“If you study Japanese art you see a man who is undoubtedly wise, philosophic and intelligent, who spends his time how? In studying the distance between the earth and the moon? No. In studying the policy of Bismarck? No. He studies a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him to draw every plant and then the seasons, the wide aspects of the countryside, animals, and the human figure. So he passes his life, and life is too short to do the whole.” ~ Vincent Van Gogh
Those are the words of an appreciator and avid collector of Japanese Woodblock art, the all-time famous Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh. And they have truth in them don’t you think? If you delve deeper into any Japanese woodblock art piece, you’d probably see a plethora of motifs hidden right underneath the overall design and subtle symbolisms here and there. And believe it or not, all Japanese art, and not just ukiyo-e, is full of motifs and symbolisms, unique to their culture. And not just for aesthetic reasons but also to deliver a special poetic and philosophical meaning hidden in the imagery. So let’s dive right into these symbolisms and motifs!
First up, are none other than the sakura or cherry blossom trees that have appeared on several occasions in ukiyo-e prints from the Edo period, till today . Here’s a Japanese woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai, an esteemed woodblock artist of the Edo Period – Hawk and Cherry Blossoms . Both flowers and birds have been very common motifs in the Japanese woodblock artists of the Edo Period, representing the people’s love for nature. But sakura, in particular, represents how impermanent, ever-changing, and spontaneous nature in fact is . Combined with a hawk in this image sends off a message of seeing far into the distance and keeping moving even if nothing stays constant.
And that’s just one way how sakura depicts the essence of nature. Fuji from Gotenyama on the Tokaido at Shinagawa by Katsushika Hokusai and Kiyomizu Hall and Shinobazu Pond at Ueno by Utagawa Hiroshige are two other masterpieces depicting, among many others, that use the symbolism of these trees to bring out the true colors of nature .
Next up, the second most common symbolism is Mt. Fuji, a symbol of Japan itself. The mountain is a sacred sight for both Buddhism and Shinto – the two highly prevalent religions in Japan. And more often than not, you’d see it sneak up on you in Japanese woodblock art, representing how no matter the situation, Mt. Fuji would still be standing . The most iconic series of Japanese woodblock prints that this remarkable mount in the corners, was 36 views of Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai between 1829-1833. And a relatively modern print by Hiroshi Yoshida, showing the mount in its
full glory, over the waters . You can see our Hiroshi Yoshida Archives, which comprise the entire vast collection of over 500 Prints by the famous Shin Hanga artist, by clicking here. We have comprised the most vast collection of Hiroshi Yoshida imagery and prints in the world, many of which feature Mt. Fuji!
Yet another common motif in several ukiyo-e prints would be kings, emperors, or those in positions of power. You might be thinking, any and every art piece can have kings in it, what’s the big deal here? Well, for Japan and Japanese ukiyo-e it holds a distinct meaning.
The human body is like a country, and the mind is like a ruler. — Commentary on the I Ching, Liu Yiming (18th c. Taoist master) 
So the kings represent a sense of self-awareness and being educated when it comes to ukiyo-e prints. And how with that comes the responsibility to choose wisely.
Now you might’ve seen large animal-like figures in as motifs in several ukiyo-e prints too. While at first glance this might come off as meaningless to you, but let me put this into perspective .
See this image right here? This is a Japanese woodblock print by Kuniyoshi called the Battle between a giant shrimp and a phoenix. But what are these two battling about? In the image, the lower creature i.e. the shrimp represents one’s lower self. Likewise, the higher creature, or the phoenix, represents your higher self. Ever heard of the never-ending fight between the Lower and
Higher self? The lower self is what your selfish desire and the higher self is the evolved monkey with consciousness so to speak. So if a dark tunnel is your lower self, the higher self is the light in it. So the phoenix here is a symbol of consciousness and the shrimp is a darkness that would pull you down into the waters if you let it. And believe it or not, most ukiyo-e employ animal fights or animals fighting a human as a symbol to break out of your desires and explore your consciousness to do better in the world .
There are several additional common motifs found in Ukiyo-e; such as kabuki actors dressed like women, wounded warriors, courtesans, or mythical creatures. Japanese woodblock pieces were typically mass-produced and very large in number, so they touched on a number of popular subjects of the Edo era. But the ones mentioned above stand out, irrespective of the time or era that the prints were made. So the next time you take a ukiyo-e print for what it looks like, think a little under the surface!
 “12 Symbols in Japanese Art.” Royal Collection Trust, https://www.rct.uk/collection/themes/exhibitions/japan-courts-and-culture/the-queens-gallery-buckingham-palace/12-symbols-in-japanese-art.
 “Symbols of Presence in the Japanese Culture.” Symbols of Presence in the Japanese Culture, https://japanesesymbolsofpresence.com/ukiyoe.html.
 “Cherry Blossoms in Ukiyo-e: April 2021: Highlighting Japan.” e, https://www.gov-online.go.jp/eng/publicity/book/hlj/html/202104/202104_08_en.html.