarters were defined in major
cities; the most famous being the "Floating World" (ukiyo) of Edo,
the Yoshiwara pleasure district.
The Floating World encompassed and provided many
things to its habitues. There were, of course, prostitutes ready to serve at
the nod of a head, but there was much more than that alone. These pleasure
quarters served as centers of craftsmanship, artistry, ritualized social interaction
and culture; a wealthy merchant might meet a client for tea and be attended to
by his favorite geisha. At the tea house, he might receive from his client a
new series of woodcut prints, a piece of furniture, or an elaborate
calligraphic work. Tea or sake would be enjoyed while the days events were
discussed. Perhaps a trip to see the latest production at a favorite Kabuki
theater would follow, and if the client were especially important, the services
of his masters geishas apprentice would be offered to provide a bath or a
Whatever it was that might be desired, a
successful merchant could procure within the confines of the Yoshiwara
district. This city within a city became an inspiration for Edos artisan
painters who depicted its culture in beautiful paintings which were in turn
copied to woodblocks, printed in editions and sold at reasonable prices to
whomever wished to have examples of the arts of ukiyo-e (pictures of the
floating world) to adorn their homes.
At first these ukiyo-e were simple black line
images that derived their techniques from the book printing style of their day.
Like the Kabuki theater, they were available to anyone who could afford their
price. In this way they provided vicarious experiences to those who could not afford
to hire an expensive geisha or courtesan.
As their popularity grew, Edos taste for
novelty fomented the development of a multiple block technique that produced as
many as twenty colors and shading in an image so complex and subtle as to belie
their origins as a prints. Almost always, the ukiyo-e depicted the lives of
those who inhabited or served Edos pleasure quarter: courtesans, Kabuki
actors, sumo wrestlers and those whose livelihoods depended on serving these
It wasnt until the late eighteenth and early
nineteenth century that the landscapes that are so familiar to contemporary
viewers became commonly known. It is at this point that the craft of woodblock
printing achieved its zenith, especially at the hands of two men who were masters
at the use of the existing visual vocabulary of the print while introducing
their own variations.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760- 1849) and Utagawa
Hiroshige (1797- 1858) pioneered the depiction of the landscape as a subject
matter worthy of individual attention. Until this time, the landscape was a
minor genre or only something to be considered as the environment through which
a group of courtesans might process. Hokusai and Hiroshige created landscapes
that were masterful depictions of the impassive majesty of the natural world
and acknowledged the smallness of our most harmonious human habitation.
Both men were known for their series prints that
took specific looks at individual subjects (waterfalls, for example) or
temporal studies of single subjects. Influenced by western copper plate
engravings, the two integrated western perspectives and ideas about the
depiction of landscapes with traditional Japanese and Chinese ideas about
painting the spiritual essence of a subject matter.
In 1853, Admiral Matthew Perry, American naval
officer, steamed into Japan to demand the opening of Japans ports to
international trade (until this time the Japanese traded only with the Dutch
and Chinese). The Japanese acquiesced to Perrys demands and opened their ports
to the full force of mid-nineteenth century trade. At the same time, the
shogunate feudal system was beginning to dissolve due to reformist pressures
fueled by the merchant class and their demands for political representation.
By the 1870s the Japanese had a determined goal
of becoming an industrial and military world power. Edo was still the center of
political power, but things were changing for the Yoshiwara district. Outside
cultural influence and massive industrial development proved to be too much for
the culture of the idle connoisseur. Before long, the market for ukiyo-e
vanished, and the prints became nostalgic images of a disappearing and
isolationist time. This was so much the case that many undistributed images
became packing material for goods shipped overseas.
Today, we have a new appreciation the artisans
and artists that produced these wonderful images. Large collections of prints
have seen museum circuit tours, most notably the James A. Michener collection
in 1998. From our current perspective, we are able to see not only the
influence of these works on the Impressionist painters and subsequent influence
on western art, but also the individual vitality and masterwork of many of
these prints. The woodblock prints of the Edo period have entered the pantheon
of great works of human creation and understanding. This is not so bad for an
art form that grew from such inauspicious beginnings.