Ukiyo-e: A look at traditional Japanese art

The Great Wave off Kanagawa woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Photos courtesy of Ota Memorial Museum of Arts
The Great Wave off Kanagawa woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Photos courtesy of Ota Memorial Museum of Arts

Ukiyo-e: A look at traditional Japanese art

by: Takahiro Takiguchi | .
Stripes Okinawa | .
published: May 05, 2014

Japanese manga is well-known and followed throughout the world. But long before manga and technological advances in communication, there was an art form used for story telling that originally captured the imagination of only the Japanese people: ukiyo-e.

Literally translated as “paintings of floating world,” ukiyo-e is a genre of woodblock prints and paintings that flourished during the Edo period (1603-1867).  Popular themes include portraits of kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, travel scenes and landscapes.

The simplified and deformed expression, along with the expertise of the artists and woodblock carvers, allowed the art to be produced at a relatively low cost, enabling commoners to purchase and enjoy the art.

“Common people of Edo (old Tokyo) were able to buy high-quality art pieces at a book shop, called ‘zoshi-ya’, for the equivalent of less than $10 dollars today,” said Michi Akagi, a curator of Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo, which specializes in ukiyo-e.  “That is an astonishing fact that we cannot see any parallel in the history of the world.”

Actually, ukiyo-e prints were the works of teams of artisans in several workshops. While publishers commissioned, promoted and distributed the prints, the artists drew the image, woodcarvers engraved the woodblocks according to the image, and printers made impressions of the woodblocks on paper.

“One woodblock could print about 100 copies at a time,” Akagi said.

“And if the first edition turned out successful, they printed the second edition. Some popular works had more than 10 editions and were printed thousands of times.”

Ukiyo-e played a kind of role much like photographers of today do. Some captured various moments of common people’s everyday life, showing a great sense of humor that resounds across the centuries. Others managed to capture a fraction of a second of a breaking wave.

“Ukiyo-e artists drew the topics, people and events in fashion,” Akagi said.  “With popular kabuki actors and courtesans, even some serious political and social topics were often drawn comically in ukiyo-e, just like in today’s (manga).”

When two ukiyo-e giants - Hokusai and Hiroshige - died at the end of the Edo period, ukiyo-e production went into steep decline as journalism and photography made their way to Japan.

Practitioners of pure ukiyo-e became rarer, as the art form was considered as a remnant of an obsolescent era. By the end of 19th century, ukiyo-e was a forgotten art.

The value of ukiyo-e was rediscovered by Westerners who traveled to Japan in the 20th century.

“Ukiyo-e was used as wrappers of handicrafts and ceramics,” Akagi said.  “Westerners who brought them back home were fascinated by the unique Japanese art form on the wrapper and drove many to collect the prints.”

The prints had a great influence on avant-garde French artists such as Manet, Degas and van Gogh.

“Ukiyo-e is a kind of time capsule that packed figures and aspects of Edo townspeople during the era Japan shut itself off from the rest of the world,” Akagi said.  “Through ukiyo-e, we can see how people of Edo lived and enjoyed their life.”

Where to see woodblock prints

If you are interested in ukiyo-e, visit a museum. Unfortunately, the colors of ukiyo-e are made from plants delicate to sun light and artificial light which makes long-term displays undesirable.  So, only a limited number of museums have large collections. Below are some museums to check out.

Urasoe City Museum

“Ryukyu hakkei” (eight sceneries on Okinawa) by Hokusai are displayed year round.
Location: 1-9-2 Nakama, Urazoe City. It’s 5-minute walk from Bijutsukan-mae stop on  City Bus Urazoe Line (No.56), Siruma Line (No. 91 & 191) and Makiko Line (No. 55)
Open: 9:30 a.m.- 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and until 6:30 p.m. Fridays. (Closed Mondays)
Admission: 150 yen ($1.50), college and high school students 100 yen, middle school students and below free
For more information, call 098-879-3219 or visit

Kamigata Ukiyo-e Kan

This museum exhibits ukiyo-e prints and paintings produced in Osaka in the Edo period. Most of them are of the actors playing Kabuki in theatres of Osaka or actors’ portraits while in theatrical costumes.
Location: 1-6-4 Nanba, Chuo-ku, Osaka City (near Nanba station of subway Midosuji-line, Sennichimae-line and Yotsubashi-line)
Open: Tue-Sun, 11 a.m.- 6 p.m.
Admission: 500 yen ($5), elementary and middle school students 300 yen.
For more information, call 06-6211-0303 or visit

Ota Memorial Museum of Arts

This museum owns masterpieces by Hiroshige, Hokusai, Utamaro and Harunobu, and has about 12,000 prints in its permanent collection. 
Location: 1-10-10 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo (5-minute walk from Harajuku Station of JR Yamanote line)
Open: Tue-Sun, 10:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Admission: 700 yen ($7), college and high school students 500 yen, middle school and below free.
For more information, call 03-3403-0880 or visit

Hiroshige Museum of Art

This museum permanently displays works of Hiroshige, such as “Tokaido 53 Stages” along with monthly special exhibitions on ukiyo-e or Hiroshige.
Location: 1-2-1 Kamatahoncho, Tendo City, Yamagata prefecture (10-minute walk from Tendo station of JR Tohoku line)
Open: Wed - Mon, 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Admission: 600 yen ($6), college, high school and middle school students 500 yen, elementary school students 300 yen.
For more information, call 023-654-6555 or visit