Ukiyo-e Explained

Ukiyo-e Explained

One of my patrons asked me to create an episode about Japanese art. And while I loved the request, I felt a bit lost. What does one consider Japanese art? Buddhist sculpture? Nihonga? Sumie? Does calligraphy count?

And while yes, all these count as Japanese art, speaking of it most people will not imagine any of the above. Instead, you’ll think about the great wave, the Utamaro beauties, the plum garden from one of Van Goshs paintings or some other ukiyo-e woodblock print.

We know ukiyo-e as the masterpieces of Japanese art, but they were not supposed to become ones.

During the Edo Period, Ukiyo-e prints were a part of popular culture, cheap everyday objects, magazines of a kind. Were they even considered art? Were they collected? Did painters become rich and famous for drawing them?

Let’s find out.

Part 1 – From Moronobu to Utamaro


  • What is Ukiyo-e?
  • The birth of ukiyo-e
  • Hishikawa Moronobu and sumizuri-e
  • Torii school and tan-e
  • Beni-e, Urushi-e and the first colour prints
  • Harunobu and the first full-colour prints
  • Beauties of Kiyonaga and Utamaro
  • The mystery of Sharaku

Part 2 – Hokusai, Hiroshige and Japonism movement


  • The spirit of Edo and censorship
  • Warriors and monsters of Kuniyoshi
  • A man crazy about art – Hokusai and Prussian blue
  • The ultra-famous Hiroshige
  • Opening of the country and pictures of foreigners
  • Ukiyo-e goes West! Van Gogh, Monet, Dega and Japonism
  • The death and revival of Ukiyo-e
  • From sketch to print: the making of ukiyo-e
  • BONUS: Genres of ukiyo-e explained (available on Patreon)

If you liked this episode, don’t forget to subscribe. Or maybe leave me a comment or buy me a coffee:


Now, as usual, let’s look at what else you can read and watch about the topic. Or, like in the case of the first book I mention, what not to waste your time and money on. Ukiyo-e is a very popular topic and while there are plenty of good works about it, there are plenty of bad ones too.

First, it’s like the title says – impressions. And what’s worse, the impressions of two different people merged together without bothering to specify to whom each part of the book belongs.
The story jumps from the history of Ukiyo-e to the 47 ronin, from one artist or school to another. The illustrations (at least in the e-book) seem to be placed randomly as they don’t match the period and painters discussed on the pages around.
Being an unstructured impression it is very difficult to read. But this might have also been poor translation.
Plus nobody tells you that all impressions in the book are more than 100 years old. At some point, you start guessing it, but it should have been stated up front.
I managed to read one third and dropped out.
Biggest waste of time in a very long while.

Chapter IV is dedicated to Ukiyo-e and has a very brief yet structured and informative overview of the topic.

The kitchen of Ukiyo-e. This book is not about the prints themselves, but about people who made them. About teachers of famous painters, about patrons of art and publishers who made things happen. And it’s a very pleasant read.

Prints are great, the book is bad. There was so much to be said (or even just translated from the prints themself) that brief two-three line descriptions are an insult to the reader.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, it's easy to read and it explores ukiyo-e from a different perspective: instead of taking the usual chronological approach, the author introduces it genre by genre.
The illustrations are great too.
But on the other hand, separating works by genre makes it difficult to grasp the general changes in ukiyo-e. Different facts and events related to the same period are mentioned in different chapters and are at times hard to put together.
So I would definitely not recommend this book to somebody new to ukiyo-e. But it can be a nice addition if you already read a couple of books on the topic.
One more thing, there are small but obvious mistakes.
Horyu-ji temple is said to be located in Kyoto instead of Ikaruga (Nara), clearly male kabuki actor is called a woman in one of the descriptions. There are probably more that I forgot or didn't notice.
After seeing them I had to question the author's credibility for the rest of the book. Fortunately seems like I've been worrying for nothing.
I liked the concept of the book and the prints are beautiful, but typos and small mistakes spoil the experience.
The confusion with Takanawa/Shinagawa/Shinbashi stations, the non-existent 'Kawasaki prefecture', a courtesan called geisha on one of the prints from Kyoto section, Mount Yoshino presented in Kyoto chapter instead of Nara, etc.
Can people proofread or do I want too much?
This book is many things at once. It's a great work on the development of ukiyo-e, a collectors manual and a book that makes you think about art and appreciation of it in general.
I wouldn't recommend it as a first book to read on the subject, but for somebody already familiar with ukiyo-e it is a very pleasant read.

What to watch

I couldn’t find it anywhere, but maybe you’ll get luckier

A bit too flashy for my taste, but yet very informative show about the everyday life of Edo as shown on ukiyo-e.

Japanology Plus episode pretty much repeats the BEGIN Japanology one, so you can easily skip it.

  • David Bull’s YouTube Channel

The best source of knowledge about ukiyo-e on YouTube, this channel shows how prints are designed, carved and printed, talks about history and culture related to Japanese woodblock prints and teaches you how to appreciate them today. Here are some of my favourite videos:

  1. Japanese Woodblock Printmaking step by step with explanations
  2. Woodblock Printing Process from the perspective of the printer
  3. David’s Choice series
  4. A Printer’s Tools and Workspace
  5. Hakobi pigment brushes
  6. Seditious Beauty – Can art change history?
  7. David’s Choice – Episode #8 Hakkei
  • Horiguchi Masumi Chanel

Horiguchi Masumi is a historian, writing about Edo period. In her videos she covers all aspects of life in Edo and ukiyo-e are often featured to illustrate it. Slowly her videos are getting English subtitles, so let’s hope one day you’ll be able to watch and understand them all. Here are a few videos on the topic:

  1. The amazing rainy day UKIYOE which surprised the world
  2. 浮世絵の暗号解読 あなたは解ける?!~おとなの教養♪浮世絵講座②~
  3. アニメ・漫画の原点! 「浮世絵」って何? ~おとなの教養♪浮世絵講座④~
  4. 江戸の美人図鑑~あなたはどのタイプがお好き?~

A modern take on Ukiyo-e. As you learned from the episode, ukiyo-e is not defined by the method but by the subject. And this artist is creating 100 views of Tokyo just like Hiroshige once made 100 views of Edo.

Brilliant. It is totally worth 2 hours of your time.

Pretty old, sometimes outdated and a bit boring at times, it’s a very good overview of the history of ukiyo-e.

The movie tries to guess where did Sharaku come from and why did he disappear without a trace.

Support Japan Explained on Patreon to unlock the access to the post with travel suggestions for the episode.

Talk to you soon. Bye!

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