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Ukiyo-e Art of Floating World

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In the last article series, we presented the story of Shunga ”(春 画 Shunga) a Japanese erotic art. This is in a branch of a traditional art called Ukiyo-e Now let’s talk about this kind of art.

Ukiyo-e (浮世 絵) means “a light world” or “floating world”. This word was originally a Buddhist term that refers to the transience of life and freedom from freedom. Later it was transformed into a word that refers to the urban lifestyle of the Edo period. The people from the Edo period were obsessed with secular matters, fun, and entertainment. With the support of the economic and social economy, entertainment products such as novels or graphic novels were widely popular. The images present the story of life in society are therefore called ukiyo-e, meaning “Picture of the world drifting”

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 Many people think that Ukiyo-e is just a woodblock print, but in reality, woodcut prints are just one of the ukiyo-e manufacturing techniques. Ukiyo-e is also produced in other techniques, such as painting on paper, on silk scrolls (painted with paint or ink), but the ukiyo-e usually uses a production system. A lot of iterations are used in the woodcut printing technique to create a mould by carving the wood into the desired pattern and printing it out. A single mold may print hundreds of images until the die is worn or broken. Therefore, these images are affordable and can easily be bought by the general public. Unlike traditional paintings, scroll paintings are often very expensive and are painted upon request by the nobility, Shogun or royal court as they were in a position to possess these scrolls.

Ukiyo-e is a collaboration between the painter and the publisher. Where the painter takes the original painting and sends it to the printing house to make  it into a mold and print out in large numbers to sell to the villagers, shops, markets at affordable prices. Sometimes it is used as a seal label. Artists will receive compensation from the original work, a  percentage of sales and the reputation as an artist. As for the printing house, it receives the percentage  from the sales profit. This can be considered as an ancient printing industry trick  but of course, some painters can make their own prints as well) thi is a true integration of art and commerce.

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Although early prints had only one color, the need for color to express it more so as to make it more beautiful resulted in the development of a colorful printing technique called Nishiki-e (錦 絵) which means “image of silk used to make kimono” with a variety of vivid colors. In Ukiyo-e, it is often a story that deals with city life. Poetry illustrations were shown in  city trade stories in the entertainment district (such as Yoshiwara, Edo’s most important mundane district), In the theaters portraits of Kabuki opera performers, sumo wrestlers, and  service women were hung on the walls  of geishas (motels) and brothels, etc.

Ukiyo-e gained popularity in the late 17th century and began to deteriorate as Japan entered the opening of the country in the 19th century.Connecting to the Western world has replaced the stunning modern culture and technology such as photography. On the other hand, ukiyo-e is printed as labels on various types of merchandise and was sent to the West where it became popular among foreigners and became an influence on the modern art trend. It influenced Impressionism and post Impressionism as well, and artists such as Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Pierre -Auguste Renoir), Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas, etc. referenced Japanese art trends with ukiyo-e. This was called Japonisme.

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Today Ukiyo-e is not only providing inspiration for modern printmaking art in terms of technique and creativity. It has also influenced today’s pop culture publications such as posters, flyers, manga or Japanese manga, etc., as well as being the inspiration for the creation of contemporary art by artists from all over the world. It was learned that this kind of great art originated and was driven by such a sales trade. And still some will say Capitalism is really bad.


Book: Floating World: Japan in the Edo Period Author: John Reeve Published by: BRITISH MUSEUM

Book: Hokusai by Gian Carlo Calza / Hokusai Katsushika Published by: Phaidon, 2003, [2004]

Book: Katsushika Hokusai by Chaiyos Itvoraphan, Visual Nonfiction Publishing House, 2009.

The Ukiyoe article of Chaiyos Isvorapan, Journal of Japan Message No. 71 July-September 2011

Ned comics

Picture reference:

  1. The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1829–1833) by Hokusai, the great ukiyoe artist of the Edo period. Woodcut prints on paper, pictures from
  2. Ōtani Oniji III in the Role of the Servant Edobei (1794) by Toshusai Sharaku, woodblock print on paper, photo from
  3. 3.Kushi (Comb) (1785) by (Kitagawa Utamaro) Woodcut print on paper, photo from

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