Woodblock printing in Japan (Japanese: 木版画, moku hanga) is a technique best known for its use in the ukiyo-e artistic genre; however, it was also used very widely for printing books in the same period. Woodblock printing had been used in China for centuries to print books, long before the advent of movable type, but was only widely adopted in Japan surprisingly late, during the Edo period (1603-1867). Although similar to woodcut in western printmaking in some regards, the moku hanga technique differs in that it uses water-based inks—as opposed to western woodcut, which often uses oil-based inks. The Japanese water-based inks provide a wide range of vivid colors, glazes, and transparency.
In-depth video on history and development of techniques of Japanese woodcut from monochrome through painted monochrome prints to multiblock printing. It looks at its influence on Western artists like Van Gogh and Monet following the exhibition of Japanese art for the first time at the Paris Exhibition of 1867. It also looks at the modern day revival of ukiyo-e prints as paintings on shops in Tokyo regeneration.
Japanese woodblock prints with Paul Binnie
Lecture on background and underlying ideas in Japanese printing techniques.
Japanese woodblock printing History Ukiyo-e Jose Ortega
History of Japanese printing and way it spread and related to earlier Chinese and Buddhist prints.
Woodblock-printed books from Chinese Buddhist temples were seen in Japan as early as the eighth century. In 764 the Empress Kōken commissioned one million small wooden pagodas, each containing a small woodblock scroll printed with a Buddhist text (Hyakumanto Darani). These were distributed to temples around the country as thanksgiving for the suppression of the Emi Rebellion of 764. These are the earliest examples of woodblock printing known, or documented, from Japan.
By the eleventh century, Buddhist temples in Japan produced printed books of sutras, mandalas, and other Buddhist texts and images. For centuries, printing was mainly restricted to the Buddhist sphere, as it was too expensive for mass production, and did not have a receptive, literate public as a market. However, an important set of fans of the late Heian period (12th century), containing painted images and Buddhist sutras, reveal from loss of paint that the underdrawing for the paintings was printed from blocks.
Not until 1590 was the first secular book printed in Japan. This was the Setsuyō-shū, a two-volume Chinese-Japanese dictionary. Though the Jesuits operated a movable typeprinting press in Nagasaki from 1590, printing equipment brought back by Toyotomi Hideyoshi‘s army from Korea in 1593 had far greater influence on the development of the medium. Four years later, Tokugawa Ieyasu, even before becoming shogun, effected the creation of the first native moveable type, using wooden type-pieces rather than metal. He oversaw the creation of 100,000 type-pieces, which were used to print a number of political and historical texts. As shogun, Ieyasu promoted literacy and learning, contributing to the emergence of an educated urban public.
Printing was not dominated by the shogunate at this point, however. Private printers appeared in Kyoto at the beginning of the 17th century, and Toyotomi Hideyori, Ieyasu’s primary political opponent, aided in the development and spread of the medium as well. An edition of the Confucian Analects was printed in 1598, using a Korean moveable type printing press, at the order of Emperor Go-Yōzei. This document is the oldest work of Japanese moveable type printing extant today. Despite the appeal of moveable type, however, craftsmen soon decided that the running script style of Japanese writings was better reproduced using woodblocks. By 1640 woodblocks were once again used for nearly all purposes.
The medium quickly gained popularity among artists, and was used to produce small, cheap, art prints as well as books. The great pioneers in applying this method to the creation of art books, and in preceding mass production for general consumption, were Honami Kōetsu and Suminokura Soan. At their studio in Saga, the pair created a number of woodblocks of the Japanese classics, both text and images, essentially converting handscrolls to printed books, and reproducing them for wider consumption. These books, now known as Kōetsu Books, Suminokura Books, or Saga Books, are considered the first and finest printed reproductions of many of these classic tales; the Saga Book of the Tales of Ise (Ise monogatari), printed in 1608, is especially renowned.
Woodblock printing, though more tedious and expensive than later methods, was far less so than the traditional method of writing out each copy of a book by hand; thus, Japan began to see something of literary mass production. While the Saga Books were printed on expensive fancy paper, and used various embellishments, being printed specifically for a small circle of literary connoisseurs, other printers in Kyoto quickly adapted the technique to producing cheaper books in large numbers, for more general consumption. The content of these books varied widely, including travel guides, advice manuals, kibyōshi (satirical novels), sharebon (books on urban culture), art books, and play scripts for the jōruri (puppet) theatre. Often, within a certain genre, such as the jōruri theatre scripts, a particular style of writing became standard for that genre. For example, one person’s personal calligraphic style was adopted as the standard style for printing plays.
Many publishing houses arose and grew, publishing both books and individual prints. One of the most famous and successful was called Tsuta-ya. A publisher’s ownership of the physical woodblocks used to print a given text or image constituted the closest equivalent to a concept of “copyright” that existed at this time. Publishers or individuals could buy woodblocks from one another, and thus take over the production of certain texts, but beyond the protective ownership of a given set of blocks (and thus a very particular representation of a given subject), there was no legal conception of the ownership of ideas. Plays were adopted by competing theatres, and either reproduced wholesale, or individual plot elements or characters might be adapted; this activity was considered legitimate and routine, at the time.
Woodblock printing continued after the decline of ukiyo-e, and introduction of movable type and other technologies, as a method and medium for printing texts as well as for producing art, both within traditional modes such as ukiyo-e and in a variety of more radical or Western forms that might be construed as modern art. Institutes such as the “Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints” and “Takezasado” continue to produce Ukiyo-e prints with the same materials and methods as used in the past. 
Schools and movements
- Torii school, from 1700
- Kaigetsudō school, from 1700–14
- Katsukawa school, from about 1740, including the artists Suzuki Harunobu and Hokusai
- Utagawa school, from 1842, including the artist Kunisada
- Sōsaku hanga, “Creative Prints” movement, from 1904
- Shin hanga “New Prints” movement, from 1915
The technique for printing texts and images was generally similar. The obvious differences were the volume produced when working with texts (many pages for a single work), and the complexity of multiple colors in some images. Images in books were almost always in monochrome (black ink only), and for a time art prints were likewise monochrome or done in only two or three colors.
The text or image was first drawn onto washi (Japanese paper), then glued face-down onto a plank of wood, usually cherry. Wood was then cut away, based on the drawing outlines. A small wooden hard object called a barenwas used to press or burnish the paper against the inked woodblock to apply the ink to the paper. Although this may have been done purely by hand at first, complex wooden mechanisms were soon invented and adopted to help hold the woodblock perfectly still and apply proper pressure in the printing process. This was especially helpful with the introduction of multiple colors that had to be applied with precision over previous ink layers.
While, again, text was nearly always monochrome, as were images in books, the growth of the popularity of ukiyo-e brought with it demand for ever increasing numbers of colors and complexity of techniques. The stages of this development follow:
- Sumizuri-e (墨摺り絵?, “ink printed pictures”)—monochrome printing using only black ink
- Benizuri-e (紅摺り絵?, “crimson printed pictures”)—red ink details or highlights added by hand after the printing process；green was sometimes used as well
- Tan-e (丹絵?)—orange highlights using a red pigment called tan
- Aizuri-e (藍摺り絵?, “indigo printed pictures”), Murasaki-e (紫絵?, “purple pictures”), and other styles in which a single color was used in addition to, or instead of, black ink
- Urushi-e (漆絵?)—a method that thickened the ink with glue, emboldening the image. Printers often used gold, mica, and other substances to enhance the image further. Urushi-e can also refer to paintings using lacquerinstead of paint. Lacquer was rarely, if ever, used on prints.
- Nishiki-e (錦絵?, “brocade pictures”)—a method of using multiple blocks for separate portions of the image, using a number of colors to achieve complex and detailed images. A separate block was carved to apply only the part of the image designated for a single color. Registration marks called kentō (見当) were used to ensure correspondence between the application of each block.
Contemporary Japanese woodblock