Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ukiyo-e: 'Pictures of the Floating World'

June 12th, 2011:

Sharaku's Actor Ōtani Oniji III as the Manservant Edohei.  Arguably his most famous work. [1]

Today was the last day of the Sharaku exhibit at Tokyo National Museum Heiseikan.  The art teacher at school informed me about the exhibition and recommended that I go.  After looking into the exhibit, I agreed that it was a must-see and we made sure to fit it into our schedule and go before it closed.  The importance of the exhibit was two-fold.  Not only is Sharaku one of the most famous ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artists making the exhibit worthwhile, but the completeness of the exhibit for a major artist is what really made the exhibit unmissable.  There are only thought to be 146 works of Sharaku still existing, and this exhibit brought together over 140 of them. [2]  In fact, at the show, the exhibit said only 4 were missing from the complete works of Sharaku.  His works were brought together from private and public collections from around the world and such an exhibit might not happen again.  This time I'm going to talk about the art of ukiyo-e before I get into Sharaku's life and work and the exhibit itself in my next post.

Ukiyo-e as I'm sure all of you know is the famous Japanese woodblock prints made during the Edo Period and beyond.  Some of the most famous of these artists around the world being Hiroshige and Hokusai; their works depicting landscapes and scenes from daily life during that time in Japan.  Not only are these works famous in themselves, but helped to inspire some of the most famous impressionists and their works when they were discovered in Europe.

Hokusai's The Great Wave at Kanagawa (from a Series of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji).  I'm sure this famous ukiyo-e print looks familiar for example. [3]

Woodblock printing was in use in Japan long before the art of ukiyo-e had developed.  Woodblock printing was already in use at least by the 8th century for producing texts, specifically Buddhist scriptures.  They also were used to print designs on paper and silk in the 17th century, but until the 18th century were used mainly to mass produce texts. [4]  Even the first illustrated Japanese books didn't appear until sometime around 1650 when traditional tales began to be produced.  The illustrations in these books increased in quality as the books became more popular and soon the books were being purchased for the artwork in them as much, or in some cases more so than the written text. [5]  By 1660, Hishikawa Moronobu, an illustrator working in Edo convinced his publisher to print single sheet illustrations which then became widely sold and started the ukiyo-e movement. [6]  These prints became the first widely available art in Japan.

The question being is why did it take so long to go from the creation of woodblock printing to its use in ukiyo-e and the mass-popularity of its art.  The main reason is societal and economic conditions were not ready for this kind of populist art development until this period.  Japan itself would not become fully unified as a country until unification was completed by Iyeasu Tokugawa with victory at the Battle of Sekigahara on October 21st, 1600, officially by being given the title of Shōgun by the Emperor in 1603 and completed with victory at the Battle of Tennoji in 1615.  Before this point, Japan was a fractured place with a large number of clans and a history of violence between these clans, as well as violence between the Emperors and strong generals over power in Japan in previous eras.  The Sengoku Period (Warring States Period, 1467-1600) right before unification was a time of Japan's greatest fragmentation and conflict as Japan was in a civil war when many Daimyō, or local clan lords rose to power and fought against each other for more power.  With constant war throughout the country and people stuck inside the land of their clan, there wasn't the stability, freedom or economic conditions that would be required for the creation and selling of populist art.

With the unification of Japan and future reforms by the Tokugawa Shogunate after 1600, conditions were finally present for the making and selling of art within Japan.  With the country unified by Tokugawa, it created stability and peace in Japan for over 250 years.  These conditions allowed for the emergence of arts as finances no longer needed to be funneled into military and defense.  The ruling samurai class started to pay for art and craftsmanship with decorations for their castles, sliding doors, ceilings, wood panels, new fancy clothes and other goods to show off and take advantage of their high status no longer encumbered with funding for defense and wars. [7]  While the samurai class started to again be patrons of the arts, it would be the economic rise of the lowest social class in Edo Era society that would create the conditions for the birth of the ukiyo-e movement.

The Tokugawa Shogunate made a new societal structure that lasted until the end of the Edo Era based on 4 classes.  The samurai class was on top followed by farmers, artisans and at the bottom, the merchant class.  While the merchant class was the lowest class in society, many in the class would acquire new wealth during this period.  These merchants would become wealthy from the expansion of cities and commerce that occurred during this time.  Becoming wealthy, but lacking social mobility being at the bottom of society, the merchant class used their money in acquiring items to show their status. [8]  This collection of items and decorations would be separate from the high culture and art of the upper samurai class and instead be the creation of a new populist culture.  Some of the first cultural expressions from this new merchant class led culture were paintings of courtesans, Kabuki that also started around this time and the illustrated books that I explained before. [9]  The merchant class being newly enriched and their desire for a new, more populist culture and art set up the conditions for the introduction of ukiyo-e.  They were the logical progression from the illustrated story-books that were popular and collected starting in the early Edo Era.

One last invention in the printing process was needed before the popularity of ukiyo-e could be fully realized.  Hishikawa Moronobu's first works in ukiyo-e art in the 1660s would have been different than the prints were during its main and late periods.  These early prints and the illustrations in books at this time were either black and white, printed black and white and then painted by hand or printed with only a few colors.  It wouldn't be until 1765 that the technology would be available to print polychromatic on the same sheet of paper.  These nishiki-e (錦絵), or "brocade picture" were first used for calendars commissioned by a group of wealthy patrons in Edo for a New Year custom of exchanging calendars. [10]  These and the future works of Suzuki Harunobu would make him the most popular artist in Edo until his death 6 years after first using the new technique in ukiyo-e art. [11]

Suzuki Harunobu's Autumn Moon in the Mirror (from the series Eight Views of  the Parlor). A famous series of his using the polychromatic printing. [12]

Suzuki Harunobu's technique became the basic technique used in ukiyo-e art.  It would be the main popular art form in Japan until the 1860s when Japan would politically and socially destabilize leading up to the Meiji Revolution in 1868.  The Meiji Emperor's rise to power and the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate saw another series of wide social reforms specifically focused on modernization.  Ukiyo-e became a casualty of this modernization effort. [13]

Ukiyo-e (浮世絵)  means 'pictures of the floating world,' but this is an evolution of the original word.  The original word of Ukiyo-e used this kanji, 憂世絵.  Notice the first character is different between the two, 憂 compared to 浮 now.  Both kanji are read as uki, but have different meanings.  The original ukiyo-e, 憂世絵 means 'pictures of the sad world' or pictures of the transient world.'  This is the Buddhist idea of the transient nature of life.  This concept obviously didn't match the subject matter of ukiyo-e art at the time, being of courtesans, kabuki actors and scenes from the pleasure districts popular at the time.  So the first kanji of uki 憂 was changed to the homonym 浮, which was a better fit.  浮 means to float, so the word now means 'pictures of the floating world' matching the subject matter of its art better. [14]

Ukiyo-e has become the most famous art of Japan worldwide and the reason for that is two-fold.  The first being ukiyo-e's impact around the world, started by the impressionists finding them and inspiring their work.  This discovery spurred a Japonism in the art world separate from the Orientalism that already existed which has influenced western art ever since.  The more important aspect for ukiyo-e's fame is its subject matter.  Ukiyo-e depicted scenes of the city, pleasure districts, entertainment and landscapes of the time.  In that way, ukiyo-e has become a visual record of Edo Era and traditional Japan.  After the Edo Era, Japan modernized and westernized to some extent during this modernization, so the Edo era would be the last time Japan would be the Japan of old and the traditional.  The ukiyo-e would thus be the main visual reminders of this traditional Japan as photography would not come to Japan until late in the Edo Era.  Ukiyo-e are famous and popular in Japan as well as around the world for this showing of traditional Japan.

One other thing to remember about ukiyo-e art is the artists that are credited with the work are often only 1 of the people that create these works.  Usually each print is the work of 4 people.  Each print needs the work of a designer, engraver, printer and publisher. [15]  The artist typically credited with the work when being discussed is only the designer of the piece.  However, the publisher decided the themes and judged the quality of the design before it was given to the engraver and printer for production. [16]  So while currently only the designer is given credit for the works, there were typically 4 people involved in the process of making the art and not just the artist credited with the work.

This is the basic background for the art of ukiyo-e and the conditions at the time that allowed and shaped the emergence of this work.  Hopefully this provides the context that makes it easier to understand the works of Sharaku and the exhibit, which I'll discuss next time.


1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Toshusai Sharaku: Otani Oniji II (JP2822)," Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/JP2822.

2. Kumi Matsumaru, "The many faces of Sharaku," Daily Yomiuri Online, May 20, 2011, http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/features/arts/T110519003574.htm (accessed January 21, 2012).

3.The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Katsushika Hokusai: The Great Wave at Kanagawa (from a Series of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji) (JP1847)," Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/JP1847.

4. Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style," Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ukiy/hd_ukiy.htm.

5. "Ukiyo-e History," Tokugawa Gallery.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Art of the Pleasure Quarters and the Ukiyo-e Style," Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/plea/hd_plea.htm.

9. "Ukiyo-e History," Tokugawa Gallery.

10. Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style."

11. John Fiorillo, "Suzuki Harunobu (c. 1725-1770)," Viewing Japanese Prints.

12. "Autumn Moon in the Mirror," Mokuhankan Catalogue.

13. Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Art of the Pleasure Quarters and the Ukiyo-e Style."

14. Ibid.

15. Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style."

16. Ibid.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Rainy Season

June is the month of Tsuyu (梅雨), the rainy season.  It is the divider between spring and summer in Japan.  While people generally associate the year having 4 seasons, Japan really has 5 of them.  The rainy season of June and early July making the 5th season.  The rainy season is the last time things in Japan will be cool until very late in the year as the Japanese summer is a very hot, humid and long season.

The rainy season is different than the typhoon season; in that it is not comprised of powerful and dangerous storms, but rather a heavy continuous rain. (The typhoon season is from August - October.)  It does rain a lot, but not violently and almost every day.  Basically, the umbrella becomes your outside companion and weekend plans become indoor only.  June often becomes a downpour all day.  While the weather is pretty nasty, it does keep things cool in Japan as when the rain comes to an end, summer's oppressive heat and humidity here take over.

The Festival of Goldfish

May 22nd, 2011:

Goldfish Mikoshi (portable shrine) at the Goldfish Festival.

Today we went to Kingyo Matsuri (金魚祭り), or Goldfish Festival at our neighborhood shrine of Yoyogi Hachiman (代々木八幡宮).  Every year the shrine holds this festival all about goldfish.  Goldfish for sale, goldfish games and even a portable shrine of a goldfish paraded through by children; the festival definitely matches its name.  Actually, this festival is based off a festival that existed in the area a century earlier.

In the early 1900s the area of Yoyogi had begun to develop.  At this time, people enjoyed having Kingyo (金魚), or goldfish in their garden ponds. [1]  During this time, there used to be goldfish sellers who would go to festivals to sell goldfish to people attending the festival.  One of the bigger festivals in Edo (present-day Tokyo) was and still is Kurayami Matsuri (くらやみ祭り), or Darkness Festival.  This interesting festival is held from April 30th to May 6th at Ōkunitama Jinja (大國魂神社) in Fuchū (府中) Tokyo.  Fuchū was an important post town on the Kōshū Kaidō (甲州街道), or one of the five important highways to Edo during the Edo period. [2]  Post towns were designated as rest areas for people traveling along these five main highways.  Many goldfish sellers would go to the Kurayami Matsuri and then return home along the Kōshū Kaidō.  The area of Yoyogi Hachiman was along the way back from the Kurayami Matsuri and many of the goldfish sellers tried to sell the leftover goldfish they had at the Goshagūsai Matsuri that was held here around the same time. [3]

This festival ended during the Taishō Era (1912-1926) , but Yoyogi Hachiman Shrine brought the festival back in 2003 due to local popular support to bring back the festival. [4]  The festival has been held every year since then and popular with the local neighborhoods.

The main building of Yoyogi Hachiman Shrine decorated with the banners and lanterns for Kingyo Matsuri.

One of the priests of the shrine going up to the Main Hall.  The Main Hall is only open on festival days.

Besides the Main Hall being open and the priests here, the shrine today has lots of goldfish.

Some of the goldfish being displayed for sale or used for games.

The festival still keeps the tradition of selling goldfish, and there are many stands with goldfish for sale.  More popular than the stands selling the goldfish were the ones holding the popular festival game involving goldfish called Kingyo-sukui (金魚すくい).

Kingyo-sukui, or 'Goldfish Scooping' is a traditional festival game that is still popular at Japanese festivals today.  The game has a small, long shallow tank filled with goldfish.  The participants take a Poi (ポイ), or paper scoop and scoop the goldfish from the tank into a tiny bowl.  When the Poi breaks and can no longer be used, the game is over and the person keeps all of the goldfish they were able to scoop into the bowl. [5]

A Kingyo-sukui stall during a festival along with the bowls and Poi.

With all of the goldfish at this festival and the popular Kingyo-sukui stalls about the shrine, this festival is especially popular with the children in the area and might be one of the reasons for its popularity and strong support among the local neighborhoods.  Even the local elementary schools make goldfish art and crafts that decorate the shrine grounds and the children lead the Goldfish Mikoshi procession that is the highlight of the festival.

The Goldfish Mikoshi on its way.

While not as big or impressive as the more famous festivals in Japan, it is a lot of fun and interesting to see the small local festivals that happen all over Japan.  It is especially great to get the chance to see the local festival of my own neighborhood's shrine.  These small festivals still have the local histories and cultures in focus and aren't distorted by the huge crowds and tourism that some of the larger festivals can't help to avoid.


1. "年中行事," 八幡宮,

2. Tadanao Noguchi, "Greetings From the Mayor," City of Fuchu,

3. "年中行事," 八幡宮.

4. Ibid.

5. Kaori, "I Wanna Scoop Baby," Shinjuku Daily Photo,

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Children's Day: A Day of Boys, Carp and Samurai

May 5th, 2011:

The Koinobori streamers, famous on this holiday, at Ueno Zoo.

Today is Kodomo no Hi (こどもの日).  Children's Day is May 5th every year here in Japan.  While the holiday says it's for children, its name can be a bit misleading when it comes to the traditional customs of the holiday.  The original name is Tango no Sekku (端午の節句), or 'First Day of the Horse.'  This is another Sekku, or first day of the new season on the old lunar calendar and Chinese tradition brought to Japan.  This Sekku marks the start of the rainy season.  I briefly discussed more about Sekku in my Hina Matsuri post, which is another of the 5 Sekku throughout the year.  After World War II, Tango no Sekku was renamed to Children's Day and made a national holiday in order to recognize all children without gender discrimination, but the traditional practices of the holiday are from Tango no Sekku. [1]  These practices are all for boys just like Momo no Sekku was for girls, hence the confusion.

Originally being the 'First Day of the Horse,' Tango no Sekku had equine practices that involved symbolism for boys to grow up to the highest ideals of manhood and for them to grow healthy and strong. [2]  Most of the symbolism used for this day focus on making boys strong or protecting their health, both very important in the age when these traditions were created.  The first of these is a bath with the leaves of an iris called Shōbu-yu (菖蒲湯).  The leaves are thought to drive away evil spirits and promote good health. [3]  The reason for this, is the word Shōbu is a homonym.  Shōbu (菖蒲) is a Japanese Iris, but Shōbu (勝負) means a match or bout.  The symbolism through its homonym is the iris flowers when used, will fight against evil. [4]  Homonyms in Japanese usually occur by the kanji, or Chinese characters being different but two words having the same reading.  Sometimes they are important parts of a traditional custom through their symbolism, but other times can be used in a variety of word games or puns for fun.

The traditional sweet for Children's Day is Kashiwa Mochi (かしわ餅).  Mochi is the popular and common rice cake, this sweet having mochi filled with red bean paste.  Kashiwa is an oak leaf that is wrapped around the mochi.  The oak leaf is used because oak trees normally don't lose their old leaves before new buds appear, symbolizing a continuous family line. [5]  This is given to boys on Children's Day in hopes of continuing the family line into the future.

The most famous parts of this holiday are the two traditional decorations set up for the holiday.  The first is Go Gatsu Ningyo (五月人形), Fifth Month Dolls or May Dolls.  These are small samurai armor sets, helmets or Kintarō dolls that are displayed inside the house of families that have boys and in public as well.  These are much like the court doll display on Hina Matsuri where the traditional gender ideals are out on display in hope of their children fulfilling those ideals.  Actually, these decorations were started in the Edo period in order to complement the decorations of Hina Matsuri. [6]  Kintarō (金太郎) is a Japanese legend of a boy named Kintarō, or Golden Boy, that has super-human strength.  These are displayed for boys to become strong and brave.

A large display inside a train station in Saitama Prefecture.

The other famous and most popular decoration are the carp streamers, or Koinobori (鯉幟).  These are hung outside the houses of those that have sons, as well as in public places.  The carp symbolize strength through a Chinese folktale that many fish tried to swim up a waterfall, but only the carp made it all the way to the top, turning into a dragon. [7]  Their swim upstream every year also represents perseverance, another desired trait in boys.  These decorations are hung outside the house in hopes that their boys will grow to be strong, have perseverance and achieve success.  These streamers usually include at least 3 carp.  The first, Magoi (真鯉), a black carp represents the father.  The second, Higoi (緋鯉), a red carp represents the mother.  The carp below these two represent the boys in the house.  Each younger son being a smaller carp and lower on the pole than the older. [8]  The red one used to represent the first born son in the past and the ones below it younger sons being at least 2 carp instead of 3, but today it more often represents the mother and thus 3 carp are needed. [9]

Koinobori decorations around my neighborhood.

While the ones in front of houses are generally similar sizes, the ones in public places can get quite large.  The most famous of these is Kazo's gigantic Koinobori.  Kazo, Saitama makes about half of the Koinobori used during this holiday and on May 3rd for the city's Citizen's Peace Festival, their 100 meter 350 kilogram one is flown for a short time. [10]

This massive Koinobori is only flown for 15 minutes twice during the day for fear of a strong wind causing an accident. [11]

Other areas in Japan are famous for having the most Koinobori in one place.  Sagamihara City, Kanagawa is famous for its over 1200 Koinobori that are hung on wires over the Sagamigawa River.  Tatebayashi, Gunma also holds a Koinobori Festival hung on ropes above the Tsurūdagawa River.  In 2004, they even broke the world record for number of Koinobori hung in one place for the city's 50th anniversary with 5,283 Koinobori. [12]

The Koinobori hung over the Sagamigawa River. [13]

In lots of other places they can be quite large and a fair amount of them too.  I took some pictures of the ones I've seen in public places during this spring and the ones at Ueno Zoo were the largest I saw this year.

Even without the symbolism, the carp streamers are a nice sight at this time and add lots of color and nice decoration to the neighborhood.  They're one of the things that most remind me it's spring in Japan.  I hope I have the chance to go and see the larger Koinobori displays throughout Japan in the future.


1. Diane Durston, "Go-Sekku Celebrating the Cycle of Life," Ikebana International, 2008-2009, 13-24, quoted in "Five Festival Celebrations," Portland Japanese Garden.

2. Ibid.

3. "Children's Day," Kids Web Japan,

4. Jenny Nakao Hones, "Celebrating Japan's Children's Day," Asian Lifestyle Design,

5. "Events, Culture and Sports Information," Shinjuku City Official Website,

6. Diane Durston, "Go-Sekku Celebrating the Cycle of Life."

7. "Events, Culture and Sports Information," Shinjuku City Official Website.

8. Ibid.

9. "Koinobori: Celebrating the Spirit of Boys Day," Japanese American National Museum,

10. "Kazo's Jumbo Koinobori (Flying Carp)," Tokyo Festivals,

11. Ibid.

12. "Koinobori Events Around Japan," Kids Web Japan,

13. "概要," E-Sagamihara,