12 January - 12 May 2019

Masters of Japanese prints: Life in the city

In Japan in the Edo period (1603-1868), the Shōgun (military dictator) ruled over a hierarchical society. At the top were the samurai warrior class and regional lords (daimyō), then came farmers, and at the bottom, merchants and other townspeople.

Japanese cities, especially Edo (today’s Tokyo), grew rapidly. Despite being lowest in the social order, many merchants and townspeople were comfortably off. They could afford fine fashion, trips to restaurants and the kabuki theatre as well as the services of courtesans (high-class prostitutes).

City residents and visitors were avid customers for images of these city pleasures, or ‘floating world’ as it was sometimes called. This fuelled a boom in woodblock printing, as artists worked with publishers and print workshops to supply demand.

This exhibition is selected from Bristol Museum’s collection of 500 Japanese woodblock prints.

This exhibition is the second of three that will showcase Bristol Museum & Art Gallery’s Japanese woodblock prints, one of the top five regional collections in the UK.

This exhibition was developed with a Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Research Grant from Art Fund. Thank you to our Exhibition Sponsor Inside Japan.

Thriving cities

By the 1700s Japan’s capital city Edo (now known as Tokyo) had more than a million inhabitants. It was one of the largest cities in the world. Kyoto, the former capital and the trading city Naniwa (now known as Osaka) each had over 300,000 citizens.

All these townspeople needed to be fed, housed and entertained. Woodblock prints give us glimpses into the complex urban life of Japan at the time.

City entertainments

People in Edo (Tokyo) and other cities could enjoy a wide range of entertainments. They could watch performances of theatre, puppet theatre and acrobatics, visit temples and shrines and take part in the many seasonal fairs and festivals.

For those with money, fashion and shopping were important pastimes. Customers could purchase an ever-changing range of elegant goods although they had to be careful not to be seen to be too lavish or to ‘get above their station’ socially. The government of the Shōgun (military dictator) passed many laws to regulate spending (‘sumptuary laws’), aiming to control society and to avoid political threats.

Eating and drinking

Residents of the capital Edo (Tokyo) and other Japanese cities had many options for eating and drinking out. This was one of the pleasures of city life for those who could afford it.

People could enjoy refreshments at tea-houses and restaurants at scenic spots on river-banks and by temples. For a novel experience, they could climb aboard a floating restaurant.

The large number of single men who lived in Edo on a temporary basis as followers of daimyō (feudal lords) probably boosted the trade in fast foods such as sushi, noodles and deep-fried tempura.

Women of the ‘pleasure districts’

Japanese cities had high levels of prostitution. Depending on their wealth, men could buy a range of sexual services from women and men.

The government created special districts for prostitution in Edo (Tokyo), Osaka and Kyoto to try to keep the industry under control. Edo’s ‘pleasure district’, the Yoshiwara, was surrounded by a moat and had only one entrance. It contained brothels, theatres and tea-houses, a ‘floating world’ set apart from real life.

High-ranking courtesans (prostitutes) paraded through the streets of the ‘pleasure districts’ wearing the latest fashions to attract customers. They were among the celebrities of their age, and people bought colourful woodblock prints of this aspect of city life. However, prostitutes of any rank had little chance of leaving their employment, they were effectively enslaved.

Geisha also worked in the ‘pleasure districts’. They were professional entertainers, skilled in the arts of music and conversation and forbidden from selling sexual services.

Kabuki theatre

Kabuki theatre was one of the most popular entertainments in Edo (Toyko), Osaka and Kyoto. Theatre fans loved watching actors and musicians perform the plays which combined stylised drama and dance.

Customers were eager to buy souvenirs of their favourite actors in particular roles. Publishing houses sold more woodblock prints relating to kabuki than any other subject. They worked with artists and craftsmen to develop attractive colour images.

Individual actors belonged to different acting families, often starting to work as young children. From 1629 only male actors were allowed to perform in kabuki so all female parts were played by men.

The actor Ichikawa Monnosuke I, about 1721 by Torii Kiyotada (worked 1720–50)

The actor Matsumoto Sankichi with a hawk, about 1760 by Torii Kiyomitsu I (1735-85)

Iwai Hanshirō IV as Hisamatsu, 1788 by Katsukawa Shunkō (1743-1821)

The actor Nakamura Jūzō II, 1773 by Katsukawa Shunkō (1743–1821)

The actor Ichikawa Danjūrō V as Sakata Kintoki [right] and Sawamura Sōjurō III as Minamoto no Raik¯o [left ], 1781 by Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1793)

The actor Ichikawa Danjūrō V and his son at a temple for a Kaichō, about 1782 by Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1793)

The actor Ichikawa Komazō III as Ten-Ichi-Bō, about 1780 by Katsukawa Shun'ei (1762-1819)

The actor Ichikawa Danjūrō V as Tomomori, 1784 by Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1793)

The actor Segawa Kikunojō III as Fox Ōkiku, 1782 by Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1793)

The actor Segawa Kikunojō III, about 1780 by Katsukawa Shunkō (1743–1821)

Ichikawa Masugoro as Kanpei [left] in Act V of A Treasury of Loyal Retainers, about 1780 by Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1793)

Playbill for Season-opening Programme, Naka Theatre, Osaka, 11th month, 1812 by Okayama Shigenobu (birth and death dates unknown)

Playbill for Season-opening Programme, Kita Theatre, Kyoto, 11th month 1817 (anonymous artist)

Backstage at the Season-opening Performance of the Morita Theatre, Edo (Tokyo), 1812 by Utagawa Kunisada I (1786-1864)

Theatres in Nichōmachi, 1832-38 by Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797-1858)

A Moonlit Evening in the Theatre District, 1864 by Utagawa Kunisada I (1786-1864)

The actor Sawamura Kunitarō II as Ushiwakamaru [Right] and Arashi Kitsusaburō I as Kumasaka Chōhan [Left], 1827 by Ganjōsai Kunihiro (active 1815–1843)

The actors Ichikawa Ebijūrō I as Ukisu no Iwamatsu [Right], Arashi Kitsusaburō II as the Farmer (Hyakushō) Jūsaku [Centre], Arashi Kitsuzō as Jūkichi, and Sawamura Kunitarō II as Jūsaku's Wife (Nyōbō) Okinu [Left], 1827 by Gigadō Ashiyuki (active 1814–35)

The actor Segawa Kikunojō III as Ohan, 1781 by Katsukawa Shunshō (1726–1793)

Horse Dance in Izu Highway One, 1764 by Torii Kiyomitsu (1735–1785)

Kimono and haori coat for a kabuki actor, Japan, about 1870–1900.

The Ichimura theatre, Meiwa period (1764–72)

Related objects

An ABC of Japanese family crests, 1881

Samurai, courtesans, actors and other townspeople had circular or square family crests (mon) included in the designs of their kimono gowns and other belongings. This helped to distinguish one family or business from another. This book shows over 1000 different crests with designs based on natural motifs, animals and distinctive objects. 00284TEA

The actor Ichikawa Komazo, reproduction set, about 1985-2017

Tōshūsai Sharaku (active 1794–95)
Printed by the Nagao workshop, Tokyo

Here you can see some of the 17 stages required to make one of Sharaku’s designs. Some of the colours, such as the black, are overprinted at the end of the process to create a richer result. Purchased with the support of the Friends of Bristol Art Gallery, 2017. Or2017.14

Woodblock, about 1805-1840

Possibly Kikukawa Eizan (1787-1867)
Wood, possibly cherry

The artist depicts a beautiful woman with a loosely tied gown and elaborate hairpins. The title of the print, ‘Fan of Fashionable Three Beauties’, is a fan shape at the top. The current owner has rubbed the design with chalk to reveal the design.

On the lower right corner you can see an L-shaped mark and further along on the lower edge, a straight mark. These are registration marks (kento): as each print used different blocks to print different colours, these marks allowed the printer to line up the paper on the blocks so the colours were in exactly the right place.

Lent by Dr Malcolm Campbell


An ABC of Japanese family crests, 1881

The actor Ichikawa Komazo, reproduction set, about 1985-2017

Woodblock, about 1805-1840

Shop Masters of Japanese Prints

Cake Shop Waitress Print

356 x 280 mm mounted print. Cake shop waitress with a bag marked ‘Famous rice-cakes’ by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806).

Japanese Prints: Ukiyo-e in Edo, 1700-1900

Stunning new photography of both well-known and rarely published works in the collection of the British Museum.

In Sensō-ji Temple Hardback Journal

Hardback journal with lined pages. From the series Eight Views of Kinryusan, Asakusa by Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1812).

Thank you to everyone who donated to the Japanese Prints conservation appeal, without whom display of this work would not have been possible.

With particular thanks to Simon Baker, John and Susan Hart, Shelagh Cutner, Roger Feneley, The Davidson Charitable Trust, Sir James and Lady Virginia Tidmarsh, Katherine Croft, Dr and Mrs Hibberd, as well as the many Friends of Bristol Art Gallery members and Bristol Museums Development Trust donors who supported the appeal and exhibition.