The Historical Impression of Ukiyo-E: How It Transformed the Floating World, Impacted the Western Civilization, and Influenced Modern Society

Figure 1: “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Hokusai. Willem. The Great Wave off Kanagawa. 2011. Woodblock Print. Word press. Web. 12 Nov 2011..

Many of us have seen the work of art created by the infamous Katsushika Hokusai titled “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” The undulating features in the seemingly colossal tsunami reach out like a monster with many sharp claws (in the crest) and a gaping fanged mouth (the trough) (see figure 1). In its powerful clutches are three boats with men struggling to fight through the forces of the water, akin to the instability exhibited in Japan’s pre-modern economy, politics, military, and culture. Peering through its trough is Mt. Fuji, erecting into the peaceful sky giving the viewer a poignant sense of hope and tranquility.

On contrary to this pivotal piece of Japanese art history, the origins of these ukiyo-e prints intended to entertain and provide pleasure. Hokusai made his artistic vision into reality by the means of the ukiyo-e woodblock printing process.  Today, we know that this process was a product of a collaborative group of artisans of ordinary origins. We will take a look at a few prominent Japanese artists who left behind a legacy of visual masterpieces unique to Japan after we talk about the prints from the Floating World; the ukiyo-e. Based on the meaning, process, and history of ukiyo-e, it has transformed Japanese society from the Edo period to the Meiji period followed by its revival, impacted the western civilization and inspired many artists, and paved way for today’s modern society including contemporary art in Japan.

浮世絵 “Ukiyo-E”

“Ukiyo-e.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 2011. Web. 12 Nov 2011. <;.

The term “ukiyo-e” translates to “images of the Floating World” (Koyama-Richard 38). To better describe the concept behind “the Floating World,” we can look at one of Japan’s earliest, and finest writers of Japanese literature, Asai Ryoi. He states in his novel “Ukiyo Monogatari” (“Tales of the Floating World”, c. 1661) the following quote:

… Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world… (qtd. in Schultz).

Its conception came about in the start of the 1650s and denotes aspects of Buddhism including changeability and fleeting pleasure. In our earthly domain the ukiyo-e represents transcendence of human desires and materialism (Koyama-Richard 38). Looking at these magnificent woodblock prints, one can take a glimpse into early Japan made possible by the visual representation of Japanese society, culture, customs, clothes, and insight. Before anyone can fully appreciate the ukiyo-e, one must understand the painstaking yet meticulous process of producing a woodblock print.

The artists behind the ukiyo-e prints that gained notoriety are typically painters that had no contributions toward the creation process of the prints themselves. In order for one design to be published, there has to at least include an artist, carver (horishi), and a printer (surishi). Each position in any production is artisans in their own rights (Sakata). They each spend years training in master’s studios or apprenticeships.

The artist sketches the design on a piece of thin yet strong paper with light ink, making numerous edits and studies. Once the artist is satisfied with the designs and drawing, it is passed onto the carver. The carver then pastes the drawing onto a block of cherry wood with rice paste and begins carving out the design. The inside of the lines are first carved out before finishing up on the outside lines. This main block is used only for the black lines. Any other colors must have separate blocks for each one accordingly to the artist’s original vision. Registration marks are carefully attended to, in order to ensure a perfect print between multiple impressions. Several proofs are made for pending approval of the artist. Once the blocks are carved out and accepted, it is given to the printer. The printer’s apprentices prepares the paper to be used for printing with sizing formula called “dosa,” consisting of alum and animal hide glue (to prevent bleeding). The printer maintains a tremendous amount of effort in considering the shrinkage of papers while moist and the registration prints. According to the artist’s design, the printer begins printing using organic pigments, dyes, and finely ground minerals mixed with animal hide glue and some water (Hirano).

The resulting effort of these artisans is ready to serve and distribute to the general public with beautiful images anyone can often afford. This collaborative and artistic process is slightly reminiscent of mass production of everyday products, inspiring artists of modern times such as Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami (which we will talk about later). The prints that brought pleasure and entertainment were just as fleeting as the history of ukiyo-e. Despite the allusion to an inevitable end of the popularity behind ukiyo-e prints, its history has stimulated a revival and a better appreciation in the later 20th century.

The progeny of ukiyo-e has rested on a foundation originating from the rise of a thriving new capital called Edo, a city that will become the modern Tokyo we know of today. In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) was appointed by the emperor to become a shogun. He decided to set up his new capital in Edo and a period of peace ensued for the people of Japan. The imperial capital of Edo rapidly gained momentum for economical expansion and growth of population due to the now stable nation in a period of peace (Koyama-Richard 37). One of the things the Tokugawa bafuku introduced to the political system at the time was the sankin kotai system, where alternate attendance is required by all daimyos so the shogunate can keep a close eye on political activities.

Though the daimyos suffered financial burdens due to spending alternate residencies between Edo and their domains, the new capital enjoyed financial gain. While they resided in their domain, their wives and children was left behind in Edo as hostages to ensure loyalty and fulfillment of duties (Schirokauer, Conrad, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay 145). Four classes have organized Japanese society: samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants. The samurai class grew richer alongside the merchant class, creating the middle-class (chonin). The daimyos’ crippling debt encouraged business with the merchants through money lending. The expanding economy allowed more indulgence amongst the samurai class, and simultaneously the artisans fed their creative appetite with a surge of cultural activities such as art, literature and performance art such as Noh drama. With a boasted economy, the opportunity for the market of ukiyo-e prints became a reality (Koyama-Richard 38).

In the flourishing markets of Japan, woodblock prints became wildly popular. This was the time that the merchant class was on the rise during the peaceful period of the Tokugawa rule. The increasing urbanization of Osaka, Kyoto, and Edo let to the growth of the pursuit for sensual pleasure, entertainment, and sometimes luxurious materials. The pleasure district of Yoshiwara was the epicenter for feeding such indulgence. The demographics of samurais and merchants who sought a secular city life overpowered the Tokugawa’s grasp on these activities in vain. The ukiyo-e prints, which also included books, provided urban delights for the fraction of the cost of the real luxuries Edo had to offer. Again, another example of how the concept of the “floating world” captures the concept of a transient human life and the ephemeral material universe (Kleiner 743). This concept alludes to modern Pop Art movement, blurring the distinction between lines of the high and the low by combining art and affordability.

Hishikawa Moronobu led the consolidation of development efforts of ukiyo-e. Similar to the history of cinema and film, the ukiyo-e prints began as black and white images. Then came more colors, with the overture of the red and green colors. Three- or four-color prints became common in the 18th century (Schirokauer, Conrad, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay 154). Ukiyo-e prints played many roles including advertising (such as silk, restaurants, and beauty products), portraiture with kabuki actors or courtesans of envied beauty, and entertainment (an initial ancestor of the mangas today). It continuously added to the purpose of communication, such as local news or medicinal recipes for cures. It served the quota for education as well, in telling children stories or illustrated encyclopedias (Koyama-Richard 38-40).

One who resides in the thriving Edo period can own a piece of ukiyo-e for the price of a bowl of noodles. “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Hokusai (figure 1) was just as frugal, on contrast to today’s perceived priceless value. The chonin class can acquire ukiyo-e and include them in albums or paste them onto walls. The processes of woodblock printing grew with the efficient system of publication distribution of Japanese graphic art. The artisans earned money by selling their designs to publishers or being hired for a commission of a specific design. The names of the artist and the publisher were present in all final prints. Women, more specifically wives and daughters, helped the artists to develop the intended designs (Kleiner 744).

The development of ukiyo-e prints rose due to the improvement of the materials used in woodblock printing and paper substrates based off of the bark of the mulberry trees. Expenditures by the publishers were alleviated by the utilization of inexpensive dyes derived from plants and animals, with the exception of occasional use of the much more lightfast (level permanence and protection against ultraviolet rays) mineral pigments. The introduction of synthetic dyes to Japan in the midst of the growing economy became exhibited in the woodblock prints beginning of the 19th century, like Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” shown in figure 1 with the use of Prussian blue pigment to portray the ferocity and realness of the infamous tsunami wave (Kleiner 744).

Figure 2: “The True Views of Tokyo” by Utagawa Hiroshige. Koyama-Richard, Brigitte. One Thousand Years of Manga. 1st ed. Flammarion: Flammarion, 2007. Print. 68-69.

Today we examine these ukiyo-e prints as a window into the Tokugawa society, just like any other forms of visual art. For example, Utagawa Hiroshige depicted beautiful landscapes in a roll-and-move game called “The True Views of Tokyo” with a purpose to educate players’ with Japanese geography and history (Koyama-Richard 68-69). In Utagawa Toyokuni’s colorful nishiki-e (comparable to posters with more than three colors) “Parody of Merchants of the Four Classes,” the triptych print depicts various women’s delight to possess a print of their favorite actor (Koyama-Richard 39). Despite the original intent of Japan’s closure to the rest of the world in the early Tokugawa period, it was inevitable for Western and Eastern art to inspire some of the greatest artists in history.

Figure 3: “Parody of Merchants of the Four Classes” by Utagawa Toyokuni. Koyama-Richard, Brigitte. One Thousand Years of Manga. 1st ed. Flammarion: Flammarion, 2007. Print. 39.

 The emergence of masterworks such as one exhibited in figure 1 inspired the Western civilization, more specifically the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and even other prominent artists engaging in varying movements. In contrast of what we call the movement of Japonais, the Japanese aesthetic influence in the Western society, the Japanese artists began to express interest in Western art (Kleiner 744). In the height of shunga prints, prints depicting erotic scenes of sexual activity, Picasso expressed his secret fascination with multiple etchings and drawings (figure 3) influenced by the print in figure 2, “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” by Hokusai. Many other Western artists succumbed to the enigmatic influence of the ukiyo-e prints such as the likes of Van Gogh (shown in figure 4), Monet, Gauguin, Klimt, Pissarro, Whistler, and Degas (Munro 31). Concurrently, Japanese artists like Megara Ryuzaburo became the one of Renoir’s disciples. Japanese ukiyo-e prints became present force in the influence of Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, and surrealism (Schirokauer, Conrad, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay 235).

Figure 4: “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” by Katsushika Hokusai. The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. 2011. Painting. Wikipedia. Web. 14 Nov 2011..

Figure 5: One of many “tentacle” etchings done by Picasso showing evident Japanese ukiyo-e influence. Musashi. Drawing from the Secret Images: Picasso and Japanese Erotic Prints exhibition. 2009. Painting. Blogger, Barcelona. Web. 14 Nov 2011. <;.

Figure 6: “Portrait of Père Tanguy” by Vincent Van Gogh. Japanism. 2011. Painting. Wikipedia. Web. 14 Nov 2011..

 The time approached within the Meiji period to open back up to the Western civilization, under the pressure of the results of the Opium War and Commodore Matthew Perry’s arrival (Schirokauer, Conrad, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay 175). In its wake was the popularity of ukiyo-e, evident by the recent end to Tokugawa rule and the renewed interest in recovering imperial power. The samurai class faced a dramatic end with the course of the Meiji Restoration of 1868 approaching (Schirokauer, Conrad, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay 188-189). The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which killed over one hundred thousand people, leveled old Tokyo and left space for a new modern capital. Traces of the event were personified by images of catfish, a symbol for protection against earth tremors. It often ejected koban (the currency at the time) flying out of its mouth, alluding to the success that came out of the rubbles (particularly for carpenters) (Koyama-Richard 47). Increased interests from the West have introduced the coup de grace of the ukiyo-e prints, the invention of photography (Wanczura).

The death of ukiyo-e later stimulated reminiscence of the old tradition. It finally became revived with the “New Prints” (Shin Hanga) movement during the Taisho and Showa periods. It was the rejuvenation of ukiyo-e traditions that was focused during this movement. These artists, in accordance to the saying “history repeats itself,” were influenced by Impressionism and included the elements of light and value alongside traditional ukiyo-e aesthetics. Watanabe became the prominent publisher in this movement, sponsoring low-income artists within the markets of the United States. The lesser-known Sosaka Hanga movement emphasized the creativity of the woodblock prints instead of the artisanship of the ukiyo-e process. Japanese art gained momentum on Western art influence in the wake of the war during the path of Japanese globalization. The Shin Hanga prints remained still popular over the Sosaka Hanga prints due to the Westerners’ strong interest in traditional looking woodblock prints (Wanczura).

The massive influence the history of ukiyo-e prints still exists in today’s modern society. Like the effects of Japonais, artists like Takashi Murakami began exploring contemporary art through interdisciplinary means. Murakami developed his theory of “Superflat” on the basis of the Japanese aesthetics, strongly involving the dissident ukiyo-e prints of the past. For many of his paintings, Murakami utilizes screen-printing techniques similar to the woodblock printing process (another form of printmaking). The ukiyo-e prints’ contribution to today’s era of entertainment is apparent in the otaku subculture, where anime and manga became a reigning influence in the youth of post-modern Japan. Japan’s observed infantilism was the root of many subject matter and content for today’s anime and manga, such as Sanrio’s “Hello Kitty.” This overly exaggerated yet simplified character is categorized by the term “kawaii” referring to “cuteness” in Japanese popular culture. Not many people can comprehend that “kawaii” was a direct response to the post-war events such as the United States’ occupation after Japan’s defeat and the hardships that ensued in the wake of Japan’s recovery from the atomic bombings (Hedge 28-31).

The essay draws connections between the art of Hokusai to today’s popular mangas such as “Death Note” and “Sailor Moon.” The legacy of ukiyo-e prints contributed to what we see today in animes and mangas. The flat colors, simple values (shadow and light), black outlines that form the shapes, subject matter, content, and flattened planarity are both shared between the prints and mangas. Even the production Japan has forged a unique artistic experience burdened with its unstable, seemingly haphazard history in today’s modern society (Hedge 28-31).

Figure 7: Takashi Murakami standing in front of one of his “Daruma” paintings, inspired by the Eccentric painters of the Edo period, emphasizing the isometric planarity and flat, bold colors. Narr, Sam. Takashi Murakami. 2011. Painting. Blogger. Web. 14 Nov 2011..

The history spearheaded by the developments of ukiyo-e prints can be compared to the tumultuous waves of Hokusai’s woodblock prints. In figure one’s depiction of the human struggle against the forces of Mother Nature, it reveals the sensibilities of Japanese societies at that moment in time. Though in times of desperation and conflicts, Mt. Fuji still peers through the endangered villagers battling the natural villain that has been a part of Japanese history for thousands of years. From the echoes of time initialized in the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate to the rebirth of ukiyo-e during modern Japan, lies a legacy of a unique Japanese aesthetic and artisanship resonated from the chaotic history the nation endured. The woodblock prints in it became historical impressions, as it transformed Japanese society. The unique and enigmatic nature of ukiyo-e has inspired many Western artists in their own body of works. Its rich history contributed to our contemporary culture, even outside of Japan. Despite its ongoing ups and downs, the ukiyo-e prints’ exclusive ride alongside Japanese history made it a strong artistic contribution towards global humanity.

Works Cited

Hebdige, Dick. “Flat Boy vs. Skinny Boy: Takashi Murakami and the Batle for “Japan”.” ÓMURAKAMI. Ed. Paul Schimmel. Rizzoli International Publications, 2008. 14-51. Print. I have had this anthology of art essays related to Takashi Murakami and his body of work in my collection for years. It includes a number of essays that add explanation of his “Superflat” theory. It was derived from the influences of the Eccentric painters of the Edo period and the Japanese aesthetics of flat, bold colors and flat perspective lack of values suggesting shading and lighting. Gives insight in the precursors of modern managa existing in Japan and many other Western nations.

Hirano, Chie. “THE TRAINING OF UKIYO-E ARTISTS, CARVERS, AND PRINTERS AND THE TECHNIQUE OF MAKING PRINTS (from Kiyonaga, A Study of his Life and works).” The Encyclopedia of Woodblock Printmaking. The Encyclopedia of Woodblock Printmaking/James Mundie, n.d. Web. 12 Nov 2011.. I came across this page in the search for the traditional woodblock printing process. This website provides a wealth of credible information extracted from numerous, cited literature on the subject matter. In contrast to the other sources that illustrates the ukiyo-e creation process, this is a much more detailed literature and will prove very useful for my research.

Kleiner, Fred. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History. 13th ed. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2009. Print. This is a textbook I have had in my possession for several years from my art history courses. This book provides short descriptions on hundreds of artists from around the world and different periods of time. It gives detailed insight from an art historical perspective, and more specifically the subject of ukiyo-e. It gives insight on the history, culture at the time, and the process of creating a woodblock print. This source is extremely credible and has been peer reviewed. The information provided will help me strengthen my thesis statement, origins, history, and the woodblock print process.

Koyama-Richard, Brigitte. One Thousand Years of Manga. 1st ed. Flammarion: Flammarion, 2007. Print. This book has been in my collection for years and has assisted me in my research in the otaku culture of Japan and the history of manga, reaching its origins several hundred years. The information provided gives insight on specific artists of ukiyo-e, events that occurred in the Edo period, and its purpose. With this coming from a credible source, I can add strength to the history of ukiyo-e and connect this art form to Japanese history with an economical, cultural, and political perspective. With this advantage, my research will be more focused on Japanese history, not Japanese art history.

Munro, Majella. Masterclass: Understanding Shunga: A Guide to Japanese Erotic Art. 1st ed. London: MacHo Ltd, 2008. Print. This book has been in my collection for years and supplemented research on personal academic and artistic endeavors. Though the book is about the origins of “shunga” (erotic woodblock prints), it still provides insight on Japanese history during the Edo period to the Meiji period and the ukiyo-e process. Detailed analysis of the effects of Tokugawa rule in relation to ukiyo-e is also well presented in this source.

Sakata, Shane. “Ukiyo-e – Woodblock Prints .” The Nihon Sun: Japan’s Online Culture & Travel Magazine. WordPress, 02 Sep 2009. Web. 12 Nov. 2011.. This source was acquired through a search on Google on the history of ukiyo-e. This blog website covers articles on experiences with culture and travel in Japan. This article will be particularly useful because it provides information on the different types of woodblock print and illustrates specific positions in the woodblock printing process.

Schirokauer, Conrad, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay. A Brief History of Japanese Civilization. 2nd ed. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006. Print. This is a textbook from my Japanese History course that offers a variety of information that contributes towards the historical perspective of my research essay. It provides credible strength to multi-faced histories surrounding the time of the ukiyo-e birth till the decline in the Meiji period.

Schultz, Anna. “On the essence of things; the floating world of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).” Berlin Art Link. Berlin Art Link, 11 Aug 2011. Web. 12 Nov 2011. . This brief article was found on Google while searching for a quote illustrating the term “floating world.” Though this source mostly talks about the artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), an important quote from one of Asai Ryoi’s literary works titled “Ukiyo Monogatari” (“Tales of the Floating World,” c. 1661) helps in the understanding of the concept behind the “floating world.”

Wanczura, Dieter. “Ukiyo-e.” Artelino. Artelino GMBH, 2009. Web. 12 Nov 2011. . I stumbled upon this source on Google in a search for information regarding the timeline of ukiyo-e history. This website is actually a family-owned business located in Germany to serve as an online art auction, particularly woodblock prints. Though established only in 2001, they became a credible business by having success in their sales and participation with over 800 online auctions. The buyers are art buyers, professional art dealers, and artists. This article they have composed is filled with information regarding ukiyo-e from a Japanese art historical perspective. It addresses history from the Edo period to “The Sosaku Hanga Movement.” This source will supplement the historical portion of this research.



About Julian Peña

I'm a visual artist and student currently in progress to attaining a Bachelors of Fine Arts. I've been creating fantastical works of art since I was at the age of 13 years old. My work is transcendent beyond the material world and life itself. The paintings are polychromatic and visually exciting, while still maintaining a level of harmony. The subjects in many of these works of art may not exist at all despite what we perceive. It is a play on perception, an attempt to engage the viewers. I has earned numerous scholarships, participated in several group exhibitions, and already organized my own solo exhibition (CMYK, 2011). My meticulous and unique style is visually arresting. New ideas are constantly being examined and then visually communicated. Come check out my works at! I am is also currently part of the 253 Collective (a co-op) in downtown Tacoma. I currently live and work out of my loft in downtown Tacoma, WA.


  1. Pingback: The Art of Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849) Part 1 | Legend of the Tengu Prince

  2. Pingback: Katsushika Hokusai Part II “Journey to the Waterfalls in All the Provinces” | Legend of the Tengu Prince

  3. Pingback: Katsushika Hokusai Part III | Legend of the Tengu Prince

  4. Thank you so much for joining my little community of blog followers, Julian. I also enjoyed reading your piece about Ukiyo-E. I love the fact that Hokusai is referred to as a Manga artist. It makes the art seem even more wonderful.
    Besides writing fantasy action adventures, I am also learning how to draw Manga as well as create anime film.

    Wishing you the very best in the New Year of the Water Dragon. I look forward to reading your blog as well.

    • No thank you :D! I’m happy to hear what you say about my blog. I’m kinda new, but I want to gain a strong web presence to coincide with my career as a visual artist.

      I’ve always wanted to start reading fantasy type novels. I was obsessed with the Final Fantasy video game franchise for awhile, the closest to anything in regards to role-playing. Just like you I am also learning to draw manga. I have been doing it since I was young but I still see many more room to improve.

      I wish you very well and look forward to enjoy your blog :D.

  5. Pingback: Cultural Appropriation & The Floating World | smut & sensibility

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