For me, one of the best parts of collecting ukiyo-e is working out as much as I can find out about the print and what it shows. Although my knowledge of Japanese is very limited it is still possible to find out a lot if you know some basics and you know how to use the resources available to you. This blog is a distillation of some of the techniques that I have found most useful over the years.
Start with a picture of the print
Upload it to 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 web-site by clicking the image you want to look at and then the “More information …” link. Sadly though, the links are often broken so I tend to just copy the Japanese text next to the picture and then use it to search on the appropriate website. If you want to try following the links though then here is what to do for each site:
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA)
Clicking will either be very slow or will get you a “Page Not Found” error on the MFA website but just change the address from this format:
- https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/471625 to
- and it will work perfectly. There is often a bit of a delay though displaying the correct page and you might have to hit F5 (refresh):
- You can click on and download most images
- The site usually has a lot of reliable information on the names of plays, actors and characters but be aware that they use carat instead of macron to mark Japanese diacriticals.
Waseda University Cultural Resource Database (Waseda)
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:
- Just go to Advanced Search and paste the last part of the link (e.g. 101-6274) 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.
Art Research Council at Ritsumeikan University (ARC/RITS)
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 because the data is very complete and detailed. I also find the search page very easy to use when you have mastered it. Each image page gives a permalink back to the page for easy cross-referencing AND you can scroll forward and back through whichever search results brought you to this page.
Tokyo Metropolitan Library (TML)
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. The image viewing can be a little bit fiddly to get used to but the site is fast and reliable.
Tokyo Museum Collection – Edo Tokyo Museum (ETM)
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.
Additional resources not linked from ukiyo-e.org
The Cultural Digital Library of the Japan Arts Council (NTJ/JAC)
- Follow this link: https://www2.ntj.jac.go.jp/dglib/collections/
- Using the search in the top right will give pages that look like this:
- You can see that this site gives information in both kanji and hiragana, which can be very useful indeed (see below). It also has basic information on the first tab and more details on publisher etc on the second tab.
I don’t normally recommend online shops but this one has a huge collection of lovely scans and data on all the prints that they have sold over the years so it can be a useful resource.
- Follow this link: https://www.yamada-shoten.com/onlinestore/
- A search will yield something like this:
A fairly new and extremely promising portal that attempts to allow users to search across multiple cultural databases. It also includes an image search option but so far I have found it to be a bit hit & miss. Perhaps they will improve it in the coming years.
- Use this link: https://jpsearch.go.jp/
- You can click the unassuming search box at the top of the page and you will get several search options. Of course you can just put in text here but you will also see the image search option and selecting this will bring up a drag & drop box.
- As I say, the results of the image search seem fairly random (they look vaguely similar but nowhere near as good as Google Image Search) but perhaps their is either a logic to it that I haven’t worked out OR they will fix the algorithm some day!
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. Recently though they have changed to using Google Lens which attempts to identify what’s in the image and show you more of the same – rather than finding matching images. It does give you options to read text on the image and translate it, which could be handy if the text was readable but in most ukiyo-e it isn’t. Anyway, to get it to look for identical images just click “Find image source” and you should get a list of matching/similar images.
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. It is often quite hard to read stylised or very flowing text and if you do not understand Japanese then try using the excellent Jisho website (below). There you can “build” kanji characters from their components (radicals). Then when you have built a character you will be able to copy/paste it into searches.
Note that hiragana/katakana (known generically as kana) often appear on prints and are usually even harder to read (even for modern Japanese people) but the commonest character will be “no” (の) and this is easy to spot. Kana are phonetic alphabets so, unlike kanji, you can use them to read what the words sound like, which is very useful. Interestingly, you often see title panels with large kanji characters AND small kana alongside them, which suggests that many Japanese people found the kana easier to read and perhaps the kanji required a higher level of literacy.
Now 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:
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.
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:
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 have built some Japanese text then you can 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.
Can we just use Google Translate?
Google Translate is potentially a very useful tool for either translating Japanese text or at the very least transliterating it. However, you have to proceed with extreme caution because it often gets things very wrong! [FYI, a translation tries to give you the English meaning, while transliteration just gives you what the words sound like in Japanese if they are spoken].
If we consider the play title above (慶安太平記城外之場), which experts have told me means “Keian Taiheiki jōgai no ba” or “Keian Taiheiki, the scene outside the castle”, what does Google Translate make of that if we just paste the kanji into the box to translate? Well, you get this:
For those of you that can’t zoom in, it gives the transliteration (in light grey under the kanji) as “Keiantaiheiki jōgai no ba”, which is actually a pretty good stab at it – I have seen a lot worse. The transliteration has also got the correct macrons above the relevant characters to show how you would pronounce the vowels. But the English translation (on the right) doesn’t make much sense: “Keian Taiheiki Castle Outer Field”. No mention about the fact that it is a scene from a play but you can see it at least got the name of the castle correct. [as an aside, Google always seems to translate “no ba” as “field”]
Kanji characters by their nature (they’re pictograms) often have multiple meanings and choosing the correct meaning requires context, which makes it incredibly hard for online translators to work them out. However if you find a website that gives you the Japanese text in the hiragana alphabet (e.g. ARC/RITS) then you will stand a better chance of getting a correct transliteration, because hiragana is a phonetic alphabet and the transliterator doesn’t have to struggle with context – it knows the exact syllables. Google will still make a few errors in transliteration with hiragana and their translations are often very off but you tend to get a higher success rate.
So, you can see that Google Translate is useful but it isn’t magic and you need to do a lot of sense-checking of the results by taking what it gives you and Googling again to see if there are any sites that agree with it – or which have slight improvements on the spelling. I often go round in circles making slight changes to the text that I am searching for – either taking elements away (if I don’t have enough hits) or adding them (if I have too many) until I arrive at something that makes sense. Often I combine these searches with the names of the actors or characters. You can also just try Googling using the Japanese text to see if you can find a page with both Japanese and English translations – some art galleries and databases will list both (e.g. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
More complex searching strategies
Once you have some Japanese text, like a carver’s name, publisher or character name – anything really – you can 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.
The best online reference libraries
- ARC/RITS is probably the best site to text-search because it has a very large database; there are many fields that you can search with; and the information it provides is comprehensive and very reliable.
- TML is a smaller database and you only have 1 field to search with, which makes it harder to look for tiny fragments of text in specific fields. But the information it holds is comprehensive & reliable.
- Waseda is probably the largest of the databases and it does have an Advanced search page in English (remember though you search in Japanese) but a lot of the information is incomplete and there are many errors like incorrect artist and play names.
- NTJ/JAC is another very good database but the search just uses a single field and Google is the search engine behind it. This has benefits that you can use all the Google short-codes and tricks but the results are very plain and you have to click on a lot of links to see what it has found.
- Google itself is a very good way to find prints and you can also use it strategically sometimes to search with kanji you know and look for words which include kanji that look right for the ones you couldn’t work out.
Points to remember about strategy
- Often multiple designs were printed for a single theatre performance (especially for popular plays) and these print designs could be made before and during the performance run. This means that if you do not find your print then look for other prints that feature the same actors/character combinations in the same year. You might then discover useful information such as the name of the play, the venue and start date.
- When you have found the kanji/kana for a name then save it in your own reference file. I have built up a large file of saved information and now it has become easier to refind information there than to keep searching through online sources.
- Even a single kanji character from a publisher or carver name might be enough to find another print where the whole name is quoted.
- There were relatively few carvers (Hori denoted by ホリ or 彫工 or just 彫) working on ukiyo-e at any one time and so it makes them quite easy to locate. Also note that in the late Meiji period many carvers had passed their businesses to their children and so you’ll get marks showing something like 三世 (3rd generation).
- Publishers were a bit more numerous but you find the same names coming up time and again so they must have all been very busy and so locating them is relatively simple. Just be aware that family names are not unique and some publishers share the same start to their name because it was a popular name or they passed their business to their children.
- Character names are often unique to a play but you might find multiple variants of that play performed in different years so the name of your play might look different from ones you find. Look for plays with the exact same characters.
- Try to decipher the more unusual kanji characters because they will give fewer false-positive results when searching for them.
- The date/year is often one of the easier things to decode and it will help you narrow down performances and find other prints that pertain to the same performance of yours. I’m always referring back to my table of Japanese numbers:
- Ukiyo-e.org is the best ukiyo-e search engine where my research always starts!
- Kabuki Woogie is a great site put together by Samuel Leiter with hundreds of articles about the theatres of Meiji Japan. The detail is exceptional – giving a real insight into the personalities and performances.
- Harashobo is a very nice online gallery / store with some nice photos of prints.
- Kabuki21 is one of the most important sites for information about kabuki actors, plays and venues.
- Ukiyo-e Signature Sample Database is a huge database of artist’s signatures
- Ukiyo-e.se is a smaller page of the commonest signatures
- Prints of Japan is a very nice resource with both Publisher & Carver Seals
- The Lavenberg Collection of Japanese Prints is an excellent resource with pages of prints and articles about all aspects of ukiyo-e, including this nice list of Meiji publisher seals which can give you some useful kanji.
- Date Seals in Japanese Prints has some very nice simple censor date seals and explanations
- MJPAP – has a very nice collection of early 20th century Kunisada III prints