MIT Visualizing Cultures

Throwing Off Asia – Lesson 03

Bunmei Kaika: The Role of Art in Promoting Government Policy

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The Art of the Woodblock Print in Japan

The Japanese woodblock print is a traditional art form dating back to the mid-1600s, early in Japan’s Tokugawa period. Woodblock printing became popular as a way to inexpensively meet the growing demand for artwork by increasingly prosperous merchants and artisans, as well as other urban dwellers. Because printmaking replicates an image many times, it is an effective method for creating visual images at a cost far below that of paintings.
The Printmaking Process
In Japan, woodblock printing has traditionally been a collaborative project requiring the expert contributions of artists and master artisans. The print begins as a drawing designed by the artist. The artist also selects the colors to be used for the print. In Japan, woodblocks are printed on washi, a strong but supple paper made from any one of several plant fibers. The process is then turned over to a master woodcarver.
The woodcarving process is divided among a master carver, who carves the most difficult lines, and assistants, who carve remaining lines. The woodcarvers create a separate carved block for each color of the woodblock print. After colors are applied, the paper is placed on one block at a time and rubbed with a brush or pad made of bamboo sheath until all the colors are printed. The beauty of each print depends on the skill of the person who does the rubbing as much as it depends on the artist and the carvers. Shade and depth of color and detail depend on the pressure of the rubbing.
Tokugawa Woodblock Prints
In Japan, woodblock prints were an early popular art form, both in terms of audience and subject matter. At least one art historian has likened this art form to our contemporary poster and calendar art. During the Tokugawa period, woodblock print artists often took as their subject matter the everyday lives and pastimes of urban dwellers, particularly the lives of geisha, kabuki actors, and other entertainers. Prints with this focus were given the name ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world.” In the late Tokugawa period—the 1800s—woodblock print subjects expanded to include landscapes and scenic spots frequented by travelers.
Meiji Woodblock Prints
In the early Meiji period, woodblock prints evolved into an inexpensive way to inform the public. They were often used as illustrations in public information circulars and sold by itinerant vendors and wholesalers to Japanese of every age and walk of life. Woodblock prints during the Meiji period focused on current events, urban life, and social change. Woodblock print artists often made prints of events they had not witnessed, such as the arrival of Commodore Perry and his “black ships,” or of events for which they had only seen pictures themselves, such as the Japanese mission to the United States or the issuance of the constitution of 1889. However, by mass producing and distributing these images, the artists helped to create a common core of information (or misinformation) about current events in Japan.
It is important to note that all art, whether it intends to portray reality or not, depicts a point of view. The woodblock prints of current events and social change in Meiji Japan were no different. Through the prints, artists helped popularize and win support for Westernization among the Japanese public. Artists and woodblock print publishers agreed with the government’s promotion of modernization and served as unofficial agents of Meiji government policy. Woodblock prints announcing the latest in Western imports and new technology engaged the emotions of the Japanese public, prompting the social consensus needed to build a strong nation.
Throughout the Meiji period, woodblock prints remained an extremely popular form of informative art. Much of the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), Japan’s first major international conflict as a modern military power, was recorded through woodblock prints. However, by the end of the war, photography and lithography were becoming popular as more technologically advanced techniques for documenting events.

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