The first prints in Japan appear in the 13th century. Between the 13th and the 16th century, woodcuts – always with a religious subject – are found in temples and monasteries. There are also illustrated texts amulets (o-fuda) for pilgrims. At the beginning of the 17th century, Japan enters the Edo period and the production of prints changes radically. The artists represent “ukiyo”, i.e. the “floating world”. The word contains the Buddhist sense of a world without permanence, and the pictures represent the hedonistic lifestyle as it develops itself in front of our eyes, its precarity and shakiness. Yet, without religious content. From the very first works of Ukiyo-e (“e” means “picture”) of the 17th century, the artists represent the furious life of a society that changes and tends towards the pleasure of everyday life. This meaning goes through centuries and the Ukiyo-e, although the subjects are evolving with the history, the society and its occupations. Woodblock printing, with the special technique of “Mokuhanga” plays then the role of the technique that allows a cheap reproduction and dissemination of the artists’ works.
The technique remains the same up to now. At the beginning, woodblock prints were monochrome and then they became colour prints with the perfection of the technique by Suzuki Harunobu around 1760, other than the illustration of cheap editions of books.
Various subjects are used in Ukiyo-e. The initial subjects are representations of the urban life: entertainment scenes, sumo wrestlers, famous Kabuki actors, street sights, beautiful and well dressed prostitutes from the “green houses” (whore houses) of the famous Yoshiwara neighbourhood in Edo (modern Tokyo). The bijin-ga (pictures of female beauties) go through centuries and reach the 20th century. The same applies to shunga (erotic scenes) despite censorship. In the 18th century the range of subjects widens with more developed scenes that characterise a society of entertainment with scenes from everyday life and amusement. By applying the western perspective, during the first half of the 19th century, many artists, other than the subjects then in vogue – flora and fauna – create landscapes and develop the rendering of the everyday life with scenes from domestic and street life. At the end of the 19th century, concurrently with traditional subjects, the Ukiyo-e show also the penetration of western elements in the representations and the influence of the artistic currents on the artists’ style.
With Hokusai and Hiroshige, around 1830, meisho-e (pictures from famous places) reached a level of unparalleled quality. The aspect of two of the most important bridges of Edo, especially Ryōgoku bridge – a theme in his work – appears in some of his series from 1831 to the recent one, the masterpiece A Hundred Views of Edo in 1856-58. In this work, he adopts the vertical format (tate), which is quite rare for landscapes in his works, particularly long and narrow. He also selects an unusual framing, with pieces from two bridges, the centre of Ryōgoku and the beginning of Μoto-Yanagi, with the first of its well known willows. Small human figures walking on the bridges or working on boats, integrated in their great environment, liven up the view in Z shape, with the traditional Japanese perspective (bird’s eye view).
The copies of the first printing are few and valuable, protected in the collections of museums and collectors, they are rarely exhibited. However, the way these woodblock prints are made – the painter gives his drawing to the printmaking workshop, printmakers-craftsmen, often anonymous, and printers who undertake the printing of plates – as well as the great interest for Ukiyo-e of both the Japanese people and the Western world, request since the 19th century the “authentic” reproduction of woodblock prints: the work is accurately redrawn, usually with the same dimensions, the plates are similarly recut, and printed using the same technique and the same colours.
Sadao Watanabe, is a very special Christian printmaker rendering his prints in the mingei (folk art) tradition of Japan. He uses the katazome technique (a Japanese traditional method of dyeingfabrics with stencil). The theme of Watanabe’s prints is exclusively the Holy Scripture.
Modern young printmakers from Japan embody the trends and concerns of printmakers from all over the world. Although they all stand out due to their excellent technique, some follow closely the roads of local technique Mokuhanga, others experiment with western traditional and modern techniques, with combined techniques. Figurative or abstract, their prints are released from the standard subjects to express with their creator’s personal language their inner or outer world.