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History of Woodblock Printing in Japan

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Woodblock printing was a very important art form in Japan. In this lesson, we are going to explore the history of woodblock printing and see how it impacted Japanese arts.

Japanese Woodblock Prints

Printing is a pretty useful technology. It lets you reproduce information much more quickly, which makes that information more available. However, printing technologies didn't only impact the written word. Around the world, printing also became an important part of art.

This was especially true in Japan, where woodblock printing came to define the national aesthetic. Woodblock printing involves the engraving of an image or words onto a block of wood, which is painted with ink and pressed against paper. As long as the woodblock survives, you can reproduce that page countless times. This technology became extremely important to Japanese arts, and printed images became among the most celebrated popular works. In fact, woodblock prints were so influential that they've defined Japanese arts to this day; the aesthetics of both manga and anime are directly descended from woodblock prints. So, let's take a look at this history, and see how it came to define Japan.

Early Printing

The basic technique of woodblock printing was developed in China in the 7th century CE, and possibly earlier. That's the origins of all printing technologies of East Asia. Chinese woodblocks made their way to the seclusive islands of Japan in the 8th century, and the technology was adopted.

For the first several centuries, woodblock printing was used almost exclusively to reproduce written works, notably Buddhist texts and Chinese political philosophy. Printed texts of this time were almost always foreign. In fact, it wasn't until the 1500s that Japanese literature and philosophy started to appear regularly in print.

With the printing technologies of the time, printers could create monochromatic pages only. Since they were mostly printing written works, this was enough. Every now and then, however, illustrations were added to the texts. When images were printed, they were also monochromatic and had to be painted in by hand. So, we can see how an artistic culture based around printing would be time consuming and not highly practical.

Early prints like this had to be painted by hand
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Nishiki-e

For centuries, woodblock printing was focused primarily on the reproduction of the written word, not images. This changed in the Edo Period of Japanese history (1603-1868). In 1765, a new type of woodblock printing was invented which allowed printers to accurately stamp multiple blocks on the same piece of paper, one after the other. What this meant was that rather than printing a single, monochromatic image all at once, artists could now divide the image into different colors, and apply each color with a different woodblock. This new, polychromatic printing style was called nishiki-e.

So, what did they print with this new technology? The very first nishiki-e prints were calendars, which were traditional gifts given at the beginning of the new year. Wealthy citizens of Edo started buying printed calendars, rather than painted ones, using the ceremony of gift giving to patronize the new printers creating multi-colored images.

From calendars, woodblock printing quickly spread into other established art forms as well. Most importantly, woodblock printing became closely associated with an artistic style known as ukiyo, which literally means ''floating world.'' Ukiyo paintings were scenes of daily life that had become popular in the early Edo period. They showed people engaged in court life, daily chores, or individual hobbies, and focused heavily on the pleasure districts of the city.

Kabuki theater was a favored subject of ukiyo-e
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With the new printing technologies, ukiyo paintings became ukiyo-e, pictures of the floating world. When people think of Japanese woodblock prints, these are the images that most often come to mind. Ukiyo-e became one of Japan's most beloved art forms, and the prints were purchased enthusiastically by people across the nation. As time passed, they became more and more complex. Every color had to be added with a new woodblock, so some of these prints required up to 20 woodblocks to complete.

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