Researching ukiyo-e

If you have a picture of the print

Start by using the “Japanese Woodblock Print Search” website (https://ukiyo-e.org/). This is a wonderful resource to begin your search but it does have some quirks and bugs because it hasn’t been updated in quite a while and the links to external sites are often broken. Just start by uploading an image using this box:

You will hopefully receive a result like this, below. You can click on each image to see more details, “scraped” from each of the originating websites:

You can view the original source image by clicking the “More information …” link but here is what to do for each site: 

  • MFA (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston): Clicking will get you a “Page Not Found” error on the MFA website but just change the address from this format: 
  • Waseda (Waseda University Cultural Resource Database): Sadly this link is completely broken and can’t be edited so you must: 
    • Use this link: here 
    • The link on ukiyo-e.org will look like this:
      https://ukiyo-e.org/image/waseda/101-6274
    • Just copy the last part of the link (e.g. 101-6274) and paste it into the “Artwork number” field, then hit Search.
    • You can click on an item code and then click on the thumbnail to display the full image. You can right-click and download each image.
    • The site is usually very slow to return anything but you should see the results eventually if you scroll down – be patient! This database is huge but there are a few errors and some fields are often left blank.
  • Rits (Ritsumeikan University, Art Research Center, ARC): This link should work fine – you will end up on a search page with a thumbnail of your image at the top – wait a few seconds for it to appear! Click on this thumbnail and you’ll be taken to a page full of information where you can download the high-res image:

    • This is one of my favourite and most reliable sites.
  • Tokyo (Tokyo Metropolitan Library): The link will not work and cannot be fixed. You need to:
    • Use this link: here
    • Copy the Japanese “Title” text from the ukiyo-e.org website and paste it into the Title box on the TML site. Then click Search.
    • You will get a list of thumbnail images, which you can click on for more information, like this:
    • To see the full-res image
      • click on to see the bigger image but it will not be downloadable without using Developer Tools
      • click on to see the full image with watermark, which you can right-click on and download
      • click on to close this window and return to the information page
    • This is my other favourite site for very detailed and reliable information.
  • ETM (Edo Tokyo Museum / Tokyo Digital Museum): The link will work and take you to a page that looks like this: 
    • It has both Japanese & English language versions:
    • Downloading images is difficult but the quality is fairly poor so I wouldn’t recommend it anyway. The information this site gives is a little minimal.

Using Google image search

Google has a wonderful (reverse) image searching page at https://images.google.com/ but it needs a bit of skill to get the best out of it. On the face of it you just drag & drop your mystery image onto the search box in the middle, let go and watch Google find the image in its database. 

You will get a block of results for visually similar images, and if you are lucky then your picture could be among them. However, at the top of the search result page you can see that it has chosen a word or phrase to narrow the search down by analysing what’s actually in your image. You can do better though because you might already know the name of the artist (e.g. Kunichika), so try typing that in instead. If it doesn’t give you the result you want then try to use the Japanese text for the name of the artist (e.g. 国周). OR even combine that with words, such as “ukiyo-e” (e.g. 浮世絵). You can find more search terms and artist names in my Ukiyo-e research notes page.

Going beyond image searches

This next part requires that you try to make sense of any Japanese text on the image. We can start by working out what the different text panels are used for. Remember that Japanese pictures and text are designed to be read from top-right to bottom-left. Let’s start with a Meiji period yakusha-e triptych from my collection:

Toyohara Kunichika (June 1883): Ichikawa Sadanji I & Ichikawa Danjūrō IX in the scene outside the castle from the play “Keian Taiheiki”

You can see several vertical panels of text, which I have picked out below:

The largest single panel, often located at the top right, will usually be the title for the print. But be aware that not all prints have a title. This title reads 慶安太平記城外之場, “Keian Taiheiki jōgai no ba” which means “Keian Taiheiki, the scene outside the castle”.

之場 means no ba, which just means scene.

A tall white panel, sometimes with a red seal at the bottom, is the artist/designer’s signature. This reads: 豊原国周筆 “Toyohara Kunichika hitsu” with a red toshidama ring. Toyohara Kunichika is the artist’s official name (his pen-name, not real name) and “hitsu” means “painted by” or “from the brush of”. The toshidama is a good luck symbol used by the Utagawa school of artists.

The best resource for artist’s signatures is here and a simplified one is here.

After 1875 it became law that publishers must display their name and address and that of the artist too, along with the date that the print was made. They are usually rectangular blocks in different colours. The Lavenberg collection has a great page of Meiji publisher panels here.

From right to left:

  • Date (yellow): (printed?) 明治 (Meiji) 十六年 (13 year) 六 四 (6 month) 廿七日 (27th day) 
  • Artist’s real name & address (red): (address not translated) then 画工 (gakō=artist) 荒川八十八画作 (Arakawa Yasohachi) 
  • Publisher’s name & address (blue): 出版人 (shuppanjin=publisher) 大倉孫兵衛 (Ōkura Magobē, a.k.a. Yorozuya Magobē ; firm name Kin’eido; 1843-1921)
  • Price (yellow): 定價金(teikakin=fixed price) 六戔 (6 sen). The price was only rarely printed.

Little panels that usually start with the “Hori” character (彫) will give the carver’s short name. In this print the carver reads Horikō Gin 彫工銀

A resource for carver signatures is here.

Where you see a large panel (often in red) and a small panel to the upper right (often in yellow) you can usually assume that it is the actor & character panels. This one says Ichikawa Sadanji (I) [市川左団次] as Marubashi Chūya [丸橋忠弥].

A good resource for actor’s names is here

This one says Ichikawa Danjūrō IX [市川団十郎] as Matsudaira Izunokami [松平伊豆守].

Acting often ran in the family and generation after generation passed down the same name. An actor might also have many names in the course of their career. But the repetition of names means that actor names are perhaps the easiest part of a print to recognise, besides the artist’s signature of course.

 

If you are still having problems then you really need to perhaps decode the Japanese text in another way and then search for the text itself. You can use a webpage like Jisho. This allows you to build Japanese characters using their components, called radicals. 

This allows you to have a crack at understanding the characters and possibly searching directly for them in Google. Or possibly doing a translation of them in a site like Tangorin but you have to remember that, especially with kanji you have to think laterally and not take any translation as literal. 

Once you have some Japanese text, like a carver’s name of publisher you could go back to the database websites that I discussed above and plug those into their search pages, to see if you can find your image or more images relating to it. 

One of the Holy Grails is to decode the name of the play itself, if you are looking at yakusha-e, like I do. With the date and the names of the characters you could find out exactly which play they were performing in and when it was performed.