Evan Pierson

The Yoshidas and the History of Woodblock Prints in Japan

When I first heard the name “Toshi Yoshida” and the art form “woodblock prints,” I thought for a while, but neither of them rang a bell.  This isn’t too surprising, since I was largely unfamiliar with Japan and Japanese art forms until this class.  I soon found out why these two terms are connected with Japan and its ancient history.  As it turns out, the form of woodblock prints are to Japan as sculptures are to Greece or even as skyscrapers are to America.  The form, which contains flowing, curved outlines and yet intricate detail and color, originated in eastern Asia and was moved to Japan dating to the eighth century.  Its unique details and vibrant colors deeply impacted other artists in both Europe and America later on.  Examining the history behind woodblock prints in Japan lets us realize why “Toshi Yoshida” is presently a household name within a very popular Japanese art form.

As stated before, woodblock prints came over from China during the eighth century.  The main reason for the spread of woodblock prints to Japan was due to the increasing awareness and practice of Buddhism.  Originally, the prints were black, but colors were usually added to the prints in print shops later to make them more attractive, and they usually were part of illustrations in various texts.  The time period in which woodblock prints originated was called the Heian period, in which many of the artists used yamato-e or Japanese style prints.  Yamato-e pictures portrayed pictures of the world around them, including pictures of the soft rolling landscapes of Japan filled with vegetation.  Similar to many of the paintings we see during later periods of Japan, many prints contained people performing tasks of daily life or acting out traditional Japanese tales.

Nearly nine hundred years later, as the popularity of woodblock prints increased, methods for woodblock prints also evolved.  To meet the rising demand for these prints, many printers employed master carvers to make the blocks for them.  The prints were gradually made much more attractive as well; starting with a single orange-red color, moving to a rose-pink color, and adding various yellow, blue, and green colors.   Eventually, some contained fifteen or more different colors!  As the amount of colors and great detail increased, carving became much more important.  It was during the Edo period, beginning in 1615, when the prints really started to take off, and artists began selling prints in the form of calendars and other media.  Various subjects were printed during this time relating to the Yoshiwara district.  This included literary scenes, celebrities, women, travel scenes, erotic scenes, and actors.  Those who were at the higher end of the spectrum, complete with their stylish and fashionable clothing, contributed the most to growth of popularity amongst woodblock prints.

Common themes persisted throughout the next hundred years or so as artists began to make a name for themselves.  The first prominent woodblock artist was Suzuki Hornbrook (Harunobu), whose famous image “The Koya Jewel River” was distributed amongst Hornbrook’s extremely rich clients.  His luxurious colors, cherry wood, and heavy graded paper attracted those of the higher classes.  It was his practice of utilizing different color blocks that contributed the most to the varied color schemes.  Other artists quickly adopted his methods as thereafter we see extremely colorful prints.  These artists include Kitagawa Utamoro (1750-1806), Torii Kiyonga (1752-1815), Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).

Before long, artists such as these achieved mastery of the woodblock medium, so much that they began to seek out new subject matter and contrasting styles.  Erotic scenes from the Yoshiwara that were common only a hundred years previously, had now been banned by the government, which censored all prints.  Artists concentrated their efforts instead on landscapes and celebrated sites of Japan, which attracted various consumers both in Japan and throughout the world.  Even though travel was highly restricted by the shogun at the time, artists still explored their interest in western perspectives through their art.  The return to landscapes and depictions of famous architectural buildings and monuments all inherently related western and Japanese art.

Towards the end of the Edo period (1830-1868), we see a decline in the quality of woodblock prints, as prints by Keisai Eisen (   1790-1848), Hiroshige III (1843-1894) and Toyokuni III (1786-1864) lacked the overall charm and elegance of works by their aforementioned predecessors (many of whom happened to be their ancestors).  This may be caused by harsh government restrictions, but more likely is due to Japan getting caught up with Western civilization, woodblock prints and their methods were old-fashioned and widely considered a thing of the past.

Having said that, the work by Toshi and his father, Hiroshi, is even more impressive.  Hiroshi was born towards the end of the Edo period, a time in which woodblock prints had lost popularity.  The Yoshida family contributed to a revival of the woodblock print genre during the 1900’s, as collectors enjoyed the landscape, abstract designs, and animal portraits that they offered.  The portrait we studied, “Lioness B,” is a prime example of subject matter that the younger Yoshida used, and does a great job of depicting the great detail that the Yoshida collection is particularly known for.

Woodblock prints are an integral part of Japanese art and history.  They’ve been around for about fifteen hundred years, and do a lot to tell us about themes and periods within that time.  Certainly, their peak occurred at some point during the Edo period, but the recent work of the Yoshidas and other modern woodblock artists make sure that this art form will never be forgotten.


Azechi, Umetaro.  “Japanese woodblock prints: their techniques and appreciation.”  Tokyo:  Japan Publications Co., 1963.

Fauntleroy, Carma C., “History of Woodblock Prints.”  <http://www.artgallery.sbc.edu/ukiyoe/historyofwoodblockprints.html>

“Japanese Woodblock Prints.”  < http://www.asianartmall.com/woodblockarticle.htm> Asian Art Mall

Takahashi, Seiichiro.  “Traditional woodblock prints of Japan.”  New York:  Weatherhill, 1973.

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