Japanese Woodblock Print Terms

Glossario - Glossary

- Print Subjects
Print Classes
Print Types
Format and Orientation
Terms Used to Describe Condition
- Printing Technical Terms

Printing Effects
Other Woodblock Terms
General Terminology
Japanese Historical Periods

Print Subjects

Aragoto: Literally, 'rough stuff', a vigorous but stylized form of acting in the Kabuki theatre, often associated with brightly-painted geometric designs on the faces of the actors; a common style of of yakusha-e.

Bijin: Literally, 'beautiful person'; the term for a beautiful woman; from which comes bijin-ga, the term for pictures of bijin, often geishas or courtesans, that being one of the original canonical forms for woodblock prints.

Geisha: Literally, 'art person'; female performers who specialize in entertaining and providing companionship to men at dinner parties and similar venues. They are skilled in classic Japanese arts such as music (especially the playing of the stringed samisen), poetry and calligraphy. They first appeared at the start of the Edo period, as an off-shoot of the group of highest-class courtesans.

Genji: The great novel of classical Japanese literature, "The Tale of Genji", detailing the lengthy and complex love adventures of Prince Genji; written by the Lady Murasaki Shikibu in the late Heian period. A favourite subject of ukiyo-e artists of the nineteenth century, hence Genji-e, or illustrations of the Genji story. A number of parodies of the original novel were also popular during this period, especially the Inaka Ganji, or 'Rustic Genji'.

Kabuki: The popular theatre (as opposed to the more aristrocratic Noh theatre), which uses elements of dance and music as well as acting. Hence kabuki-ga, theatre prints, also a classic original woodblock form. Kabuki was started around the time of the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate. After brief spells using female and boy actors, both banned by the Shogunate because of morality issues, the Kabuki theatre switched to using male actors. They appear in painted faces, unlike the masks of the Noh theatre.

Kyoka: A type of humorous poem in waka form; that is, one with thirty-one syllables. Kyoka verses are often included in prints, especially in surimono.

Onnagata: After women were forbidden from acting in the Kabuki theatre, there appeared a class of actors who specialized in women's roles, the onnagata.

Print Classes

E-goyomi: Literally, 'calendar prints'; surimono which gave identity of the long and short months (the Japanese year was divided into months of 29 and 30 days) for that year. Since production of calendars was a monopoly of the government, one denied to general publishers, this information was usually woven into the design in some cunning manner.

Kacho-ga, Kacho-e: Prints of birds and flowers.

Mitate-e: Mitate are contemporary recreations of well-known scenes from history or myth; hence mitate-e, prints in this mode, often with a parody in mind.

Musha-e: Originally, paintings of historically important warriors; also includes warrior prints.

Okubi-e: So-called "large head" bust portraits, showing just the head and shoulders of the subject.

Sansui: Landscape (literally 'mountains and waters'); hence sansui-ga, landscape scenes.

Shin Hanga: Literally, 'new prints'; the resurgent Japanese woodblock print movement beginning in the Taisho period, which joined traditional Japanese woodblock subjects and printing techniques, together with Western drawing techniques, to revitalize the traditional woodblock print.

Shini-e: Prints commemorating the death (literally, 'death pictures') of some important person from the "Floating World". Most depicted Kabuki actors, but some prints also commemorated woodblock artists, and on occasion musicians. The deceased is usually portrayed in light-blue robes (associated with death), and the print usually includes the date of the person's death, their age, their posthumous Buddhist name (kaimyo), and the location of their grave. Some also included the death poem of the deceased, or memorial verses written by friends or associates.

Shun-ga: Erotic prints (literally 'spring pictures', a typical euphemism for erotica); another of the classic original woodblock forms.

Sosaku Hanga: Literally, 'creative prints'; a Japanese woodblock print movement of the 20th century which utilized Western concepts of art; both in the production, in which the artist was more involved in the production of the prints (often undertaking the entire process on their own), and in the subject matter and presentation, which was that of modern art.

Surimono: Literally, 'printed things'; privately issued and distributed prints, mostly produced in small numbers. Most had poetry (usually comissioned by private poetry clubs) or calendars on them, and were often used as invitations, notices, holiday and greeting cards, etc. They were usually very finely printed, with elaborate and unusual printing techniques such as use of powdered metals.

Uki-e: Perspective prints; i.e. prints done with the newly introduced Western perspective technique, as opposed to the classical Chinese method of portraying depth and distance.

Ukiyo-e: Literally, 'pictures of the floating world'; a term originally used to describe actor and courtesan prints depicting life in the Epicurean world of the Edo middle-class, the chonin, the so-called "Floating World". Now used to describe woodblock prints in general.

Yakusha-e: Prints of Kabuki actors; one of the first major types of Japanese woodblock prints, and a mainstay of the field down to this day.

Print Types

Aizuri: Literally, 'blue printing'; a later artistic effect in which the color blue (typically the newly introduced imported Prussian blue, also called Berlin blue - hence its Japanese name of berorin burau - which was a brighter and longer-lasting pigment than the fugitive native vegetable blue) predominates. Introduced in part as a response to sumptuary laws which limited the number of colors that could be used in a print, it also was commercially successful, in part because it became fashionable because of the Japanese fascination with new things. Hence aizuri-e, pictures in this technique.

Benizuri-e: Literally, 'pink printing pictures'; benizuri was an early technique for producing color woodblock prints, which used two color blocks, a light green, and a light red. Hence benizuri-e, pictures in this technique.

Mizu-e: Literally, 'water picture'; woodblock prints printed in a pale vegetable blue, from the 1760's; very rare.

Nishiki-e: Literally, 'brocade picture'; woodblock prints printed in multiple colors.

Sumizuri-e: Literally, 'black ink printed pictures'; sumi is the name for black India ink. Hence sumizuri-e, a print done in black and white, although sometimes one finds shades of grey as well, as in Hokusai's famous and fabulous illustrated book, "100 Views of Fuji".

Format and Orientation

Harimaze: Prints of two or more (usually three to five) images on one sheet; originally intended to be cut out and displayed separately.

Hashira-e: A tall, narrow print used on pillars.

Kakemono: A hanging scroll, with a long and narrow format; hence kakemono-e, a tall, narrow format composed of two oban-sized prints, one above the other in a vertical diptych.

Uchiwa-e: Fan prints; usually in the shape of a rectangle with the longer axis horizontal, with rounded corners, and a cutout at the bottom.

Tateban: Also tat-e and tat-eye (the latter transliteration now obsolescent); vertical (i.e. portrait) orientation.

Yokoban: Also yok-e and yok-oye (the latter transliteration now obsolescent); horizontal (i.e. landscape) orientation.


Oban: By far and away the most common print size; about 15" x 10" (38cm x 25cm).

Chuban: A small somewhat common print size; half an oban, about 10" x 7" (25cm x 19cm).

Yotsugiri: A fairly rare small print size; half a chuban, about 7" x 5" (19cm x 13cm).

Mitzugiri: A very rare small print size; one third of an oban, divided along its short axis; about 10" x 5" (25cm x 13cm).

Chu-tanzaku: A very rare long print size; half an oban, divided along its long axis; about 15" x 5" (38cm x 13cm).

Aiban: A fairly rare print size, roughly halfway between chuban and oban; about 13" x 9" (34cm x 23cm).

Koban: A fairly rare small print size; half an aiban, about 9" x 7" (23cm x 17cm).

Ko-yotsugiri: A very rare small print size; half a koban, about 7" x 5" (17cm x 12cm).

Ko-tanzaku: A very rare long print size; one third an aiban, divided along its long axis; about 13" x 3" (34cm x 8cm).

Hashira-eban: The size for hashira-e; varies depending on the time period, but normally about 29" x 5" (68-73cm x 12-16cm). In later times, this was produced by gluing together two hosoban sheets, one vertically above the other.

Hosoban: A fairly rare narrow print size; about 13" x 6" (33cm x 15cm); more common in older prints of the eighteenth century, although still used for kacho-ga in the nineteenth.

Shikishiban: A mostly square format, usually of heavy paper, often used for surimono; about 10" x 9" (26cm x 23cm).

Terms Used to Describe Condition

Woodblock prints have their condition rated on a scale which usually includes "poor", "fair" (sometimes "moderate"), "moderately good", "good", "very good", and "fine". This gradation is applied to several different aspects of the print:

Color: How clear and bright the colors of the print are today; in part this refers to fading of the dyes, but it may also refer to yellowing or browning of the whole print, etc. Many prints are printed in vegetable dyes which are subject to potentially severe fading if exposed to sunlight; others (particularly in later prints) use chemicals which sometimes degrade on exposure to air.

Impression: How good an impression the print was when new; i.e. (principally) how worn were the blocks, but also how much care was used in registering the different colors, how careful the printer was with printing, and effects like bokashi, etc.

General Condition: This includes both impression and color, but also takes into account such things as: whether the print is trimmed (removing not only the margins, but in many cases censor, publisher, date and other seals); whether the print has been repaired; whether the print is soiled; whether the print has any stains; whether the print is worn from handling; whether the print has creases from being folded; and whether the print has any wormholes or other damage.

Toned: This term is used to refer to paper that has turned brownish. Toning can be caused in a number of ways; most commonly, it is caused by a faint acid residue acting on the paper of the print, over a period of time. The acid may be present for one of two reasons; either the print itself is printed on non-acid-free paper (generally this is only seen in prints from the early Meiji period), or the print was mounted in a frame using materials which were not acid-free. (If the toning is caused by acid, the acid will also tend to make the paper friable.) Toning may also be caused by exposure to sunlight, or by cigarette smoke.

Printing Technical Terms

Baren: The circular flat pad (usually made of a bamboo sheath wrapped around a flat coil of straw and/or bamboo fiber), used to press the print down on the block during the printing.

Kento: The registration marks (one right angle, into which the corner of the paper fits, and one straight one, along one of the adjoining edges) used to ensure registration of the different colors in nishiki-e print.

Keyblock: The first block carved in the process of creating a woodblock print; it prints the thin black outlines, and prints pulled from this block are used in the creation of the blocks for printing the colors.

Printing Effects

Bokashi: A shading or gradation in the depth of the color, produced by a number of different techniques, such as:

* wiping the blocks after the application of the ink;
* using brushes with varying color intensity and moisture level;
* rubbing the block with a damp cloth before applying the ink.

Karazuri: Literally 'empty printing'; an embossed printing effect, a technique called gauffrage in the West. Produced by hard pressure on an uninked block, with the print dampened.

Kirazuri: Use of fine mica flakes scattered on the print while the ink is wet; produces a subdued sparking effect.

Mokumezuri: Use of a densely grained woodblock which has been soaked in water to emphasize the pattern of the grain, used in some prints to print areas of woodwork portrayed in the print. Sometimes called itame mokuhan, literally 'imitation woodgrain'.

Shomenzuri: Literally 'front-printing'; a polishing technique similar to gauffrage, which was used to produce intricate patterns on black areas of some prints; a carved block was placed behind the print and the printed surface rubbed with a hard polisher (often a boar's tusk).

Other Woodblock Terms

Aratame: Literally, 'examined'; a character found in many censor seals.

Kiwame: Literally, 'approved'; a character found in many censor seals.

Nanushi: Literally, 'mayor' (of a village or town); the name for a group of censors who examined woodblock prints in the period 1842-1853.

Toshidama: Literally, 'New Year's jewel'; the seal of the Utagawa school, usually a circle, with a zig-zag in the upper right-hand corner. Sometimes it is enlongated into a vertical oval, and used to contain the artist's signature.

General Terminology

Chonin: The townpeople, who whilst theoretically the lowest social class under the Tokugawa Shogunate, soon became economically the most powerful class, causing severe strains to the social system set up by the Tokugawa. Their inability to rise in status caused much of their spare energy and wealth to be spent in diversions, including the Kabuki theatre, and ukiyo-e prints.

Daimyo: A major feudal lord, of whom there were several hundred in Japan during the Edo period. They held fiefs of widely varying sizes (measured in terms of the income they produced, in rice).

Go: The 'art name', a pseudonym, or pen-name used by an artist. Often passed down in a school, from the old head to the new head.

Kakihan: A pseudo-character ('hand-seal') used by an artist or crafstman as a signature; often highly cursive, as opposed to normal Japanese characters, which are made up of a number of strokes.

Kata: Originally, the basic forms in a martial art; it later came to mean an accepted way to present a particular well-known Kabuki theatre role. These were adopted by print artists, often with liberties which would interest and amuse the viewers.

Mie: A tense pose struck by a Kabuki actor at a specific point in the action, often standardized as part of the kata of a given role.

Mon: The Japanese equivalent of family crests or coats-of-arms; almost always a circle with a design (which may be either purely geometric, or inspired by nature) inside.

Nengo: Shortly after a new emperor of Japan assumes the throne, an official name is chosen for his reign, one with auspicious overtones. These reign names, which are also used to name eras in Japanese history, are referred to as nengo. In the more distant past, emperors would sometimes assume a different nengo during their reign to commemorate some notable event, but this practise was stopped some time ago. When an emperor dies, his nengo becomes his official posthumous name. Thus, the emperor Hirohito (reigned 1926-1989) is now known as the emperor Showa (literally, 'Enlightenment and Harmony'). Previously, the nengo were selected by the imperial court; starting with the reign name of Hirohito's son Akihito, Heisei (literally, 'Achieving Peace'), they are selected by the government.

Noh: The classical theatre (as opposed to the more popular Kabuki theatre) of the pre-Edo period, using masks (which have since become a famous art form in their own right).

Samurai: Literally 'one who serves'; a member of the warrior class, which was the highest ranking social class during most period of Japanese history. The samurai lived by elaborate social and military codes, part of which was called bushi-do, literally 'road of the warrior'.

Seki: A control barrier of the Tokugawa government, to control and maintain traffic throughout the land. A total of 55 of these stations were set up the Tokugawa government along the Tokaido.

Shogun: The Shogun was the military ruler of Japan during various periods (see below), who whilst theoretically "appointed" by the emperor, actually seized power via a military revolt, and used the emperor as a figurehead. The Shogunate was also known as the Bakufu, or 'tent government', emphasizing the military base.

Japanese Historical Periods

Asuka (552-710): During this period, Chinese influences appeared in Japan, a written language started to appear, and the first organized states appeared in Japan, with their capital in the Asuka valley.

Nara (710-794): Veneration of the Guatama Buddha was the lodestar of Japanese culture, and imitation of the Chinese was rampant, including the capital city of Japan at Nara, south of Kyoto, modeled after the Chinese capital of T'ang China, Sian.

Heian (794-1185): The indigenous Japanese culture reappeared; whilst on the political scene, the Emperors, now living in Heian-Kyo (now known as Kyoto) became cloistered figureheads and the court turned to refinement and sophistication, and the aristocratic Fujiwara family ran the country.

Kamakura (1185-1333): A struggle for power between the two chief families, the Taira and the Minamoto, produces the office of Shogun, with their capital at Kamakura (on the coast of Sagami Bay, immediately to the Southwest of Tokyo Bay); Zen Buddhism appeared in Japan, as well as tea-drinking.

Muromachi (1333-1568): The Kamakura Shogunate, weakened by the invasion of the Mongols, fell to a restored Imperial rule, but feuding lead to the creation of two Imperial courts (1336-1392), and later the internecine Onin Wars (1467-1477); the first Europeans arrive, and introduce Christianity.

Momoyama (1568-1615): Three successive warlords, Odo Nobunaga (assasinated 1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (died 1598) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (died 1616) reunified the country, ending with the Tokugawa victory at Osaka in 1615; Zen arts such as the tea ceremony, sumu-e (ink-painting) and garden design become popular.

Edo (1615-1867): The Tokugawa Shogunate kept an iron grip on the country, and tried to keep out foreign influences, and freeze the social structure, but under the surface slow change occurred, with the declining influence of the samurai and the rise of chonin; in the peace, a thriving popular culture grows up, with theatre, prints and other popular art forms.

Meiji (1868-1912): After the arrival of U.S. ships demanding the opening of Japan, in 1854, the power of the Shoguns, hollowed out over the centuries, fell in the Meiji Restoration, and the Imperial system was restored, in league with a massive effort to modernize the country, during which the old feudal Japan all but disappears almost overnight.

Taisho (1912-1926): During this period, while the modernization and industrialization of Japan proceeded, the Japanese became convinced that Japanese culture could be preserved, while incorporating the best of Western ideas and technology.

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