A Peek Into Mokuhanga - Traditional Japanese Woodblock Prints Appreciated Across the World

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by the Japanese artist Hokusai is arguably one of the most famous pieces of art in the world, with many people across the globe able to recognize it. Would you believe that the extreme level of detail shown in the artwork was achieved by a single slab of wood? For this edition of our “Culture of Japan” series, we visited The Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints, an organization that aims to keep the centuries-old traditional “mokuhanga” woodblock print techniques alive, to learn more about this historical and hypnotizing art that has taken the world by storm.

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Diving Into the Centuries-Old Traditional “Mokuhanga” Japanese Woodblock Print Techniques

Woodblock prints, or “mokuhanga” in Japanese, have been viewed by many across the world, especially with the popularity of “ukiyo-e” captivating international audiences for many years. 

The history of woodblock printing in Japan dates back centuries, but the woodblock printing technique is believed to have first been brought to Japan from mainland China in the Asuka period (550 - 710). Some of the earliest forms of woodblock prints included wooden tablets with characters carved into them for printing scriptures from Baekje, a historic Korean kingdom.

During the Heian period (794 - 1185), there was a boom in printed Buddhist sutras, which evolved into printed images of Buddha. Later, during the Kamakura (1185 - 1333) and Muromachi (1336 - 1573) periods, printed texts developed into an early yet advanced printing industry.

As the Edo period (1603 - 1867) welcomed a period of calm in comparison to the turbulent eras that preceded it, the common folk were able to enjoy the luxuries of culture, which included books and other printed forms of writing. This form of entertainment grew to include pictures in addition to text, which subsequently became appreciated on their own, and because these prints could be mass-produced, they were more easily, cheaply, and widely distributed. Although originally black and white, colors were gradually added until the vibrant pieces we know today came to be, now often categorized as “ukiyo-e.”

What Is Ukiyo-e?

Commonly translated as “pictures of the floating world,” “ukiyo-e” is a genre of vibrant woodblock images that flourished during the Edo period. Early subjects were centered around the pleasure districts and theaters but would grow to include people, landscapes, and flora and fauna.

The father of ukiyo-e is commonly accepted to be the Japanese artist Moronobu Hishikawa, whose works popularized the individual woodblock prints that are said to be the basis of ukiyo-e. His paintings portrayed beautiful women, striking kabuki actors, and scenes from urban life. Around a century later, ukiyo-e would become known across the globe, including The Great Wave off Kanagawa and the Morning View at Nihonbashi by Hokusai and Hiroshige Utagawa respectively.

Ukiyo-e: The Japanese Art That Became a Worldwide Phenomenon

This historical art took not only its home country of Japan, but also the world by storm in the 19th century, and is still widely appreciated today. At its peak, it even influenced famous European artists such as Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh, but what made ukiyo-e so popular in the West?

Meguri Nakayama, the president of the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints, theorizes that it is because ukiyo-e was “uniquely Japanese,” offering a stark contrast to art produced in the West at the time. It is an art form that was developed in Japan and took inspiration from Japanese life, and was a different medium than the oil paintings commanding the Western art world at the time. 

Ukiyo-e utilized different materials and featured Japanese patterns, creating a new visual sensation not yet experienced by many Western audiences. In contrast to the oil paints in the West, ukiyo-e are colored with water-based pigments, and instead of canvas, are printed on thick Japanese “washi” paper. 

While showing us ukiyo-e reproductions that were printed at the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints, Nakayama pointed out that all the pieces printed at the institute use washi paper from Echizen, Fukui Prefecture. It was made by Ichibei Iwano, a Japanese National Living Treasure, and is sturdy and lasts for a long time. It is also soft to the touch, adding another layer of luxury to the already dignified prints, and we could feel the elegance exuding from the paper as we held the pieces of art in our hands.

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How Ukiyo-e Prints Are Made

Creating an ukiyo-e print is a laborious process that requires the participation of numerous experienced artists, each masters of their own field. A designer, carver, and printer all have to work together to create a single ukiyo-e print. Nakayama explained that each artisan is extremely skilled, and with so much focus dedicated to their craft, there is little room to attempt to assume multiple roles.

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Designing the Artwork

Famous ukiyo-e prints are commonly associated with only one artist’s name, but this is usually merely the person who conceived the design of the piece. Called “eshi,” these designers create paper drafts called “hanshita-e” that become the framework for the mokuhanga creation process and the final product. Famous eshi include Hokusai Katsushika, Kuniyoshi Utagawa, and other ukiyo-e artists whose works are known around the world.

Carving the Woodblock (Hori)

Trained carvers called “horishi” take the design and then work to get every detail carved into a slab of wood. First, a paste is applied to the wood, and then the paper draft supplied by the eshi is pasted on. The horishi first focuses on removing the wood on either side of the lines using a small knife. 

After the lines are defined, the horishi removes the rest of the negative space and unnecessary wood with a larger chisel and mallet (called a “nomi” and “kozuchi” respectively). As the horishi carves along the hanshita-e, the paper is whittled away along with the wood until only the outline is left. Finally, fine details are carved away using a smaller chisel called a “sukinomi” until the final product called an “omohan” is completed. 

With the extreme level of detail and precision that goes into making each one, it usually takes at least one month to make a single omohan.

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Coloring and Transferring the Print Onto Paper (Suri)

After the woodblocks made to be used for each color in accordance with the omohan are completed, they are passed to a “surishi” printer who inks the woodblocks and transfers them onto paper. The vibrancy that ukiyo-e is known for isn’t achieved instantaneously. In fact, it takes at least twenty days to reach the admired art form’s rich pigmentation. The surishi uses a tiny, broom-like tool called a “tokibo” to apply water-diluted pigments to the woodblocks and then a larger palm brush to spread them across. The amount of experience a surishi has allows them to more accurately assess how much pigment to use, leading to more uniform prints.

During the carving process, horishi also carve markings called “kento” around the edges of the woodblock, helping the surishi know exactly where to place the paper while printing to ensure that the placement of the print isn’t skewed while layering the pigments. When the paper is laid onto the woodblocks, a special rubbing pad called a “baren” is used to help the pigment seep into the paper, with the surishi using their body weight to distribute the pigment evenly and thoroughly. 

With each layer, the surishi carefully checks to make sure that the print is transferred well. As the size of washi paper and the woodblocks can change depending on the temperature and humidity, if the layers end up being skewed, the surishi will even adjust the kento to help with additional layers. This will need to be repeated around twenty or so times until the desired pigmentation is reached.

While we were at the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints, we were given the opportunity to hold ukiyo-e reproduction prints, and were instructed to turn the prints over to check the back. The color of the pigment was still vibrant on the underside of the print, which we were told showed how the pigment had penetrated the paper. Even so, there was no bleeding on the back of the print, and the clean lines showcased the craftsmanship and precision of mokuhanga. We felt that even without the defining lines around the pigments, the slightly more muted underside of the prints could be appreciated as art pieces themselves.

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Keeping the Centuries-Old Traditional Techniques Alive For Future Generations

Though understandably associated with old Japan, ukiyo-e prints are still a widely appreciated art form today. Even so, there are struggles associated with keeping traditional techniques alive, a large part being the continuous advancement of printing techniques and less demand for woodblock prints. Because of this, the number of horishi and surishi who have the skill levels needed to produce mokuhanga is dwindling. In fact, we were shocked when Nakayama informed us that there are probably only around ten horishi in the entire country today. 

The Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints is dedicated to preserving the unique Japanese traditional woodblock techniques, and participates in training and employing mokuhanga craftspeople. It currently employs eleven artisans, some of whom have been practicing their craft for over twenty years, but also includes younger artisans. Nakayama explained that it takes about five years of practicing almost daily to become an independent artisan, and the artisans use the techniques they learn to replicate Edo-period ukiyo-e works by old masters such as Hokusai and Hiroshige, and also create new pieces designed by contemporary artists.

Fusing Traditional Mokuhanga Techniques With Modern Art

It goes without saying that traditional mokuhanga prints such as ukiyo-e are beloved and respected, but the art is not restricted to such designs. The Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints has collaborated with modern artists in recent years to present fresh takes on the traditional art of mokuhanga, using the same centuries-old techniques to produce contemporary pieces. Looking around the showroom, we were amazed to see the modern pieces on display that, despite looking like they were a far cry from ukiyo-e, were made with the same centuries-old traditional techniques.


See Real Mokuhanga Prints at the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints Showroom

It is no small feat to keep a traditional craft lasting for centuries, and when we asked Nakayama how the institute expects to preserve traditional mokuhanga techniques in the modern age, she replied that she believes it is important to create pieces that modern people enjoy, just like the ukiyo-e in the Edo period. The beauty of mokuhanga is best understood if seen in person, and the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints, located in Mejiro, Tokyo, hosts a simple yet classy showroom where visitors can view authentic mokuhanga prints and even purchase them to take home. Each surface displays a mokuhanga piece, offering a treat for the eyes at every turn.

The showroom is filled with not only both well and lesser-known ukiyo-e prints, but also modern woodblock prints created with mokuhanga techniques, as well as periodic special exhibits. We took our time walking past the rows of gorgeous mokuhanga prints lining the walls, excitedly pointing out ones that we recognized, absentmindedly gazing at ones we had never seen before, and peering closer to appreciate the minute details presented in each one. 

The showroom has a booklet that lists all the prints. If you see one that interests you, you can see the real thing at the showroom, and if you like it, you can even purchase it to take home! All the prints are handmade by the institute’s artisans, so it is an amazing opportunity to take home an authentic piece of Japanese art. Even if the print you want is not in stock, all you have to do is wait a bit longer for them to create and mail you additional prints. 

Although famous traditional ukiyo-e prints such as those by Hokusai are understandably the most popular, Nakayama told us that there are also plenty of people, including art enthusiasts, who come to find hidden masterpieces, as well as mokuhanga by modern artists.

The institute also occasionally hosts demonstrations, during which the craftspeople work on mokuhanga pieces right before your eyes! We were lucky enough to get to attend one of these demonstrations and can attest that the mesmerizing process is almost meditative, as we were unable to pull our eyes away from the expert movements of the horishi and surishi. Each process takes a surprising amount of strength, and we enjoyed watching the craftspeople doing some stretching beforehand to get into the zone. It is a must-see for anyone interested in Japanese art. The institute regularly updates its social media with upcoming events and exhibits in case you want to pay a visit.


Keeping the World-Famous Technique of Woodblock Prints Alive For Generations to Come

The incredible precision and detail that goes into each step of the mokuhanga creation process showcases the magnificent artistry that is appreciated around the world. Though centuries old, with the love it has gained from many people, this unique Japanese art is sure to last for years to come. Mokuhanga is a wonderful way to appreciate Japan’s history and culture, so we hope you try to witness its beauty yourself whenever you are in Japan (and maybe even take a piece home with you)!

If you want to give feedback on any of our articles, you have an idea that you'd really like to see come to life, or you just have a question on Japan, hit us up on our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram!

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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Kim S.
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