Tom on Japan

Collecting Japanese Prints – Part III

Collecting Japanese PrintsMEIJI ERA (1868-1912)

In 1868 the era of rule by the shogunate military government formally came to an end and the era of the Emperor began anew—the Meiji Restoration. (“Meiji”—meaning “enlightened rule”). During the Edo era discussed in the last article successors to Japan’s long line of emperors hadn’t disappeared, but existed as figureheads while shoguns held the real power, nominally ruling in the name of the era’s emperors.

Under the shoguns Japan had been largely isolated from the West, except for a small Dutch trading area permitted on a tiny island in Nagasaki since the 17th Century. But all that began to change with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry’s squadron of “black ships” in Japan in 1853. That arrival marked the start of what was to become enormous internal upheaval in Japan along with huge Western influence on many aspects of Japanese life—from its military and politics to it’s clothing and art.

One aspect of that influence was the introduction of photography to Japan. Another was lithography, which allowed for far larger and more economical print runs than the traditional method of doing every step by hand. And so with this sudden introduction of modern methods to Meiji-era Japan traditional Japanese print-making began a decline that was not to be reversed until early in the 20th Century. A great many people who had made their living in printmaking began to find themselves out of work. By the turn of the 20th Century traditional Japanese woodblock printmaking was a mere shadow of its former existence.

But this decline was more quantitative than qualitative as some of the greatest prints in the history of the genre are in fact Meiji-era prints. This brings us to Yoshu Chikanobu (1838-1912) and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), each of whom represented a completely different style of print.


Chikanobu produced a number of stunningly beautiful triptychs (three-panel prints) featuring women wearing finely detailed kimonos in a variety of indoor and outdoor settings. Words can’t begin to describe these striking triptychs so we won’t even try. Suffice it to say that they are unforgettable, and for many Western viewers will be the Japan of their imaginations. Most dealers in Japanese prints keep at least a handful of Chikanobu triptychs in inventory, so you should have no difficulty finding examples of his work. A beautiful triptych in great condition and with fine detail in the subject matter—in the women’s kimono designs for example—typically will sell for $600 or more. Prints in lesser condition or with less popular or less detailed subjects can be had in the low hundreds of dollars.


Yoshitoshi was an artist of immense skill and creativity, known in large part for his dynamic prints based on Japanese historical and mythological subject matter—and for his ghosts. His best prints are as unforgettable as those of Chikanobu, though in a completely different way—as will be immediately apparent when you have a look. Sample prints from his 100 Aspects of the Moon series, and his triptych Fujiwara Playing the Flute By Moonlight—incredible masterpieces which grab and yank you right into the subject. The Moon prints in reasonably good condition typically run $600 or more. The dozen or so most popular prints from this series and in excellent condition run in the thousands of dollars. And Fujiwara?—well, $10,000 in okay condition and $18,000 or higher in excellent condition. But without question a sublime masterpiece.

Also have a look at examples from Yoshitoshi’s series 32 Aspects of Women, fine portraits of bijin-ga (beautiful women) across social classes and portrayed in a variety of everyday activities. These portrayals are rendered with exquisite detail, beautiful color, and captivating humanity and personality in the subjects. Unfortunately, most of the time there are very few of these portraits on the market, and when you do find them they aren’t cheap. In excellent condition they easily can sell for $1000 to $2000 and higher.

Finally, have a look at some of Yoshitoshi’s prints based on Japanese historical and literary themes. Many of those prints, like those of Kuniyoshi discussed in the last article, are brilliant masterpieces.

But they, along with his other works mentioned, assure Yoshitoshi’s place in the pantheon of the Japanese woodblock print genre. His work taken as a whole arguably makes him a culminating figure in the history of the genre—at least prior to the 20th Century. Figures of comparable significance in the West might be Michelangelo in the Italian Renaissance, and Johann Sebastian Bach in the Baroque period of European Music.

Other Meiji Artists

Here are a couple more artists you might like. Ogata Gekko (1859-1920) and Mizuno Toshikata (1866-1908) each produced highly romanticized print series evocative of traditional Japan. Gekko’s series Comparison of Beauties and Flowers and Toshikata’s Thirty-six Selected Beauties frequently portray women in settings with nature featured prominently. Toshikata’s prints in his series go a step further by showing women across a variety of Japanese historical eras.

Some of the Gekko prints in Beauties and Flowers are particularly interesting in that they suggest subjects immortalized in French Impressionism. Take a look at Gekko’s Yellow Mountain Rose (Yamabuki) and see if Renoir floral and garden subjects don’t come to mind.

Each of these artists produced beautiful work, available today as original prints which are affordable. Your budding collection might include examples in the $75-$250 range, with specific price depending on subject matter and condition.

Before moving on to the next article, we need to introduce the most important Japanese print term of all. It’s going to have a lot more meaning now that you have some background than it would have in the first article.


You’ll often see the term Ukiyo-e (pronounced ooo-key-oh-eh) used synonymously with the generic term “Japanese Prints.” Sometimes you’ll see it as a catch-all phrase for the Edo and Meiji eras combined. But technically speaking it refers only to the Edo-era prints we discussed in the last article. The term translates to “Pictures of the Floating World.” “Ukiyo” goes back a long way in Japanese history, when it had a completely different meaning from how it came to be applied to Japanese prints of the Edo period (17th through mid-19th centuries). Originally a spiritual (Buddhist) term referring to the impermanence of our worldly existence, Ukiyo in the 17th Century turned that meaning on its head by saying in effect, if life is short why not make the most of it—in a material sense.

One way for the prospering 17th and 18th Century merchant class to do just that was to collect the new, inexpensive prints, which were a reminder of all life has to offer, materially. And life did have a lot to offer—from entertainments like the kabuki theater, teahouses and sumo wrestling—to brothels and,later, pleasure trips (touring). The shogunate sought to keep things from getting out of hand, and so set up “pleasure” districts where these entertainments could be concentrated and controlled.

Pleasure districts played an important role in the developing woodblock print industry, and only partly because they were a focal point for a number of landscape and city-view prints. (See Hokusai’s Mount Fuji Seen From the Senju Pleasure Quarter, as one example.) Prints featuring pleasures—such as well-known kabuki actors, courtesans and geishas—were appreciated much like Hollywood fan magazines in modern times in America. And like other magazines which found favor in the modern world, there was an entire genre of print devoted to sex (“Shunga” prints).

So that’s “Ukiyo-e”—pictures of the Floating (impermanent) World. You’ll see that term a lot. (The suffix “-e” means “pictures”—or prints—you’ll often see it following the Japanese word for the subject of any particular print genre—such as “kacho-e,” flower and bird prints.)

In the next two articles we’re going to talk about how to care for your prints so you can enjoy them for a long time, and maybe pass them on in great condition to the next generation.

© 2014 Tom Silver


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