Japan for the Uninvited

Japanese culture from a bemused foreign perspective

Ukiyo-e (Pictures of the floating world)

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by HokusaiUkiyo-e is a style of painting and printmaking, which became popular in Japan in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Blocks of wood were carved from an original drawing, and used to make near exact copies. Different blocks were used for each colour, and could be printed repeatedly to create bold, bright images.

The original ukiyo-e were intended for people who couldn’t afford real paintings, so the subjects were usually vibrant city characters: popular actors, beautiful courtesans or bulky sumo wrestlers.

However, many of the most famous ukiyo-e images are landscapes, like Hokusai’s enduring ‘Great Wave at Kanagawa’ (see picture).

The Utagawa school dominated ukiyo-e, and most of the period’s great artists either studied there or learnt from someone who did.

Although they were discouraged, many sexually explicit woodblock prints (“shunga”, meaning “springtime pictures”) were also made in this era. The punishments for creating these prints were strict, but even famous artists got away with making some shunga.

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