The following is a list of frequently used terms in helping to describe Japanese woodblock prints.
A synthetic dye discovered by William Henry Perkin in 1856. This dye was widely used in Japanese prints after its introduction to the country in 1864.
A seal used by the censors to approve print designs.
A disc used in the printing of Japanese woodblock prints to make the ink adhere to the paper in a homogeneous way.
Benigirai-e; also known as Beninuki-e; Murasaki-e
Also known as beninuki-e and murasaki-e. A term used to refer to two-color prints which make use of more muted color combinations, generally purple, grey and yellow; immediately precedes the polychrome period.
A term that refers to images of beautiful women in Japanese art, usually courtesans. This genre, which has its origin in China, became prominent in Japan in the figurative arts, especially in woodblock production.
A printing technique in which one or more colours are printed using a colour gradation to obtain shaded effects.
The puppet theatre, from which many famous performances of the Kabuki theatre originate.
Tale of the Loyal Retainers (also known as The Forty-Seven Ronin). A folk story loosely based on actual events: A group of masterless samurai (ronin) seeks to avenge the death of their lord.
An early Japanese warlord and leader of a fief subordinate to the shōgun.There were hundreds of daimyō during these times, and their influence and expansion of power varied greatly.
A feudal lord, who later became the Shogun’s vassal. Throughout history there have been numerous daimyō with powers and influences of varying significance.
A figure based on the semi-legendary life of the Indian monk Bodhidharma, who traveled through China. Popular in the visual arts, he is represented as a bearded monk dressed in red. This is where the Daruma votive dolls originate.
A lacquered paper headdress worn by the aristocratic court ,as well as by sambasō dancers and other performing artists.
Today Tokyo, the capital of Japan. Also, transcribed in Latin characters as Jedo , Yedo or Yeddo. During the Tokugawa reign, Edo became one of the largest cities in the world. From here, a dynamic cultural movement emerged, centred on the idea of the “floating world”. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Edo was renamed Tokyo.
Also known as the Tokugawa period. It indicates an era in Japan’s history that began in 1603 and ended in 1867.
Calendar prints. They contain hidden references to the short and long months of the lunar calendar, from whose combinations the year can be deduced. Apparently, these prints were made to avoid buying an official calendar, of which the government had a monopoly.
An illustrated book, similar to the leporello, containing woodcut prints.
Ruler of the underworld. God of the dead in the Buddhist afterlife.
Landscape prints. One of the most ancient themes in Japanese figurative art, the landscape returned to popularity with the works of Hokusai and Hiroshige in the 1830s, in particular, for the use of Prussian blue.
Woman, entertainer, educated in singing, music and the art of conversation. A profession that, in the Western world, is often confused with prostitution.
The story of Genji. A novel written by Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century, believed to be one of the first novels ever written. It tells the story of the life of Prince Genji in the imperial palace.
Prints based on episodes from the novel The Story of Genji (Genji monogatari).
A print that includes visual jokes, comic illustrations.
Eight views. The ancient Chinese tradition of painting eight different views of the same location. Many woodcut series titles originate from this tradition.
A sheet on which various subjects were printed and subsequently cut out. Uncommon.
A phase in Japanese history that spans 794 to 1192 AD, and is considered to be one of the moments of greatest cultural splendor. During this time a highly refined aristocratic culture developed.
History of the Taira family. An epic novel that refers to the Genpai war (1180-1185), fought between the powerful Taira and Minamoto clans.
Japanese cypress, evergreen, whose wood is used both in architecture and in crafts.
“One hundred men, a poem for each”. Collection of waka poems made up of one hundred poems written by one hundred different poets. Compiled in the mid-13th century.
Famous family of Kabuki actors. The seventh generation Danjūrō were particularly influential in the 19th century. The last Danjūrō passed away in 2013.
The most important Shinto shrine, located in central Japan. A pilgrimage destination.
A traditional theatrical form that includes elements of dance and music. It originates from the 17th century, with all roles played by men. Kabuki actors, along with their characters, became one of the most important themes in Japanese woodblock prints.
Prints of flowers and birds. The term comes from China and also includes fish and mammals.
A young servant of the high-ranking courtesans of Yoshiwara. They usually worked in pairs, wore coordinated kimonos, and accompanied courtesans. Often represented in bijin-ga prints.
Also known as gauffrage. It is a “dry” print that is performed without colours, that provides three-dimensionality through the use of embossing. Frequently used in clothing parts, flowering trees, flowers and other details.
Reference marks carved into the matrices, allowing one to align the sheet during the printing phase. This also allowed for the use of different matrices and the creation of precise polychrome prints.
Generic term for clothing made of cotton or silk. The fabric patterns were printed using stencils (katagami).
Literally “the golden boy”. Traditional Japanese legend about a child of superhuman strength, raised by a mountain witch, who became one of the most famous samurai of all time.
One of the five main commercial streets. It connected Edo with Kyoto through the mountains of the northwest.
Seal used by censors to approve the design of a print.
Bright, shimmering mineral or metal powder, often times prints are dusted and embellished with this product.
Comparison or parody. Often used in a comic sense.
Brocade prints. This term was first used by Harunobu, but was later extended to refer to all polychrome prints.
An ancient form of Japanese theatre that originated in the 14th century. It is characterized by slow movements, extravagant costumes and wooden masks.
A belt worn mainly with the kimono by both men and women.
The popular, all time favourite opera Kabuki tells the story of Oiwa, a woman treated badly by her husband who, after her death, turns into a vengeful ghost (onryō).
A half-length image, where the face of an actor, or a courtesan, covers at least half of the print. This format allowed artists to customise, or exaggerate, their subjects’ traits.
Also called sumi-ta (black ink block); jizumi-ita ; sumizuri-no-ita or daihan. It is the key block with which the thin black outline of the figures is printed. It is carved using the original design.
A male Kabuki actor, specialising in the representation of female characters, wearing a purple sash.
Folk art represented by roughly painted images first produced by Matabei in the village of Otsu on the Tōkaidō, from which it takes its name. This Matabei (or Matahei), who died around 1720, should not be confused with the better known Iwasa Matabei.
Prussian blue; Berlin Blue
Also known as Berlin Blue. A blue pigment synthetically produced in Europe and introduced to Japan in the late 18th century. Part of the success of Hokusai and Hiroshige’s landscape prints, is due to the use of this colour.
A samurai without a master.
The most famous of Edo’s five main bridges, it spans the Sumida River. A popular meeting point to admire, for example, the fireworks.
A member of the military caste. A warrior trained in the use of the sword, but also a connoisseur of traditional arts.
A stringed musical instrument, often associated with the geisha, but also used in kabuki performances.
Literally “new prints”, it is a Japanese art movement from the early twentieth century, during the Taishō period (1912 – 1926) and the Showa period (1926 – 1989). The movement was born around 1915 and was active until 1942, although it was briefly revived between 1946 and the 1950s. Influenced by the West and popular with collectors outside Japan. One of the most famous artists being Hiroshi Yoshida.
A commemorative portrait, made, for example, after the death of kabuki actors. It is usually not signed by the artist
Commander of the army, of high office in the military government. The Tokugawa Ieyasu shogun, after the subjugation of many Daimyō, became the de facto head of the empire, establishing his own government in the city of Edo (Edo Castle).
“Spring image”, erotic prints, probably all woodblock print artists produced shunga prints, but usually unsigned.
Creative prints. An early 20th century art movement that had its roots in the artist’s desire to be the sole author of the print at every stage of its creation.
“Water margin”, 14th century Chinese novel, very popular theme in kabuki theatre and woodblock printing. Based on the exploits of the outlaw Song Jiang and his 108 companions.
Also known as suibokuga or bokuga. Ink (sumi) and water painting. It indicates a monochrome pictorial style that creates shadows and lights using various shades of ink.
Traditional Japanese wrestling.
Woodblock prints commissioned by individuals for special occasions, like our Christmas, New Year, birthday or invitation cards. They were richly decorated with gold, silver, bronze and mother-of-pearl powder, and were printed on a thicker, softer paper than that usually used for common prints. Hokusai, Utamaro, and Hiroshige are a few examples of artists who produced Surimono.
The main trade route in Japan during the Edo period. Connecting Edo with Kyoto, its fifty-three stations were a very popular theme in the woodcut series.
A print intended to be mounted on a fan. The fans had two shapes, the uchiwa, a round and non-folding fan, and the ogi, a folding fan. Prints designed for fans are uncommon; the uchiwa form is the most used.
Prints made using the western perspective. Also known as “bird’s eye” perspective images.
“Floating world, ephemeral world”, A term that has its roots in the Buddhist tradition and indicates the impermanence of things. Later, in the Edo period, it referred the urban culture linked to the pursuit of pleasure.
“Images of the floating world”. This term is also exchanged for Japanese woodblock prints.
Prints on which a transparent lacquer is applied to increase the colour effect. A technique that seems to have been invented by Okumura Masanobu.
Traditionally produced Japanese paper. Woodblock prints are printed on Washi paper. It can be very strong and stand the test of time.
Prints depicting kabuki actors, on stage as a character in a play or offstage.
Images of Yokohama, depicting foreigners and their arrival at the port of Yokohama.
The yūkaku (the officially sanctioned pleasure district), most popular pleasure district in Edo.
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