Green Ukiyo-e: Sustainbility in Edo

“[People in Edo period Japan (1603–1868)] … overcame many of the identical problems that confront us today—issues of energy, water, materials, food, and population—[and] forged from these considerable challenges a society that was conservation-minded, waste-free, well-housed and well-fed, and economically robust, and that has bequeathed to us admirable and enduring standards of design and beauty.” ~ Azby Brown [2]

Lower Meguro Shimo Meguro Katsushika Hokusai c1830 32 The Met Museum

Did you know that the pre-Edo Period of Japan was more similar to the modern world than you’d think? There are streets lined with beggars, insufficient food for everyone, water shortages, and rapid climate changes. Oops! Nevertheless, Japan in the Edo period was quite the opposite. Not only was the country at peace with no war, external interventions, or trade, but there was also economic stability, people living up to the poverty line, and enough resources for everyone. So while they may have closed the borders and shut themselves in for the wrong reasons, i.e. they feared that Christianity would spread and take over Buddhism in Japan, they did end make making one of the most sustainable societies within their walls. 

So in this article, we’ll be analyzing Japanese ukiyo-e prints from the Edo period, where green was used as a prominent color – and was in fact a symbol of sustainability [1]. While at first glance, you might assume that these prints are trying to depict a futuristic world, where everything would be sustainable, it was what Edo (now Japan) looked like back then. In other words, these images with landscapes that depict sustainability weren’t an expression of hope for the future, but a depiction of what the present looked like for the people of Japan, through the eyes of an artist.

Hokusai Washing a River

 First up is this green dominant print by Katsushika Hokusai Washing in a river – a representation of how people living in the Edo period made the best out of what they had i.e. recycled and reused clothes until they turned into complete rags [1]. This Japanese woodblock art piece uses several shades of green with lighter green in the water wash-off and forest green as the dominant dots on the edges at the bottom.

And this was not the only time Hokusai employed green to show what the environment looked like in the Edo Period. Lower Meguro (Shimo Meguro) represents the agricultural scene of the Edo Period. The scene portrays, with a blend of Dayflower + Turmeric with Indigo + Orpiment, a terrain suited to grow vegetables [3]. The farmer cultivates the land, while the women pick out the vegetables. So the entire family is involved in fending for their living.

Green Pigments used in Ukiyo e Art
Utagawa Hiroshige I Distant View of Mt Fuji from the Mountain Road in Totsuka 1855

There are several other prints that also showcase this “slow” Edo life with a mix of several greens, where the lifestyle of the individuals was focused on wasting as little resource as possible. Among these would be the Distant Views of Mt. Fuji in Utagawa Hiroshige’s all-time famous 36 Views of Mt. Fuji, representing how irrigation and agriculture worked for hand in hand in the fields of Edo as Mt. Fuji looked over them.  And another one is Kamakura Village by Katsushika Hokusai showing off the greenery of this village alongside the water [4].

Showcase of Green ukiyo e pigments at the Meguro Museum

To say the least, the Japanese woodblock prints of the Edo period, did a spectacular job of using greens and making them a symbol of sustainability- a message that our present world, on the verge of catastrophic climate change, should take. 

The shades of green that these remarkable artists used are on display in the Meguro Museum of Art, in Tokyo [3].

Most of them are made with minerals like malachite, azurite, and cinnabar, as well as metal oxides, clays, shell, and coral, thus, their shades. So the next time you see a Japanese woodblock landscape, I’m sure you’ll see it in a whole new light!

Kamakura Village by Katsushika Hokusai

Be sure to check out our amazing collection of Japanese woodblock prints for sale by clicking here, some of which showcase green pigment.  And if you have a great Ukiyo-e print you want to sell, be sure to contact us!


[1] Hiroko Oe Principal Academic. “How Centuries of Self-Isolation Turned Japan into One of the Most Sustainable Societies on Earth.” The Conversation, 15 Sept. 2022,

[2] “Green Japan: Images of Sustainable Living in Ukiyo-e Prints: August 26, 2021 – December 23, 2021: Allen Memorial Art Museum.” August 26, 2021 – December 23, 2021 | Allen Memorial Art Museum,

[3] “True Colors: Rediscovering the Vibrant Palette of Edo Art.” Artscape Japan,



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