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Japanese art and culture: Ukiyo-e and a spirit without boundaries

Japanese art and culture: Ukiyo-e and a spirit without boundaries

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The amazing aspect of ukiyo-e is that nothing is hidden and you can witness stunning landscapes, the world of sinister ghosts, elegant fashion, beautiful ladies, murders, military ventures, holy religious leaders, strong images of sexuality whereby nothing is deemed beyond the pale, and then return to aspects of culture and amazing images of Mount Fuji. Therefore, the spirit of ukiyo-e is alive and kicking in new creative forms like manga and fresh authors who desire to open-up a new world.

Asai Ryoi commented in his novel called Tales of the Floating World (Ukiyo-monogatari) in 1661 that“Living only for the moment, savoring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves, singing songs, loving sake, women and poetry, letting oneself drift, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current.” This definition certainly seemed to apply to some ukiyo-e artists but like all art forms you have a hidden depth which is often neglected and the meaning of images isn’t always transcended from culture to culture. The same also applies to the written word and you also had a natural monetary survival mechanism within ukiyo-e therefore it was important to relate to the world that they came from.

The original meaning of ukiyo was based on pessimism which could be felt within aspects of Buddhism and stratification in old Japan. Karma may have many angles but for the masses it was often viewed alongside pessimism and related to past deeds. However, by the seventeenth century the word had been transformed and now became linked to stylish pleasure whereby the soul was freed from the burden of “a higher being.”

Dieter Wanczura comments that “The first ukiyo-e was produced in black and white in the seventeenth century. There was however a demand for color and the first colored prints were produced by adding coloring to the finished b/w print with a brush. But that was too expensive and time-consuming. Okomura Masanobu and Suzuki Harunobu are said to have been the first to introduce multi-color prints by using more than one block – one block for each different color.”

“Ukiyo-e during its time was not considered as fine art but rather as commercial art. These woodblock prints were largely commissioned by the Kabuki and Noh-Theaters and by actors as a form of advertising. It was not before the twentieth century that the Japanese began regarding Japanese woodblock prints as an art form worth collecting. The Europeans, mainly the Dutch and the French, discovered the Japanese prints and their artistic value at the end of the nineteenth century, when large numbers of ukiyo-e were imported to Europe.”

Many international artists fell in love with aspects of ukiyo-e and the partial list includes Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Félix Bracquemond, Mary Cassatt, and many more. Of course, like all meetings of different thought patterns and styles the same applied the other way because Dutch artists and others impacted on some ukiyo-e artists. Therefore, while nations in this period had vague notions of “the other” in the field of art barriers were being broken and this especially applies to the late Edo period when new ideas were spreading to distant shores.

Ukiyo-e was constantly evolving and Meiji ukiyo-e is often overlooked but some of the greatest artists of this art form were based in this period of history. This notably applies to Chikanobu, Kunichika, Kyosai, Ogata Gekko, and Yoshitoshi. Of course, individuals like Kyosai and Chikanobu were born firmly within the Edo period but while Kyosai belonged to both worlds the life of Chikanobu is best summed up in the Meiji period.

The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum in Matsumoto, Nagano prefecture, is a great place to visit if you reside in Japan or if you are a tourist to this intriguing nation. On their website it is stated that “The average citizen’s mood of Edo period (1603-1867) was an extremely buoyant and joyful one –not the transitory, heavy atmosphere characteristic of the troubled middle age. The word “ukiyo-e” means “the picture of buoyant world” and incorporates in its meaning the common man’s daily pleasures, such as Kabuki plays, Geisha houses, and so on. The forerunner of Edo period prints was simple drawings that gradually developed into a wood-block, thus satisfying the growth of the demand.”


However, the Edo period is too distant to view with nostalgia because many evil deeds were happening throughout the world in this period. Therefore, beautiful gardens, stunning architecture and holy Christian churches, Buddhist temples, and Islamic mosques, don’t tell us anything because many a slave built the finest monuments that graced this earth.

Despite this, clearly changes were happening in Japan in the middle to late Edo period and ukiyo-e provides a greater depth to what was happening in Japan than most art forms in other nations in this period of history. However, I believe the maturity of Meiji ukiyo-e represents a clearer picture but given the closer timescale then this is only natural.

Even today the vast majority of individuals don’t fully understand the complexity of ukiyo-e and the areas which artists delved in. The image of Hokusai is mainly based on images from the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fujiand other stunning landscape images. Yet the other Hokusai is the creator of The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife whereby a young lady is enjoying being sexually touched by a fully grown octopus and a young octopus.

In another article I wrote I stated that Ukiyo-e expresses the richness of Japanese culture, nature, history, mythology, theatre, stunning landscapes, and highlights the importance of entertainment and other areas. Also, ukiyo-e shows vivid images of sexuality and some shunga is extremely explicit even by the standards of today in liberal nations.  This reality is what makes ukiyo-e so powerful because it relates to both reality and a world of mythology and ghosts.”

Turning back to Hokusai then in many ways this aspect of his art sums up the beauty of ukiyo-e because you have so many forces and factors behind the images. Therefore, this art form expresses an abundance of topics, issues, cultural aspects, the hidden world – and the mundane – and this is the heart of ukiyo-e and its power.

The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum: 2206-1, Shimadachi, Matsumoto, 390-0852, JAPAN.

Open: 10:00 a.m.—5:00 p.m.
Closed on Monday

Please visit for more information about ukiyo-e

Please visit  –   On this site you will see a wonderful selection of Japanese woodblock prints for sale. Ukiyo-e (the Japanese name for woodblock prints of the 18th and 19th centuries) are beautiful, collectible and a sound financial investment. 

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Posted by on January 30, 2012 in Japan


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Japanese art and culture: Tani Buncho and influence of China

Japanese art and culture: Tani Buncho and influence of China

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

In the history books it is stated that Japan in the Edo period was cut off from the outside world but the old ways persisted and certain daimyo maintained aspects of past trade depending on geography. Therefore, culture, ideas, philosophy, art, religion, the written language of kanji, gardens, architecture, and other notable areas which had been influenced by China, were still revered by many Japanese artists.

Tani Buncho was born in 1763 and died in 1840 and the policies of Edo infringed his art work because he was forbidden to go to China because of the policy called sakoku (locked country). Sakoku forbade the free movement of individuals to foreign countries and foreigners entering Japan.  However, while this was strictly implemented with regards to individuals the real terminology should be kaikin (maritime prohibitions) because trade continued with others in Ryuku, in Ainu areas, Nagasaki, and a couple more places.

Also, while the clampdown on Christianity was a reality and converts would be killed without haste, it is abundantly clear that Edo did not infringe on the teaching of other non-Japanese indigenous faiths and philosophies that came to Japan via China and Korea. Given this, Chinese ideas ran through the veins of Japanese society and the ruling elite adopted Edo Neo-Confucianism and greater stratification took place. Thesamurai also built many Confucian academies and while the movement called Kokugaku would emerge with greater power and influence, this applies to focusing on Japanese culture, history, the Shinto faith and ancient literature, the ruling way would remain. Given this, Confucian philosophy would still hold sway during the Edo period until the last few decades before the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Therefore, the world of Buncho was one of deep admiration of Chinese classics and high culture but residing in a nation which forbade the free movement of individuals. Not surprisingly, Buncho and other artists were constrained by this reality and different thought patterns in China and Japan would further split because contemporary ideas emanating from China were forbidden in this period. Given this reality, Buncho visited Nagasaki where trade was allowed in special areas between outsiders and Japanese traders.

Buncho, just like Kameda Bosai, Hanabusa Itcho, Ike no Taiga, Watanabe Kazan, Tomioka Tessai, and many others, belonged to the Bunjinga school of thought. This school of thought flourished in the late Edo period and highlights the power of traditional Chinese culture in Japan despite the ongoing isolation of this nation. TheBunjinga, the literati according to their mode of thinking, all had one binding feature and this applies to their deep admiration of traditional Chinese culture. This enabled their individuality to be linked together within the ideas and art work of Bunjinga concepts.

On the British Museum website it states that “The Japanese Bunjinga school of literati ‘scholar-amateur’ artists flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is also known as Nanga (‘Southern painting’). The school was based on the literati movement that developed in China over a long period of time as a reaction against the formal academic painting of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1126). Rather than technical proficiency, literati artists cultivated a lack of affectation in an attempt to tune in to the rhythms of nature. In Japan, this was only partially understood: many Japanese bunjin were simply trying to escape the restrictions of the academic Kanō and Tosa schools while imitating Chinese culture. At first, the only models available were woodblock-printed manuals such as the Kaishien gaden (‘Mustard Seed Garden’) and a few imported Chinese paintings. Some Chinese monks of the ōbaku Zen sect taught painting in Nagasaki. Unlike their Chinese counterparts, the Japanese bunjin were not necessarily carefree artists and scholars from wealthy, bureaucratic backgrounds, and many had to sell their work to make a living.”

Buncho focused heavily on his love of traditional Chinese culture but this talented individual also studied Tosa, Western-style, and ukiyo-e. Therefore, he was an individual who searched the many art-forms which were available to him, irrespective of the limitations imposed by Edo rulers.

The Saru Gallery comments about Buncho that “He first studied Kanō painting at a young age with Katō Bunrei, then the Nanga style under Watanabe Gentai, Kitayama Kangan and Kushiro Unsen. During his travels he met the patron Kimura Kenkadō, who became a life-long friend. Through him he met many artists from the Kansai area, including Uragami Gyokudō and Yamamoto Baiitsu. He studied many other styles of painting then current in Japan, including Chinese and Western style. His work is widely eclectic, and brought him many friends, fans and pupils. In the end he was mainly known as a Nanga artist, who brought the literati style style from Kyoto and Osaka to the capital.”

Buncho moved to Nagasaki for many years in order to study Chinese art and European art and in many ways he is a “microcosm” of issues that have pulled at Japan for many centuries. This applies to the power of Japanese culture, Chinese culture, and Western culture, and how best to utilize or to focus on one main area. However, for individuals like Buncho he yearned for knowledge and greater wisdom. Therefore, he focused on all the positives from each culture in order to express himself through art.

The legacy of Buncho is multiple and this applies to his books he wrote about art and theory, his art work, his thinking and how he overcame the many restrictions imposed on him and society because of the policies of Edo. Also, it is intriguing to note that despite the isolation of Japan it is clear that outside thought patterns were powerful in Japan and “windows” like Nagasaki enabled Buncho to learn more about new ideas.

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Posted by on January 2, 2012 in ASIA, Japan


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Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Japanese art: Images of tranquility and landscapes

Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Japanese art: Images of tranquility and landscapes

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

Utagawa Kuniyoshi depicted many images and covered various different subject matters. Therefore, the art of this stylish ukiyo-e artist in this article provides only a glimpse into the real Kuniyoshi.

Kuniyoshi was born in 1797 and died in 1861 and throughout this period many developments erupted in Japan. This applies to traditional rule in the earlier part of his life to rapid changes from the middle of the 1850s and onwards until the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Ando Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai are the most famous ukiyo-e artists internationally but Kuniyoshi was also a crème de la crème artist along with many others. Also, the broad spectrum of many ukiyo-e artists is truly amazing and this also applies to the art of Kuniyoshi. Therefore, the art work of this wonderful artist is complex and depends on various different circumstances.

This article focuses only on the tranquil nature of his art and elegant landscapes which appealed to many Japanese people. However, it would be wrong to believe that these lovely landscapes and scenes of serenity provide the real Kuniyoshi because this would be false.

Despite this, for people who know the art work of Kuniyoshi the opposite could be said because all too often this angle of his artwork is neglected. Yet clearly Kuniyoshi’s landscape images match that of any ukiyo-e artist irrespective of people’s own preferred artist.

The Edo Period was succumbing to outside forces during the lifetime of Kuniyoshi and this must have infringed heavily on this stylish artist. However, when one door closes another opens up and this certainly applied to the later stages of his life. Therefore, new techniques, different thinking, growing outside influences, evolution within the Japanese art world, and others factors, impacted greatly on Kuniyoshi.

Images in this article by Kuniyoshi are a reminder of a world which was mainly un-spoilt before the economic, social, and political revolution which took hold in Japan and culminated with the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

In an earlier article I commented that “Kuniyoshi and other famous ukiyo-e artists also take you back to a different Japan in all its confusion.  Therefore, Kuniyoshi designed prints which covered a vast spectrum and this applies to landscapes, women, kabuki, humor, nature, satire, shunga, cats, surimono and other areas.”  

“It is apparent that Hokusai (1760-1849) had much more political and sexual freedom and this notably applies to Hokusai’s shunga which is very powerful and erotic.  However, the Tenpo reforms of the early 1840s introduced measures which banned prints of erotic women and actors who belonged to the kabuki scene.  This meant that Kuniyoshi had to focus more on warriors and legends but his historical depictions were under close scrutiny. Therefore the popular satire of shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi and other prints led to an official reprimand and many prints were confiscated and destroyed.”

Kuniyoshi also opened up the past and this applies to the depiction of historical figures in Japanese history, brave samurai warriors, events in Japanese history, famous legends and other related areas which nurtured each new generation.  

Famous art pieces produced by Kuniyoshi include The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden All Told, At The Shore of the Sumida River, Mt. Fuji from Sumida and Pilgrims in the Waterfall. Of course you have many other famous collections and art pieces by Kuniyoshi and preferences will vary with each individual.

Pilgrims in the Waterfall is extremely beautiful because it shows and highlights important aspects of Japanese culture when it applies to religion and nature coming together.  This notably applies to Shintoism which is “the real heart of Japan” despite the influence of Buddhism within the Japanese psyche. Also, in this stunning art piece it is abundantly clear that space is very important and this applies to religion, Japanese gardens, meditation and other aspects of Japanese culture.

The serenity which can be felt by the Pilgrims in the Waterfall connects humanity, nature and religion together.  Therefore, Kuniyoshi is highlighting a powerful reality which belonged to his world.  

Kuniyoshi’s ukiyo-e is very varied and images in this article are limited to landscapes and internal tranquility in Japan.  – Fantastic website and just click onto the section you are interested in.

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Posted by on November 23, 2011 in Japan


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Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Tranquil art and natural beauty! Part One

Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Tranquil art and natural beauty!  Part One

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times


Utagawa Kuniyoshi is amongst the crème de la crème of ukiyo-e because his art work was truly amazing and so powerful.  Kuniyoshi, just like other famous Japanese artists like Ando Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai, was very diverse and the window of the new Japan was on its way.

This article is based on three tranquil art pieces by Kuniyoshi. However, just like life these three glimpses into Kuniyoshi and his style are misleading. Nevertheless, given the amount of art that Kuniyoshi produced then a more tranquil based article suits the introduction for lay people who only know snippets about this talented artist.

Also, human nature is complex and the outside persona and internal reality is often very different.  Therefore, by providing a glimpse into the natural aspect of Kuniyoshi’s art I hope to relate this with the calm before the storm.

After all, Kuniyoshi was born in 1798 and died in 1861 and he belonged to a world of continuity during the Edo Period but when his life was nearing the end, the Edo Period was also succumbing to outside forces and internal power issues.

By showing only three art pieces of Kuniyoshi I hope to transform these three images into a different meaning.  This applies to the safety of the past irrespective if our recollections of our early years are often clouded by nostalgia and a yearning of the dead souls which have become mere memories.

Kuniyoshi and other famous ukiyo-e artists also take you back to a different Japan in all its confusion.  Therefore, Kuniyoshi designed prints which covered a vast spectrum and this applies to landscapes, women, kabuki, humor, nature, satire, shunga, cats, surimono and other areas.  

His legacy and style especially applies to depicting historical figures, warriors, events in history and legends which helped to inspire and open-up the viewer to the past.

It is apparent that Hokusai (1760-1849) had much more political and sexual freedom and this notably applies to Hokusai’s shunga which is very powerful and erotic.  However, the Tenpo reforms of the early 1840s introduced measures which banned prints of erotic women and actors who belonged to the kabuki scene.  This meant that Kuniyoshi had to focus more on warriors and legends but his historical depictions were under close scrutiny. Therefore the popular satire of shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi and other prints led to an official reprimand and many prints were confiscated and destroyed.

Kuniyoshi was influenced to some extent by Katsukawa Shuntei (1770-1820) and this applies to warrior prints that he produced and not to other areas of his artwork. However, the early period for Kuniyoshi was not easy and it wasn’t until 1827 that he made a major breakthrough.  This applies to The 108 Heroes of the Popular Suikoden All Told.

The three art pieces in this article depict a natural and cultural aspect of Japan.  At The Shore of the Sumida River shows the power of nature and the reality of everyday life.  The only individual face that you can see is in a natural state and he looks worn out and battling against the elements and fatigue. 

However, the Mt. Fuji from Sumida shows a breathtaking landscape and two people are in awe of the stunning beauty and another individual is walking blissfully alone.  The image also shows you a child who is enjoying life with his mother and playing. Also, unlike the older individuals the child is in a dream world because of natural joy and the energy of childhood can be seen.

The serenity of the image and exquisite color scheme alongside the backdrop of Mount Fuji is a beautiful illustration of Kuniyoshi’s art. 

Pilgrims in the Waterfall depicts the unity of faith and nature and while Buddhism was powerful in this period in Japan the indigenous faith of Shinto is “the real faith of Japan.” This applies to the power of ancestors, the spirit world, nature and humanity being in co-existence and other aspects that run through the veins of Japan’s history.

It would not really matter if the image was a pilgrimage to Buddhism or Shintoism because the natural image of nature and the power of the waterfall could only connect you with Shintoism.  Therefore, despite the power of Buddhism in this period in Japan the old world survived and this applies to the world of Shintoism and the mystery of gods within nature.

These three images depict a natural Japan and show a world which was far from the political intrigues of the day.  The serenity which can be felt by the Pilgrims in the Waterfall is a stunning image which connects humanity with nature but in a natural and simplistic way.  Therefore, no religious building is needed and instead the pilgrimage at its heart is interwoven with the power of nature. 

Similarly, Mt. Fuji from Sumida shows the stunning beauty of Japan and the scene highlights natural beauty and everyday life and thought patterns.  Older individuals are in awe while the child is blissfully happy irrespective of the stunning background.

Therefore, the three images of Kuniyoshi in this article are focused on only one side of his art work but Kuniyoshi was very diverse and during the reforms of the early 1840s he did not remain placid.  – Fantastic website and just click onto the section you are interested in.  please visit

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Posted by on July 4, 2011 in Japan


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