Toyohara Kunichika - an actor playing Hako'ōmaru
Kunichika (1867) an actor playing Ichiman-maru, from the play Soga Monogatari

I’ve been fascinated by Edo-period Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e, or floating world pictures) for a few years. For me it all actually started after a friend dragged me along to the British Museum’s Shunga exhibition in 2013. The imagery was really strange, stylised and intriguing so I started to read up on it and found a world full of art, symbolism, history and subversion that I literally didn’t know had ever existed. I was hooked.

Later I broadened my interest into the more traditional actor prints (yakusha-e) and pictures of beautiful women (bijin-ga) because these are far more beautiful and also give you more of a clue about the artist themselves. As I’m sure you’ll guess, my interests are always fuelled by identification and the normal prints are usually signed, while shunga were often banned so artists produced them secretly. 

Some history

Utagawa Kunisada I - A Comparison of Cherry Blossoms in the Evening in the Flower District
Kunisada I (1858) “A comparison of Cherry blossoms in the evening in the flower district” (this was a euphemism for the floating world)

This period of Japanese history (1603-1868) is named after the city of Edo (modern day Tokyo), which grew massively in power and took over as the seat of power from the imperial kamigata region (Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe). The Tokugawa shogunate ruled Japan on behalf of the emperor  – the shogun himself was the head of a council of regional samurai governors and their rein sought to promote peace, stability and traditional values through a closed and oppressive society.

To this end they were fairly successful: peace reined and with no wars to fight the samurai became regional governors and civil servants; while the merchants grew rich on the back of improved trade and innovation. The Tokugawa regime created a 4-class society called shinōkōshō (samurai rulers, peasant farmers, skilled artisans and merchants), which they thought would create stability but merchants (shunned because they just profited off the hard work of farmers & artisans) resented this more and more, as they grew wealthier and more powerful.

The “floating world” refers to the ephemeral and illusionary pleasure quarters which sprung up in most major cities, such as Yoshiwara in Edo. In this period of great social tensions, the burgeoning middle classes fuelled a boom in consumerism and entertainment as they looked for ways to spend their hard-earned wealth, on “wine, women & song”. Colour woodblock printing (nishiki-e) enabled art, literature and pulp fiction to be produced quickly and cheaply for the masses, and this art form was often used to promote other forms of entertainment such as the kabuki theatre and the many tea-houses and courtesans that worked in the floating world. 

The pleasure quarters were by no means slums or dens of iniquity and, although they were frowned upon by the traditionalists, they were fairly mainstream and were governed by the strict conventions of Japanese society. Ukiyo-e artists and kabuki actors often socialised with each other and were the celebrities of their day – just as Hollywood actors are now. Woodblock prints of actors were both adverts for upcoming kabuki plays and also collector’s items, as fans rushed to see images of their favourites and to see which fashions they were wearing. In fact, many of the censorship laws which resulted in shunga being banned (the bans were seldom enforced with any rigour) were actually aimed at suppressing anti-Tokugawa criticism and to put a lid of the consumerist, celebrity culture of the floating world.

Eventually 2 rival factions developed and after a short period of civil war (in which the USA supported the imperialists against the shogunate) the Tokugawa regime were overthrown and the Meiji emperor was made the official ruler of Japan. This resulted in Japan opening up to the outside world and gave the merchants improved access to foreign markets. The Meiji period saw traditional ways swept aside in a rush to make Japan more western. In the Meiji period we see more depictions in ukiyo-e of people in western dress and foreigners (also called Yokohama-e, from the port where Japan opened up to foreign traders). 

Print production

The whole process would usually start with a publisher commissioning an artist to produce work to be turned into a book or print. The artist would provide a line-drawing that would be given to a block-cutter – often the artist would request a particular trusted cutter and instruct him on things to pay attention to. The cutter would paste the artist’s original to a flat block of cherry wood and would carve the first outline block, which would be used to produce a series of line prints – one for each colour. These would be sent back to the artist who would then paint onto each sheet the areas of each colour he wanted, with instructions one what effects he wanted. The cutter would then go to work producing each block – one for each major colour but sometimes a block can be used with many colours where the areas are small. 

The printer lays the first block (usually black) face upwards and inks it using a paint brush and then spreads the ink using a stiff bristle brush. He will use different brushes for each block/colour in turn. Then he carefully registers the paper, holding the lower corners precisely against marks designed to line the paper up each time, lays it flat on the block and rubs the paper against the inked block until the ink has transferred. He repeats this with each block until he has the completed picture. 

Here is a useful video:

The artists

I won’t provide a complete catalogue or chronology even because you can find all that sort of stuff on Wikipedia. Instead, I’ll focus on some of the artists in my own collection. 

Tsukioka Settei (1710-1780)

This is one of my favourite artists of the pre-Utagawa period, which included such geniuses as Kitagawa Utamaro, Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815) & Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770). Their work is uncomplicated yet beautiful in its simplicity and each artist has a distinct style. 

My own collection of this artist just numbers a partial shunga book – Onna dairaku takara-beki (Great pleasures for women and their treasure boxes). But this has a fascinating back story too because it is a parody of a very famous book, instructing newly-wed women on their duties as a wife. The original is very formal and emphasises a very obedient role for the wife, whereas the shunga, as you can imagine, plays with all of the different roles in a very humorous and sexual way.

detail from “Onna dairaku takara-beki” (1755)

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806)

The “Utagawa school”

The Utagawa school was just a group of artists of the late Edo period that trace their tutors back to Utagawa Toyoharu. There was no formal school but masters passed on their style and techniques to their pupils and so the style is fairly consistent from the second generation onward.

The tradition in Japan was for masters to take on talented apprentices and if they reached the satisfactory level they would be allowed to take a professional name that forever related them to their teacher. In the case of Kunisada he took the “kuni” element of his tutor “Toyokuni” and then added his own suffix “sada”. In addition, if the pupil himself was recognised as a master he could claim his tutor’s name – as in Kunisada wanting to be known as Toyokuni. 

Utagawa Kunisada I / Toyokuni III (1786-1864)

The most well known and prolific of the Utagawa school, estimated to have produced anything up to 30,000 prints in his lifetime. He was a well known sight in the floating world and was good friends with many actors. He was probably the most famous of the pupils of Toyokuni I, along with Kuniyoshi (see below).

Utagawa Kunisada II / Toyokuni II (1823-1880)

Kunisada II was actually the son of Toyokuni I so was entitled to take his father’s name but Kunisada I felt that he was entitled to that name and so for a while claimed the title Toyokuni II, but modern scholars call him Toyokuni III to avoid confusion. 

Utagawa Kunisada III (1848–1920)

From Wikipedia: He began studying under Utagawa Kunisada I at the age of 10, and continued under Kunisada II after their master’s death. He originally signed his prints “Kunimasa” or “Baidō Kunimasa”. About 1889, he began signing his prints “Kunisada”, “Baidō Kunisada” or “Kōchōrō Kunisada”. By 1892, he was using “Hōsai”, “Kōchōrō Hōsai”, “Baidō Hōsai”, and “Utagawa Hōsai“.

The following prints show scenes from a famous kabuki play about revenge and honour, called Kanadehon Chūshingura. These are all signed in an unusual variation of “Kunimasa” with the 2 parts written one above each other, rather than side by side. Published by Yamaguchiya Tōbei in Tokyo, May 1872.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)

One of the great masters of the Utagawa school and contemporary of Kunisada I, he specialised in and developed the warrior print genre with amazing and radical use of movement and perspective. But, like all great artists of the time, he was expected to produce work to-order so he could produce wonderful images of all types from actor prints to beautiful women.

Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900)

One of my personal favourites of this time – I love the facial expressions he creates for his characters and his attention to detail.

Utagawa Kokunimasa (1874-1944)

Utagawa Fusatane (active 1854-1889)

Toshusai Sharaku (active 1794–1795)

This artist is a contemporary of artists like Utamaro and Torii Kiyonaga. This pair of prints is actually a late 19th century reprint but done in a very high quality finish.

Signatures and seals

When trying to identify prints there are usually lots of clues because they usually contained the artist’s signature, the publisher’s seal, the date/censor seal(s) and even sometimes a carver’s seal.


I’m deeply indebted to the experts who have compiled useful information on the following sites: 

Buying prints

Ukiyo-e were produced in great numbers and were collected by ordinary people so they survived in reasonable numbers and are an accessible art form. You shouldn’t have to spend thousands to get some but of course, like all things, some prints and some artists are more famous/desirable than others. Originals by Hokusai & Hiroshige will command higher prices (£150-300) than lesser known artists like Fusatane (£20-30) and popular artists like Kunisada(I) or Kuniyoshi will probably sit in the middle (£40-£80). Try not to be drawn into paying crazy prices though because some dealers are clearly speculating and trying out ridiculous prices just to see if anyone bites.

Just remember that, although there is no such thing as a master print (the draft copies were destroyed in the carving process), the first-run are considered “originals” and should command the highest prices. Some prints will only be known from the original run but popular prints would have been reprinted – some at the time, to respond to demand, and others throughout history and right up to the modern day. Publishers of art reproductions are not a modern phenomenon and so you have to be careful not to be misled by a seller – if they misrepresent a new print as old then it is, effectively a fake. Double-check what a seller says about the print – many will honestly disclose if it is a later print – but also use your wits and look at the condition of the print and the thickness/type of the paper. Originals were printed on thin, hand-made, washi / mulberry paper and should look as if they are 150-200 years old, with some foxing and some stains or worm holes. Modern reproductions will often be on machine-made art paper and cut sharply, making them look too perfect.