Art of modernisation: Meiji-era woodblock prints

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Supporting our customers from the Nagoya office, Andrew Sinclair is a keen historian with an eye for art. Here he leads us from the days of the Samurai to the Meiji modernisation through the very Japanese medium of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints…

Think of Japanese art, and you’ll most likely picture ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints made famous by great artists like Hokusai and Hiroshige. Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave’ is one of the most reproduced prints in history, and when I became interested in ukiyo-e,  this and Hiroshige’s series like ’53 Stations of the Tokaido’ and ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’ gave me an enduring image of the Japanese landscape. I imagined a timeless, peaceful world, with small figures travelling to and from against majestic backdrops. In this world, feudal Japan is alive and well – everyone wears kimono, the traveller’s shelter under large conical straw hats, samurai swagger along the highways with their swords at their waist.

Narumi, as shown in Hiroshige's famous series
The 41st post station of the Tokaido road, Narumi, as shown in Hiroshige’s famous series.


A snow scene in Hiroshige’s Edo: within a generation, the city would look very different, and even the name would have changed from Edo to Tokyo.

However, even as Hiroshige was publishing his superb series on Edo in 1858, the world was turning upside-down around him. In 1853, US warships had arrived in Japan, jerking the country abruptly out of 220 years of feudal isolation. Fast-forward fifteen years, to 1868, and Japan was boldly launching itself into the Western world under the authority of the Meiji Emperor.

Meji Emperor
The Meiji Emperor was shown in print for the first time ever, nattily turned out in Western military uniform and sporting a trim beard and mustache.

The Meiji Period (1868-1912) is one of the most fascinating in Japanese history, I think. It saw Japan modernise at a terrifying and dizzying rate – in 1868, feudal samurai still ruled domains from their castle towns, and Hiroshige’s little travellers walked on through their timeless world. By 1912, Japan had defeated mighty Russia, was carving out an overseas empire and was clearly the dominant power in East Asia. The streets of Tokyo were lined with brick buildings, western clothes such as top hats and hooped skirts were the height of fashion, and samurai no longer existed, their place taken by a nationalised, conscripted peasant army armed with rifles and machineguns. If Hiroshige’s travellers wanted to go from Tokyo to Kyoto, they’d most likely use the steam train, not go on foot.


19th Century Tokyo
Central Tokyo, late 19th century. Hiroshige would recognise some of the elements here (the bridge, the pedlar with his yoke in the foreground) but almost everything else would be new.

In all this change, so the popular story goes, ukiyo-e had no chance to survive. Japan had turned its back on the past, and the few prints that did come out were debased and unworthy of belonging to the same genre as the old masters such as Hokusai and Hiroshige. The latter was even nicknamed the last great master of ukiyo-e.

However, as I learned, this is by no means the whole story, and if you ignore Meiji-era ukiyo-e you’re really missing out! Far from the Meiji period sounding the death knell of ukiyo-e, it was the last great huzzah of the genre. Japan’s always been a country where the old and the new have gone hand-in-hand, and ukiyo-e was no exception. The sudden opening of the country and the flood of new ideas included western ideas of art – new pictorial realism, perspective, lighting, printing and colouring techniques were all eagerly adopted by Japanese artists.

The topics themselves began to change, too. Freed from the stifling censorship of the old feudal regime, and given a whole new world to depict, Japanese artists threw themselves into showcasing the glories of this new age. The artist Kiyochika produced a stunning series on Tokyo, showing the changing face of the capital as it shifted from feudal castle town to industrialised capital.

Tokyo river image
A river crossing on the outskirts of Tokyo. The treatment of the light is very Western, but the river scene could come straight out of Hiroshige.


The Imperial Palace
The Imperial Palace on a snowy day – note the use of perspective on the line of soldiers. Unlike the older Edo-era prints, the Palace itself is shown in full focus, reflecting the importance of the Emperor in the new age.


Edo Fireworks
Another print that combines the old and new – the river fireworks festivals were celebrated back when Tokyo was still Edo, but the low perspective and realistic light would amaze the old artists.


Shinbashi station
A rainy night at Shinbashi Station. Shinbashi was Tokyo’s first station, built in 1872, and from there a line ran to the port at Yokohama. Kiyochika masterfully portrays the light reflecting off the wet ground.

I’m less fond of the so-called aka-e (red prints), though – these used new Western red pigments to show portraits and lurid landscapes of Tokyo. Vivid red dyes were a novelty, and I think the artists went overboard in their excitement – the garish pictures they produced have lost all sense of colour proportion! Give me the quiet understatement of Kiyochika any day.

Look at this thing - hideous!
Look at this thing – hideous!

An artist who was skilled at using the new red dyes, though, was Kawanabe Kyosai. I love his prints for the wild exuberance that bursts off the page! A bit of an oddball by all accounts, and someone who liked his drink, his satires and drunken antics occasionally landed him in trouble with the authorities. To me, though, Kyosai captures the dynamic imagination of the Meiji era better than any other artist. He was immensely creative and gifted with a sense of the absurd, weird and fantastic.

Fudo-Myo by Kiyochika
In this visually crowded print, Kiyochika shows the Buddhist deity Fudo-Myo indulging in Western pleasures that would have been familiar to a contemporary audience: reading the newspaper and eating meat.


Kiyochika satirises the Meiji trend towards universal education in his ‘School for Spooks’. A horde of traditional Japanese demons are crammed into school uniforms and subjected to literacy lectures. In the foreground, the wind blows a host of goblins away from the school.

While Kiyochika and Kyosai are at their best when showing the wonders of Meiji, other artists looked backwards to Japan’s rich history and traditions for inspiration. Of these, I’d choose Yoshitoshi as the best example, and of his works ‘One Hundred Aspects of the Moon’ is my personal favourite. The main theme is the moon, of course, but Yoshitoshi draws on hundreds of years of Japanese history and culture to tease out this theme – one print shows a samurai general under a dawn moon, blowing the conch horn to signal the attack, while others depict legendary scenes such as the celestial lovers meeting at the Tanabata festival.


Murasaki Shikibu
Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the famous Tale of Genji, gazes out across moon-lit mountains from Ishiyama Temple.


Mizuki Tatsunosuke
Yoshitoshi’s chosen the female impersonator Mizuki Tatsunosuke (a famous kabuki actor in the 18th century) as the subject of this print, strolling under the full moon and cherry blossom.

Magical foxes, evil witches and famous gallants all appear, all with some connection to the moon. Sometimes Yoshitoshi is very subtle and only includes the moon in the picture through allusions that a learned Japanese would be expected to pick up on. The whole series is wonderful in so many ways, with its wide range and artistry, it would be difficult to choose a favourite – but the picture of the monk Benkei, praying under the moon at Daimotsu Bay, is definitely in my top three!

Benkei and the storm
Confronted by a storm, the monk Benkei prays to quell the waves. The contrast between Benkei’s serenity and the raging waves makes this one of my favourite Yoshitoshi prints – though they are all great!

Another link to the past was provided by the artist Chikanobu, who was considered the master of bijin-ga, or paintings of beauties. Portraits of beautiful women were one of the central genres of ukiyo-e, and Chikanobu’s prints are among the best of the genre. In true Meiji style, though, Chikanobu didn’t just show pictures of traditional beauties – his prints also showed ladies dressed in the latest in Western fashion.

Fashion by Chikanobu
A triptych of beauties by Chikanobu. Note the fashionably-dressed lady third from right, in Western clothes.
Meji Fashion
Kimono, book (maybe a Bible?) and Western umbrella – the height of Meiji fashion.

Towards the end of the Meiji period, Japan’s war with China was provided one of the last ukiyo-e booms. The public was very interested in Japan’s first war of overseas conquest, and artists began churning out war prints to satisfy popular demand. These ranged from the derivative to genuinely good in their own right, and Kiyochika shines out as one of the best examples. In his war prints, blizzards swirl, shells crash in bursts of light, and troops battle atop city walls back-lit by flames. Looking at his prints, it’s easy to see some of the elements of today’s manga creeping in!

A soldier assaults a castle wall
A soldier assaults a castle wall. While the soldier’s pose recalls that of a kabuki actor, the stylised explosion hearkens forward to today’s manga.
Kiyochika strikingly uses the reflected light in the water to convey the action in this print, while the combatants themselves are virtually hidden in the darkness.


Naval scene
Naval action at sea. The violence of the bursting shells contrasts with the steely demeanour of the captain, and the steadiness of the crew – attributes the modern Meiji government was keen to play up.

Sadly, though, that would be the last swansong of the old ukiyo-e genre. The taste that defined the Meiji era, the taste for all things novel and Western, was fast overhauling ukiyo-e and artists just couldn’t make a living any more. Even the reportage-style prints that gave the public their images of war were being replaced by photography. The 1904-5 war against Russia did produce ukiyo-e, but they were far fewer and of less artistic quality. The stage was being set for a new kind of print, shin-hanga, but that’s another story!

I hope that in this article I’ve conveyed some of my enthusiasm for Meiji-era ukiyo­-e, and given you a taster of some of the great artists – Yoshitoshi, Kyosai, Kiyochika and Chikanobu – who are, in every way, the equal of their famous predecessors!

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