Woodblock printing in Japan

Torii Kiyomasu, Ichikawa Danjūrō I in the role of Takenuki Gorō. A famous early 18th century actor print of the Torii school
The Great Wave off Kanagawa (神奈川沖浪裏 Kanagawa-oki nami-ura) original print by Hokusai
Western-style graphical perspective and increased use of printed colour were among the innovations Okumura Masanobu claimed.
Taking the Evening Cool by Ryōgoku Bridge, c.1745

Woodblock printing in Japan (木版画, moku-hanga) is a technique best known for its use in the ukiyo-e artistic genre of single sheets, but it was also used for printing books in the same period. Woodblock printing had been used in China for centuries to print books, long before the advent of movable type, but was widely adopted in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868). Although similar to woodcut in Western printmaking in some regards, the moku-hanga technique differs in that it uses water-based inks—as opposed to western woodcut, which often uses oil-based inks. The Japanese water-based inks provide a wide range of vivid colors, glazes, and transparency.


Woodblock-printed books from Chinese Buddhist temples were seen in Japan as early as the eighth century. In 764 the Empress Kōken commissioned one million small wooden pagodas, each containing a small woodblock scroll printed with a Buddhist text (Hyakumantō Darani). These were distributed to temples around the country as thanksgiving for the suppression of the Emi Rebellion of 764.[1] These are the earliest examples of woodblock printing known, or documented, from Japan.

By the eleventh century, Buddhist temples in Japan produced printed books of sutras, mandalas, and other Buddhist texts and images. For centuries, printing was mainly restricted to the Buddhist sphere, as it was too expensive for mass production, and did not have a receptive, literate public as a market. However, an important set of fans of the late Heian period (12th century), containing painted images and Buddhist sutras, reveal from loss of paint that the underdrawing for the paintings was printed from blocks.[2]

The first secular book was printed in Japan in 1591. This was the Setsuyō-shū, a two-volume Chinese-Japanese dictionary. Though the Jesuits operated a movable type printing press in Nagasaki from 1590,[3] printing equipment brought back by Toyotomi Hideyoshi's army from Korea in 1593 had far greater influence on the development of the medium. Four years later, Tokugawa Ieyasu, even before becoming shogun, effected the creation of the first native moveable type, using wooden type-pieces rather than metal. He oversaw the creation of 100,000 type-pieces, which were used to print a number of political and historical texts. As shogun, Ieyasu promoted literacy and learning, contributing to the emergence of an educated urban public.

Printing was not dominated by the shogunate at this point, however. Private printers appeared in Kyoto at the beginning of the 17th century, and Toyotomi Hideyori, Ieyasu's primary political opponent, aided in the development and spread of the medium as well. An edition of the Confucian Analects was printed in 1598, using a Korean moveable type printing press, at the order of Emperor Go-Yōzei. This document is the oldest work of Japanese moveable type printing extant today. Despite the appeal of moveable type, however, craftsmen soon decided that the running script style of Japanese writings was better reproduced using woodblocks. By 1640 woodblocks were once again used for nearly all purposes.

The medium quickly gained popularity, and was used to produce affordable prints as well as books. The great pioneers in applying this method to the creation of artistic books, and in preceding mass production for general consumption, were Honami Kōetsu and Suminokura Soan. At their studio in Saga, the pair created a number of woodblock versions of the Japanese classics, both text and images, essentially converting handscrolls to printed books, and reproducing them for wider consumption. These books, now known as Kōetsu Books, Suminokura Books, or Saga Books, are considered the first and finest printed reproductions of many of these classic tales; the Saga Book of the Tales of Ise (Ise monogatari), printed in 1608, is especially renowned.

Woodblock printing, though more time-consuming and expensive than later methods, was far less so than the traditional method of writing out each copy of a book by hand; thus, Japan began to see something of literary mass production. While the Saga books were printed on expensive paper, and used various embellishments, being printed specifically for a small circle of literary connoisseurs, other printers in Kyoto quickly adapted the technique to producing cheaper books in large numbers, for more general consumption. The content of these books varied widely, including travel guides, advice manuals, kibyōshi (satirical novels), sharebon (books on urban culture), art books, and play scripts for the jōruri (puppet) theatre. Often, within a certain genre, such as the jōruri theatre scripts, a particular style of writing became standard for that genre. For example, one person's personal calligraphic style was adopted as the standard style for printing plays.

Many publishing houses arose and grew, publishing both books and single-sheet prints. One of the most famous and successful was Tsuta-ya. A publisher's ownership of the physical woodblocks used to print a given text or image constituted the closest equivalent to a concept of "copyright" that existed at this time. Publishers or individuals could buy woodblocks from one another, and thus take over the production of certain texts, but beyond the ownership of a given set of blocks (and thus a very particular representation of a given subject), there was no legal conception of the ownership of ideas. Plays were adopted by competing theaters, and either reproduced wholesale, or individual plot elements or characters might be adapted; this activity was considered legitimate and routine at the time.

After the decline of ukiyo-e and introduction of movable type and other technologies, woodblock printing continued as a method for printing texts as well as for producing art, both within traditional modes such as ukiyo-e and in a variety of more radical or Western forms that might be construed as modern art. Institutes such as the "Adachi Institute of Woodblock Prints" and "Takezasado" continue to produce ukiyo-e prints with the same materials and methods as used in the past.[4] [5]


Aizuri-e print: Kinryuzan Temple in Asakusa from the series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital by Hiroshige II

The technique for printing texts and images was generally similar. The obvious differences were the volume produced when working with texts (many pages for a single work), and the complexity of multiple colors in some images. Images in books were almost always in monochrome (black ink only), and for a time art prints were likewise monochrome or done in only two or three colors.

The text or image was first drawn onto thin washi (Japanese paper), then glued face-down onto a plank of close-grained wood, usually cherry. An incision was made along both sides of each line or area. Wood was then chiseled away, based on the drawing outlines. The block was inked using a brush or brushes. A flat hand-held tool called a baren was used to press the paper against the inked woodblock to apply the ink to the paper. The traditional baren is made in three parts, it consists of an inner core made from bamboo leaves twisted into a rope of varying thicknesses, the nodules thusly created are what ultimately applies the pressure to the print. This coil is contained in a disk called an "ategawa" made from layers of very thin paper glued together with water-proof organic glues, and to complete the baren the surface of the coil and the protective disk that hols it is wrapped in a dampened bamboo leaf, the ends of which are then tied to create a handle. Modern printmakers have adapted this tool, and today barens made of aluminum with ball bearing to apply the pressure are used, as well as less expensive plastic versions. Although the first prints were simply one-color, with additional colors applied by hand, the development of two registration marks carved into the blocks called "kento" were added. The sheet of washi to be printed is placed in the kento, then lowered onto the woodblock. This was especially helpful with the introduction of multiple colors that had to be applied with precision over previous ink layers.

While, again, text was nearly always monochrome, as were images in books, the growth of the popularity of ukiyo-e brought with it demand for ever increasing numbers of colors and complexity of techniques. The stages of this development follow:

Schools and movements

"Shōki zu" (Zhong Kui), by Okumura Masanobu, 1741-1751. An example of pillar print format, 69.2 x 10.1 cm.

Japanese printmaking, as with many other features of Japanese art, tended to organize itself into schools and movements. The most notable schools (see also schools of ukiyo-e artists) and, later, movements of moku-hanga were:

Other artists, such as Sharaku, Kabukidō Enkyō, Sugakudo, and Shibata Zesshin, are considered independent artists, free of school associations, and presumably, without the resulting associated benefits from publishers, who might be less inclined to produce prints by an unaffiliated artist. However, many of the surviving examples speak to the contrary. The earliest examples by these artists, are among the most desirable, valuable, and rarest, of all ukiyo-e. Additionally, many examples exhibit very fine printing, using expensive mica, premium inks and the highest quality papers.[6]

Following are common Tokugawa-period print sizes. Sizes varied depending on the period, and those given are approximate; they are based on the pre-printing paper sizes, and paper was often trimmed after printing.[8]

Print sizes
name trans. cm (in) ref
aiban (合判) intermediate 34 × 22.5 (13.4 × 8.9) [8]
bai-ōban (倍大判) intermediate 45.7 × 34.5 (18.0 × 13.6) [9]
chūban (中判) medium 26 × 19 (10.2 × 7.5) [8]
hashira-e (柱絵) pillar print 73 × 12 (28.7 × 4.7) [8]
hosoban (細判)
or hoso-e (細絵)[9]
narrow 33 × 14.5 (13.0 × 5.7) [8]
39 × 17 (15.4 × 6.7) [8]
kakemono-e (掛物絵) hanging scroll 76.5 × 23 (30.1 × 9.1) [8]
nagaban (長判) long 50 × 20 (19.7 × 7.9) [8]
ōban (大判) large 38 × 25.5 (15.0 × 10.0) [8]
58 × 32 (23 × 13) [8]
ō-tanzaku (大短冊判) large poem card 38 × 17 (15.0 × 6.7) [8]
chū-tanzaku (中短冊判) medium poem card 38 × 13 (15.0 × 5.1) [8]
surimono (刷物) 35 × 20 (13.8 × 7.9) [8]
12 × 9 (4.7 × 3.5) 
19 × 13 (7.5 × 5.1)

The Japanese terms for vertical (portrait) and horizontal (landscape) formats for images are tate-e (立て絵) and yoko-e (横絵), respectively.


  1. http://www.schoyencollection.com/Pre-Gutenberg.htm#2489
  2. Paine, 136
  3. Fernand Braudel, "Civilization & Capitalism, 15-18th Centuries, Vol 1: The Structures of Everyday Life," William Collins & Sons, London 1981
  4. https://www.adachi-hanga.com/
  5. http://www.takezasa.co.jp/
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 The Prints of Japan, Frank A. Turk, October House Inc ,1966, Lib Congress catalog Card no. 66-25524
  7. Fresh Impressions, Kendall Brown, Publisher: University of Washington Press, September 2013, ISBN 0935172513
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Faulkner & Robinson 1999, p. 40.
  9. 1 2 Harris 2011, p. 31.


Further reading

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