“The Fascinating History and Influence of Ukiyo-e Prints: From Wrapping Paper to Political Propaganda”

art ukiyo e

Ukiyo-e prints, which originated in Japan during the Edo period, were not only admired for their artistic value but also served practical purposes. One fascinating aspect of ukiyo-e prints is their use as wrapping paper for perishable goods.

1-1. Ukiyo-e prints used for wrapping perishable goods

During the Edo period, when ukiyo-e prints were at the height of their popularity, people found a creative way to utilize these prints as wrapping paper. Since ukiyo-e prints were often produced in large quantities, they were readily available and affordable. This made them a convenient choice for wrapping perishable goods such as fish, vegetables, and fruits.

Imagine walking through the bustling streets of Edo (now Tokyo) and coming across a vendor selling fresh fish. Instead of using plain, unappealing paper to wrap the fish, the vendor would use a vibrant ukiyo-e print. This not only added a touch of beauty to the packaging but also helped to preserve the freshness of the goods.

1-2. Censorship and banning of scandalous ukiyo-e prints

While ukiyo-e prints were widely enjoyed by the general public, their popularity also attracted the attention of authorities who sought to control the content that was being depicted. Some ukiyo-e prints were considered scandalous or inappropriate, often depicting explicit scenes or political satire.

To maintain social order and uphold moral standards, the government implemented censorship measures and even banned certain ukiyo-e prints. These prints were seen as a threat to the established hierarchy and were deemed unfit for public consumption.

For example, the famous ukiyo-e artist, Kitagawa Utamaro, was known for his sensual and provocative prints depicting beautiful women. However, his works were eventually banned by the government due to their explicit nature. Despite the censorship, Utamaro’s prints continued to circulate underground, becoming highly sought after by collectors.

The censorship and banning of scandalous ukiyo-e prints not only added an air of mystery and intrigue to these artworks but also highlighted their influence as a form of political propaganda. By controlling the content of ukiyo-e prints, the government aimed to shape public opinion and maintain social order.

In conclusion, ukiyo-e prints had a fascinating history and influence, from being used as wrapping paper for perishable goods to being subjected to censorship and banning. These prints not only served practical purposes but also reflected the social and political climate of the time.

2. Collaboration with poets and writers

2-1. Ukiyo-e artists collaborating with poets and writers

Ukiyo-e artists were not only skilled in creating visually stunning prints, but they also collaborated with poets and writers to create works that combined both visual and literary art forms. These collaborations resulted in a unique fusion of poetry and imagery, capturing the essence of the Edo period.

One famous example of such collaboration is the partnership between the ukiyo-e artist Kitagawa Utamaro and the poet Kitagawa Utamaro. Utamaro was known for his beautiful portraits of women, and he often worked closely with poets to create prints that depicted scenes from famous poems. The combination of Utamaro’s delicate brushwork and the poet’s lyrical verses resulted in prints that were not only visually appealing but also emotionally evocative.

Another notable collaboration was between the ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai and the writer Kyokutei Bakin. Hokusai’s iconic series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” featured landscapes of Japan, and Bakin provided accompanying text for each print. The combination of Hokusai’s detailed landscapes and Bakin’s descriptive prose brought the scenes to life, allowing viewers to immerse themselves in the beauty of Japan’s natural landscapes.

2-2. Creation of illustrated books

In addition to collaborating on individual prints, ukiyo-e artists also played a significant role in the creation of illustrated books. These books, known as “ehon,” featured a combination of text and images, making them popular among the literate population of the Edo period.

One famous example of an illustrated book is “The Tale of Genji,” which was illustrated by the ukiyo-e artist Tosa Mitsuoki. Mitsuoki’s intricate illustrations brought the characters and scenes from the novel to life, allowing readers to visualize the story as they read. The collaboration between the artist and the writer created a multi-dimensional reading experience that was both visually captivating and intellectually stimulating.

Another notable example is the book “Kanadehon Chushingura,” which was illustrated by the ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi. This book depicted the famous story of the Forty-seven Ronin, and Kuniyoshi’s dynamic and dramatic illustrations added an extra layer of excitement to the narrative. The combination of the gripping story and the visually striking illustrations made this book a popular choice among readers of the time.

The collaboration between ukiyo-e artists and poets/writers not only elevated the status of ukiyo-e as an art form but also enriched the cultural landscape of the Edo period. These collaborations allowed for the integration of different art forms, resulting in works that were both visually and intellectually stimulating.

3. Woodblock printing process and division of labor

Woodblock printing is a traditional Japanese printing technique that was used to create ukiyo-e prints. This process involved the collaboration of skilled craftsmen who each had their own role to play in the production of these beautiful prints.

3-1. Skilled craftsmen involved in the woodblock printing process

The woodblock printing process required the expertise of several skilled craftsmen. First and foremost, there was the artist who created the original design for the print. These artists were often well-known and highly respected in their field. They would sketch the design on paper and then transfer it onto a wooden block.

Next, there was the woodblock carver. This craftsman would take the wooden block and carefully carve out the design, leaving the raised areas that would be inked and printed. This required a steady hand and a great deal of precision.

Once the woodblock was carved, it was handed over to the printer. The printer would apply ink to the block using a brush, making sure to evenly distribute the ink. Then, they would carefully place a sheet of paper on top of the block and apply pressure to transfer the inked design onto the paper. This required a delicate touch to ensure that the print came out clean and crisp.

3-2. Division of labor in the production of ukiyo-e prints

The production of ukiyo-e prints involved a division of labor to ensure efficiency and quality. Each craftsman had their own specific role, and they would work together to create the final product.

For example, one workshop might have multiple artists who would create the designs for the prints. These artists would work closely with the woodblock carvers to ensure that their vision was accurately translated onto the wooden blocks.

In larger workshops, there would be specialized printers who were responsible for applying the ink and printing the designs onto the paper. These printers had developed their own techniques and styles, and their expertise was crucial in producing high-quality prints.

Additionally, there were craftsmen who specialized in coloring the prints. These craftsmen would carefully hand-paint each print, adding vibrant colors and intricate details. This added an extra layer of beauty and complexity to the finished product.

Overall, the division of labor in the production of ukiyo-e prints allowed for specialization and collaboration among skilled craftsmen. Each person played a vital role in the process, contributing their expertise to create these fascinating and influential works of art.

4. Ukiyo-e prints as advertisements and decline in popularity

4-1. Use of ukiyo-e prints for advertising

Ukiyo-e prints were not only used for artistic purposes, but they also found their way into the world of advertising. During the Edo period, merchants and shop owners began using ukiyo-e prints as a means to promote their businesses and products. These prints were often used as wrapping paper for goods, allowing customers to take home a piece of art along with their purchase.

One example of ukiyo-e prints being used for advertising is the series of prints known as “Meisho-e,” which depicted famous places and landmarks in Japan. These prints were often sponsored by local businesses and included their names and logos as a way to promote tourism and attract customers. For example, a print featuring Mount Fuji might include the name of a nearby hot spring resort, enticing viewers to visit and enjoy the natural beauty of the area.

Another popular use of ukiyo-e prints in advertising was for promoting kabuki theater performances. These prints, known as “yakusha-e,” featured actors in their roles and were distributed to advertise upcoming shows. The prints not only showcased the actors’ talents but also provided information about the plot and schedule of the performances. People would collect these prints as a way to keep up with the latest theater trends and plan their entertainment outings.

4-2. Decline in popularity with the rise of photography

Despite their initial popularity, ukiyo-e prints eventually faced a decline in popularity with the advent of photography. As photography became more accessible and affordable, people began to favor realistic depictions captured by the camera over the stylized and imaginative world of ukiyo-e prints.

Photography offered a new level of accuracy and detail that ukiyo-e prints couldn’t match. People were drawn to the ability to capture a moment in time with precision, rather than relying on the interpretation and artistic license of the ukiyo-e printmakers. Additionally, photography allowed for the reproduction of images on a larger scale, making it easier for mass distribution and advertising purposes.

The decline in popularity of ukiyo-e prints also coincided with the decline of the Edo period and the opening of Japan to the Western world. As Western influences and art styles began to infiltrate Japanese society, ukiyo-e prints lost their appeal to a new generation of art enthusiasts.

However, despite their decline in popularity, ukiyo-e prints continue to be appreciated and admired for their historical significance and artistic value. Today, they are treasured as valuable collectibles and can be found in museums and private collections around the world. The influence of ukiyo-e prints can still be seen in modern art and design, proving that their impact has transcended time and continues to fascinate art lovers today.

5. Influence on Europe and political propaganda

5-1. Exportation of ukiyo-e prints to Europe and influence on Art Nouveau

Ukiyo-e prints, with their vibrant colors and intricate designs, captivated the imagination of European artists and collectors in the late 19th century. These prints were initially brought to Europe as wrapping paper for imported goods, but their artistic value soon became recognized.

One of the most notable influences of ukiyo-e prints on European art was seen in the Art Nouveau movement. Artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh were inspired by the bold compositions and flattened perspectives of ukiyo-e prints. They incorporated elements of Japanese art into their own works, creating a fusion of Eastern and Western aesthetics.

For example, Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous poster for the Moulin Rouge, with its vibrant colors and stylized figures, bears a resemblance to the dynamic compositions found in ukiyo-e prints. Van Gogh, on the other hand, was drawn to the use of bold, contrasting colors and the emphasis on nature in ukiyo-e prints, which can be seen in his famous painting “The Courtesan.”

The influence of ukiyo-e prints on Art Nouveau extended beyond painting and printmaking. It also influenced the decorative arts, such as furniture and textiles. The use of organic forms, flowing lines, and nature motifs in Art Nouveau can be traced back to the influence of ukiyo-e prints.

5-2. Use of ukiyo-e prints as political propaganda

In addition to their impact on European art, ukiyo-e prints were also used as a form of political propaganda in Japan. During the late Edo period, when ukiyo-e prints were at the height of their popularity, they were often used to depict historical events, kabuki actors, and famous courtesans. However, they were also used to convey political messages and shape public opinion.

One example of ukiyo-e prints being used for political propaganda is the series of prints known as “The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido” by Utagawa Hiroshige. This series depicted the various stations along the Tokaido road, which was the main route between Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and Kyoto. While the primary purpose of the series was to showcase the scenic beauty of Japan, it also served as a way to promote the stability and prosperity of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Another example is the series of prints by Katsushika Hokusai titled “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.” This series not only showcased the iconic mountain from different perspectives but also depicted scenes of everyday life in Japan. By portraying scenes of ordinary people going about their daily activities, Hokusai subtly conveyed the message of social harmony and stability under the Tokugawa regime.

These examples demonstrate how ukiyo-e prints were not only a form of entertainment but also a powerful tool for shaping public opinion and promoting political agendas. The combination of visually appealing designs and subtle messaging made ukiyo-e prints an effective medium for political propaganda in Japan.


Ukiyo-e prints are a fascinating art form that originated in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868). Originally used as wrapping paper, these prints quickly gained popularity and evolved into a powerful medium for political propaganda and social commentary. In this article, we will explore the history and influence of ukiyo-e prints, from their humble beginnings to their significant impact on Japanese society.

The Origins of Ukiyo-e Prints

Ukiyo-e prints were first created in the late 17th century as a form of mass-produced art. They were initially used as wrapping paper for goods such as tea and rice, but their intricate designs and vibrant colors caught the attention of the public. Artists began to experiment with different techniques and subjects, leading to the development of ukiyo-e as a distinct art form.

The Golden Age of Ukiyo-e Prints

The 18th and 19th centuries marked the golden age of ukiyo-e prints. During this time, artists like Hokusai and Hiroshige produced iconic works that depicted scenes from everyday life, landscapes, and famous actors and courtesans. These prints were affordable and accessible to a wide range of people, making them immensely popular.

Ukiyo-e Prints as Political Propaganda

As ukiyo-e prints gained popularity, they also became a powerful tool for political propaganda. During times of social and political unrest, artists used their prints to express dissent and critique the government. One notable example is the series of prints by Kuniyoshi that depicted the exploits of historical heroes and warriors, subtly conveying messages of resistance and rebellion.

The Influence of Ukiyo-e Prints on Western Art

Ukiyo-e prints had a significant influence on Western art, particularly during the late 19th century. Artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet were captivated by the bold compositions and vibrant colors of ukiyo-e prints. They incorporated elements of Japanese art into their own works, leading to the development of the Japonisme movement in Europe.

Ukiyo-e Prints in Modern Times

Although ukiyo-e prints declined in popularity during the Meiji period (1868-1912) due to the introduction of Western art styles, they have experienced a resurgence in recent years. Collectors and art enthusiasts appreciate the historical and cultural significance of these prints, and exhibitions showcasing ukiyo-e prints continue to attract visitors from around the world.


Ukiyo-e prints have come a long way from their humble origins as wrapping paper. They have evolved into a powerful medium for artistic expression and political commentary, leaving a lasting impact on Japanese society and influencing Western art. The beauty and intricacy of ukiyo-e prints continue to captivate audiences, making them a cherished part of Japan’s artistic heritage.