Ukiyo-e: Japanese Woodblock Prints

As the Bookbuilders of Boston intern at the Burns Library for this year, I’ve been able to learn about the variety of collections housed within the library and spend some of my time focusing on the works that interest me most. This semester, I have primarily been studying the collection of Japanese woodblock prints, which includes over 150 individual images that were produced from the middle of the 18th century up until the middle of the 20th century. The majority of the prints in the collection can be categorized as “ukiyo-e,” which identifies them as a type of art produced in Japan during the Tokugawa era (1603-1868), when Japan was closed off from other countries.

“Under the Wave off Kanagawa” by an unknown artist after Hokusai, Japanese Prints Collection, MS.2013.043, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

“Under the Wave off Kanagawa” by an unknown artist, after Hokusai, Japanese Prints Collection, MS.2013.043, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The term ukiyo, formed of the characters “uki” (suffering) and “yo” (world), originated in Buddhist practices to refer to “the condition of impermanence created by daily life and its desires.” This concept urged people to concentrate on the ephemeral state of existence and not fixate on material possessions. At the start of the Tokugawa era in Japan the term began to shift in its meaning and use, with a different kanji, 浮 (also pronounced “uki”) replacing that of “suffering” to convey the idea of a “floating world.” This phrase was applied to the emerging culture of pleasure, parties, and a preoccupation with the present moment that had begun to develop in major cities such as Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo). Throughout the Tokugawa era the term ukiyo became synonymous with the increasing obsession with fashion, kabuki theatre, and pleasure districts. Ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) rose to prominence in the 17th century as increases in agricultural production drove economic development, allowing urban life to expand and giving rise to a literate, wealthy merchant class interested in supporting art that represented their own lifestyles. Ukiyo-e included paintings, screens, and illustrated books, but the focus of the movement was on the creation of woodblock prints. Hosoban (“pillar”) sized ukiyo-e prints in particular became popular in 1718 and helped shift the conception of ukiyo-e from mass owned commodities to a legitimate art form. Popular ukiyo-e subjects were famous kabuki actors, courtesans, and sumo wrestlers. Other frequently used themes were famous teahouses, city quarters, historical heroes, ghosts, erotic scenes, and most aspects of ordinary life, with landscape prints beginning to appear in the 1830s.

“Part of the Byôdô-in Temple at Uji” by Hasui Kawase, Japanese Prints Collection, MS.2013.043, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

“Part of the Byôdô-in Temple at Uji” by Hasui Kawase, Japanese Prints Collection, MS.2013.043, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The ukiyo-e woodblock prints were traditionally created on cherry-wood blocks using a negative copy of an original sketch by an artist that was then carved out along the outlines. Prints were usually created in orders of 400 to cover initial expenses and then reprinted if the image proved successful. One ukiyo-e print could be re-created in three different editions depending on whether it was a first or second printing for buyers in Japan, or if the print was being remade with the intention of exporting it to foreign markets. A traditional ukiyo-e print would be the product of the work of four to five different people, with the artist having no hand in the physical production of the print. The design would be created by the artist with consultation from their publisher, which would then be given to skilled craftsmen who carved out the design and sent the woodblock to another group of specialized workers who would print the actual image. Popular sizes of ukiyo-e prints included the hashira-e (pillar print) which measured 70cm by 12cm, the chuban (medium) which measured 28 cm by 20 cm, and the hosoban (narrow) which measured 33 cm by 14.5 cm, in addition to other varying sizes. Ukiyo-e prints were initially created entirely in black ink, while hand-applied colors began to be used in 1688 with limited options of tan-e (“orange-red pigment pictures”) or beni-e (“rose colored pictures”) used until the development of full color woodblock printing in 1765.

“Nichiren Praying for Rain at Ryôzengasaki in Kamakura in 1271”by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Japanese Prints Collection, MS.2013.043, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

“Nichiren Praying for Rain at Ryôzengasaki in Kamakura in 1271”by Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Japanese Prints Collection, MS.2013.043, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The multi-stage process of creating an ukiyo-e print required a group of individualized craftsmen, which became a point of contention during the resurgence of ukiyo-e prints in the Meiji (1868 – 1912) and Taisho (1912 – 1926) eras. While the strong push for modernization during the Meiji period left the traditional practice of ukiyo-e in decline, woodblock prints continued to be produced with the traditional themes of kabuki actors and beautiful women, as well as images showing Western influences in Japan. Scenes featuring Western clothing and inventions, and battle scenes depicting the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, became popular in the middle of the Meiji period. In the 1910s, a publisher named Watanabe Shozaburo sought to revitalize the traditional ukiyo-e focus on kabuki actors and native landscapes, forming the shin-hanga (“new print”) movement, which emphasized the original collaborative process of different craftsmen and artists creating each part of the print. This contrasted with the competing art movement of sosaku-hanga (“creative prints”) that emerged at a similar time and valued the creation of woodblock prints made entirely by one artist, for the sake of art. These competing movements contributed to the continued production of woodblock prints in Japan. Meanwhile, many Western artists had begun to take notice of ukiyo-e prints, beginning in the mid-19th century after Japan ended its period of seclusion. Artists such as Edgar Degas and Vincent van Gogh (an avid collector of ukiyo-e prints) were influenced by the bold use of color and absence of shadow characteristic of the ukiyo-e genre.   This collection will be open to researchers soon, and we hope you will visit us to study these beautiful prints. For more information on this collection and others, please contact the Burns Library at 617-552-4861 or

  • Erin Furlong, Bookbuilders of Boston Burns Library 2013-2014 Intern and A & S, Class of 2014.
“Irrigation, As Seen in Sado” by Hasui Kawase, Japanese Prints Collection, MS.2013.043, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

“Irrigation, As Seen in Sado” by Hasui Kawase, Japanese Prints Collection, MS.2013.043, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

For more information about Japanese woodblock prints, check out:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Japanese Woodblock Prints

The Art Institute of Chicago: East Meets West – Japonisme and Impressionism

Japanese Woodblock Print Search Database

 MIT Visualizing Cultures: Woodblock Prints of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95)


Berglund, Lars. “The Art of Ukiyo-e – A Short Historical Survey.” In Impressions:                       Japanese prints and paintings In the Utagawa tradition, edited by The Utagawa                Society of Japan. Nagano: Soei Publishing, 1994.

Calza, Gian Carlo. Ukiyo-e. London: Phaidon, 2005.

Jenkins, Donald. “A Mirror on the Floating World.” In Designed for Pleasure: The World of         Edo Japan in Prints and Paintings, 1680 – 1860, edited by Julia Meech and Jane                Oliver, 15-32. Singapore: Asia Society and Japanese Art Society of America, in                      association with the University of Washington Press, 2008.

Kobayashi, Tadashi. Ukiyo-e: An Introduction to Japanese Woodblock Prints. Tokyo:               Kodansha International, 1992.

Smith, Lawrence. “Japanese Prints 1868-2008.” In Since Meiji: Perspectives on the                   Japanese Visual Arts, 1868 – 2000, edited by J. Thomas Rimer, 361-407. Honolulu:           University of Hawai’i Press, 2012.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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