Researching ukiyo-e

Kunichika (1874): Nakamura Sojuro I, Ichikawa Danjūrō IX, Nakamura Shikan IV, Ichikawa Sadanji I & Onoe Kikugorō V in a Mitate scene of famous “Onna Date” or “chivalrous women”.

Introduction

For me, one of the most fun aspects of collection ukiyo-e is working out as much as I can 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. 

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 web-site by clicking the “More information …” link but often the links are broken – so here is what to do for each site: 

  • MFA (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston): 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: 
  • 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 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.
  • 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 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 (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. The image viewing can be a little bit fiddly to get used to but the site is fast and reliable.
  • 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.

Additional resources not linked from ukiyo-e.org

  • The Cultural Digital Library of the Japan Arts Council:
    • 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. 
  • Yamada-Shoten online store: 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.
  • Japan Search: 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. 

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:

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. 

Using Google Translate

Google Translate is a potentially 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 wrong! 

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 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. 

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. Japan Arts Council) 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 with hiragana 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).

You can also use the online ukiyo-e databases I listed above to search for other prints that feature the same play title or actor/character combinations – remember that the performances of many kabuki plays were so popular that multiple publishers commissioned the best artists of the day to each do a print to sell to the fans. You might not find your exact print but you might find other prints from the same performance that can be used to deduce the actor & character names. Other performances even years apart might also feature at least the same character names.