Anonymous, Woodblock for Shaka hassō monogatari 釈迦八相物語, [1666]


Woodblock for Shaka hassō monogatari 釈迦八相物語

Edo period (1603-1868), [1666]


22.3 x 35.1 cm



Shaka hassō monogatari 釈迦八相物語

Volume 4 (of 8)

Edo period (1603-1868), [1666]

Woodblock printed book; ink on paper

25.5 x 18.2 cm

The ability to capture the hand of the calligrapher and artist alike made woodblock the preferred printing medium in Edo-period Japan. The raw material was key to this process: high quality cherrywood (
yamazakura) blocks were supple enough to be carved without splintering or fraying yet durable enough to stand up to hand printing impressions that could number in the thousands. Obtaining this raw material constituted a significant challenge. Trees in climates too cold or too hot produced wood that splintered easily. The wood needed to be prepared through a seasoning process before being used for printing blocks. Good blocks, like this one, were well worth the significant investment and effort, and skilled carvers copied layouts to transform planks and capture the lyrical and expressive qualities of the brush.

The Tress collection includes a block made for two folios from the Shaka hassō monogatari (Tale of the Eight Phases of Shakyamuni), first printed in 1666. The book tells the story of the eight phases of the life of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. The collection also includes a woodblock for folios from the fourth volume of this title, offering the rare opportunity to compare block and printed book. The scene shown in both is an episode from the fourth phase of Shakyamuni’s journey, when he renounced the world to become an ascetic. One should be keen to note, however, how the woodblock differs from the opening. Woodblock printing required the carver to render the designs in reverse so that when printed, the text and image would be right way around. Books bound in the pouch or bag binding technique (fukurotoji), like this one, were made by folding sheets of paper and binding the cut edge in the interior of the book. The image showing Shakyamuni’s renunciation is carved on the right side of the block and the text for the preceding page on the left side; when printed, the sheet of paper would be folded and bound, with the two parts of the woodblock providing content for the verso and recto of the folio sheet. This woodblock is also carved on its reverse side, but the text there is from another volume from the same set.


Woodblocks were mobile objects in the Edo period, frequently traded and sold amongst publishers, with each new owner gaining full publishing rights for the block and its contents. This was an advantageous arrangement for both sellers and buyers: sellers could recoup precious capital while buyers could obtain second-hand blocks to expand their publishing repertoire or capitalize on an unexpected hit.


The survival of this woodblock in excellent condition is remarkable. As wooden objects, blocks are susceptible to degradation as well as damage by insects. Many blocks were victim to the fires that were an all-too-common occurrence in cities. Furthermore, the price of high quality cherrywood often led publishers and block carvers to repurpose existing woodblocks. Planing a woodblock down would destroy the image but provide a new blank slate, allowing one block to live several lives and be part of multiple different works before ultimately becoming too thin and fragile for additional printing.

Nicholas Purgett

Selected Readings:

Hioki, Kazuko. “Japanese  Printed Books of the Edo Period (1603-1867): History and Characteristics of Block-Printed Books.” Journal of the Institute of Conservation 32, no. 1 (2009): 79–101.

Salter, Rebecca. Japanese Woodblock Printing. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.

Sasaki, Shiro. “Materials and Techniques.” In The Hotei Encyclopedia of Japanese Woodblock Prints., edited by Amy Reigle Newland, 1:323–50. Amsterdam: Hotei, 2005.


Furuya Kōrin 古谷紅麟, Kōrin moyō 光琳模様, 1907

Furuya Kōrin 紅麟 (1875-1910)

Kōrin moyō 光琳模様

Volume 2 (of 2)

Publisher: Unsōdō, Kyoto

Meiji period (1868-1912), 1907

Woodblock printed book; ink and color on paper

25 x 18 cm


Kōrin moyō is another example of a pattern book produced in the late Meiji period. While the sleek style and naturalistic motifs of Art Nouveau are readily apparent in most zuan, pattern artists were also influenced by Rinpa style. A revival of this aesthetic in the Meiji period, led by Kamisaka Sekka, further modernized the already highly stylized Rinpa motifs, while still referencing classical Japanese literature and poetry. Furuya Kōrin, who studied with Sekka, took his name from Ogata Kōrin, from whom the name Rinpa is derived.

In Kōrin moyō, Furuya Kōrin demonstrates his mastery of common Rinpa motifs. In this opening he combines a depiction of a persimmon tree with grape vine and morning glories. In his design for many of the page spreads, he utilizes an upper register for a simple pattern that complements the lower more intricately printed scene. While it is not unusual for numerous patterns to be grouped together in zuan books, Kōrin works the space to his advantage and ours. The thoughtfully composed pages help slow the pace, allowing the viewer to reflect on the subtle relationships that emerge among the composition, color, and subject.

Catherine Gontarek

Selected Readings:

Carpenter, John T. 2012. Designing Nature: The Rinpa Aesthetic in Japanese Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Saunders, Rachel. 2008. “Patterns of Identity: Kimono Pattern Books in the Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.” Andon 83: 49–57.

Wood, Donald A., and Yuko Ikeda, eds. 2003. Kamisaka Sekka : Rinpa no keishō. Kyoto: Kyoto Kokuritsu Kindai Bijutsukan.




Hasegawa Keika 長谷川契華, Kyōka zuan 京華図案, 1905

Hasegawa Keika 長谷川契華 (act. 1892-1905) 

Kyōka zuan 京華図案

Volumes 1-2

Publisher: Unsōdō, Kyoto

Meiji period (1868-1912), 1905

Woodblock printed book; ink and color on paper

24.4 x 16.5 cm

Kyōka zuan belongs to a category of pattern books that was published in the Meiji period primarily to be used in textile production or for ceramic and lacquerware decoration. These books developed from hinagatabon of the Edo period such as the one shown in the previous entry; however, zuan often featured both patterns coming from the traditional repertoire and newly imported trends. One example of the latter in Kyōka zuan is the exquisite design of peacock feathers. Like the earlier hinagatabon, this two-volume book could be appreciated for its aesthetic value, as much as for any practical application.


Keika’s clever juxtaposition of patterns on this page is as masterful as the designs themselves. On the right, yellow tachibana oranges float in the swirls of water, which resonate with the blue clouds on the facing page. The pastel colors of the stream and the autumn bellflowers (rindō) below are countered by the bold black ground with stripes and bright roundels. Since many of the designs were intended to appear on kimono, they often refer to typical dyeing and embroidery techniques such as shibori (tie-dye) or sashiko (stitching used for both decoration and reinforcement of clothes). In the opening shown, the roundels are decorated with a distinctive kanoko shibori pattern that is created on fabric by tying it in small pinches before dyeing. 


The Kyoto publisher Unsōdō produced this volume; this firm played a key role in producing and popularizing zuan books and journals. Established in 1891 as a publishing house specializing in art books, Unsōdō capitalized on the developing genre and fueled its further creation and distribution.


Maria Puzyreva

Selected Readings:

Johnson, Scott. 2014. “New Colours, a New Profession & a New Idea: Zuan Enrich Kyoto Design Books.” Andon 97 (September): 117-28.

———. 2016. “Zuan Pattern Books: The Glory Years.” Andon 100: 5–75.

Yokoya, Kenichirō, and Mikio Matsuo. 2008. Zuanchō In Kyoto: Textile Design Books for the Kimono Trade. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Libraries.


Katsukawa Shun’ei 勝川春英 , Utagawa Toyokuni 歌川豊国, Shibai kinmō zui 戯場訓蒙図彙, 1803

Katsukawa Shun’ei 勝川春(1762-1819), Utagawa Toyokuni 歌川豊国 (1769-1825)

Shikitei Sanba 式亭 三馬 (1776-1822), author

Shibai kinmō zui 戯場訓蒙図彙

Volumes 5-6 (of 8), 2 volumes bound as one

Edo period (1603-1868), 1803

Woodblock printed book; ink on paper

23.9 x 16.1 cm

A comprehensive guide to the backstage world of Edo theater, Shibai kinmō zui attests to the significant role kabuki played in the popular culture as both an independent art form and a stimulus for literary production. Such books about the theater (and especially kabuki)—which modern scholars have broadly labeled as gekisho—take a remarkable variety of forms, from seasonal playbills to annual actor critiques.


An illustrated encyclopedia of the theater, Shibai kinmō zui would have granted readers access to the backstage life of kabuki in book form, its pages replete with images and accounts of the hidden mechanisms through which plays were brought to life. Novel illustrations of stage effects, actors backstage studying their lines, and depictions of props are but a few examples. In the opening shown, Shun’ei and Toyokuni present a range of disembodied hair and beard styles. At the bottom center of the right page, they depict the towering hairstyle to accompany a fearsome hannya mask, used to represent a female demon. On the left page, the prim and proper styles of a variety of female characters are juxtaposed with the hairstyle of an old woman at the bottom right. 

Kikuchi Hisanori, best known by his pen name Shikitei Sanba, is regarded as one of the great writers of kokkeibon, a variant of comedic literature that emerged during the mid to late Edo period. Sanba employed a tongue-in-cheek parody of the conventional encyclopedia to detail everything about kabuki theater. As comprehensive as it is humorous, this novel marriage of form and content also utilized the cultural capital of two eminent artists in the realm of kabuki: Katsukawa Shun’ei and Utagawa Toyokuni. At once a parody, an encyclopedia, and a guidebook to the backstage world of kabuki, Shibai kinmō zui exemplifies how permeable the boundaries between different cultural forms and traditions were in early modern Japan. 


Francesca A. Bolfo

Selected Readings:

Akama, Ryō. Zusetsu Edo no engekisho: Kkabuki hen. Tokyo: Yagi Shoten, 2003.


Gondō, Yoshikazu, Takeshi Moriya, and Isoo Munemasa, eds. Kabuki, Nihon shomin bunka shiryō shūsei. Vol. 6. Tokyo: San’ichi Shobō, 1973.


Leutner, Robert. Shikitei Sanba and the Comic Tradition in Edo Fiction. Harvard-Yenchingld Institute Monograph Series 25. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.

Kawanabe Kyōsai 河鍋暁斎 Kyōsai gadan 暁斎画談, 1887

Kawanabe Kyōsai 河鍋暁斎 (1831-1889)

Kyōsai gadan 暁斎画談

Volume 1, 2, 4 (of 4)

Publisher: Iwamoto Shun, Tokyo

Meiji period (1868-1912), 1887

Woodblock printed book; ink and color on paper

25.5 x 17.6 cm  

In Kyōsai gadan, painter Kawanabe Kyōsai presents the history of painting in two parts. The first part is a painting manual (gafu), representing the works of acclaimed masters, and part two is a biography of the artist himself. The gafu section features masterpieces by artists such as Sesshū and Ogata Kōrin (1658-1716) among many others, copied by Kyōsai himself. Each entry is followed by a brief description of the artist’s painting philosophy as well as his artistic genealogy. 


What makes this work different from other gafu of the time is the wide range of painting styles it covers. Kyōsai gadan features paintings of seventy-four masters across various schools of Chinese and Japanese painting. It was unheard of at the time for gafu to showcase highly regarded Kano or Tosa school painters’ work alongside ukiyo-e, the genre of art enjoyed by townspeople, or to include European anatomical drawings normally only studied by those in the medical field. Kyōsai believed that artists should learn from all styles of art to become truly skilled painters. 

Kyōsai’s inclusive view of artistic practice is also evident in the way his discussion on painting is presented. Instead of using classical Chinese characters for the text, as was the case with more traditional gafu, Kyōsai opted to use both kana syllabary and Chinese characters, often employing glossing (furigana) to make it easier for the general public to read. A large part of the text also includes English translations, showing that his target audience extended beyond Japanese painters. Kyōsai’s use of English comes as no surprise as he was known to have enjoyed friendships with English speakers. Kyōsai cultivated a particularly close relationship with the English architect Josiah Conder (1852-1920), who later became Kyōsai’s pupil, painting under the name Kyōei.


The latter two volumes of the set are a supplemental biography of Kyōsai written by Uryū Masayasu (1821-1893) and illustrated by Kyōsai. In this biography, anecdotes from Kyōsai’s childhood and the defining moments of his career were woven together to further highlight his philosophy and beliefs as an artist. 


Eri Mizukane

Selected Readings:

Jordan, Brenda G. “Kawanabe Kyōsai’s Theory and Pedagogy: The Preeminence of Shasei.” In Copying the Master and Stealing His Secrets: Talent and Training in Japanese Painting, edited by Victoria Weston and Brenda G. Jordan, 86–115. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003.

Sadamura, Koto. “Meiji no gafu ‘Kyōsai gadan’ : Kinsei ehon bunka kara no renzoku to atarashii jidai ni okeru tenkai.” Ukiyo-e geijutsu 166 (2013): 20–37.

Digital facsimile for browsing (Colenda)

Utagawa Kunisada 歌川国貞 Azuma Genji 吾妻源氏, [ca. 1830]

Utagawa Kunisada 歌川国貞 (1786-1865)

Hana Sanjin 鼻山人 (1790-1858), author

Azuma Genji 吾妻源氏

Volumes 1, 3 (of 3)
Edo period (1603-1868), [ca. 1830]
Woodblock printed book; ink, color, and metallics on paper

26.3 x 19.4 cm


Azuma Genji (Eastern Genji


Azuma Genji is a luxuriously produced three-volume set of erotica, illustrated by Utagawa Kunisada, with text by popular writer Hana Sanjin (1790-1858). Azuma Genji was published in the 1830s during the height of Inaka Genji popularity (see pp. …). The title and preface suggest a connection to The Tale of Genji. However, the main text is based on another popular novel, Shin Usuyuki monogatari (The New Tale of Usuyuki), about the doomed love affair of Princess Usuyuki, published in 1716 and adapted for the stage. Kunisada’s illustrations do not strictly follow Shin Usuyuki monogatari, instead occasionally alluding to it. Here, the reference to Genji in the title made use of period associations of the tale with elegance, refinement, and the erotic. This was often the case with Genji-titled erotica from the Edo period.


Over 130 erotica titles are attributed to Kunisada, including Enshoku shinasadame discussed previously. Azuma Genji is signed under Kunisada’s pseudonym, Bukiyō Matahei. This signature and a seal reading namazu, or “catfish,” are visible on the left corner of the screen in the background of the image here. Writer Hana Sanjin used the variant name Ōhana Sanjin. Artists and authors typically did not sign erotica in order to skirt the bans on this material. By using a pseudonym, Kunisada covertly claims authorship; it is likely that only a limited audience would have known him by this name. Erotic books like this one also did not include colophons, making it difficult to determine bibliographic information such as publishers, other contributors, date, and place of publication. The illustrations are enhanced with embossing to give texture and depth, as well as rich colors, gold, silver, and mica.

Eri Mizukane

Selected Readings:


Hayashi Yoshikazu. Edo enpon daijiten. Tokyo: Kawade shobō shinsha, 2011.


———. Utagawa Kunisada. Tokyo: Kawade shobō shinsha, 2011.

Higuchi Kazutaka. Kunisada no shunga. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2018.

Utagawa Kunisada 歌川国貞, Nise Murasaki inaka Genji 偐紫田舎源氏, 1829-1842

Utagawa Kunisada 歌川国貞 (1786-1865)

Ryūtei Tanehiko 柳亭種彦 (1783-1842), author 

Nise Murasaki inaka Genji 偐紫田舎源氏

Volumes 1-38 

Publisher: Tsuruya Kiemon, Edo

Edo period (1603-1868), 1829-1842

Woodblock printed book; ink on paper

17.4 x 11.9 cm


Making an impression in the world of Edo-period illustrated fiction was critical to success. Publishers navigated the tastes of readers hungry for books, acquired necessary investment capital, and commissioned authors, artists, block carvers, and printers to sustain the production. Publisher Tsuruya Kiemon got it right with a work that was an unqualified hit by any metric: Nise Murasaki inaka Genji written by Ryūtei Tanehiko and illustrated by Utagawa Kunisada. 


This book plays on the cultural capital of Genji monogatari, or The Tale of Genji, a prose narrative dated to the early eleventh century believed to be written by the lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu (d. ca. 1016). The tale is now regarded as a classic of Japanese literature. By the later Edo period readership of the Genji had waned due to the difficulty in reading its classical language. When the first installment of Nise Murasaki inaka Genji was published in 1829, no full version of The Tale of Genji had been printed for over a century. Tanehiko’s text played a critical part in the revival of The Tale of Genji and its subsequent appreciation. Tanehiko transforms the original story into a serial novel, transposing it forward in time to chronicle the exploits of the shining Mitsuuji (rather than Genji) in the Muromachi period (1336-1573). 


For the publisher, combining the savvy writer and popular illustrator was a jackpot. The first chapter, published tentatively as a standalone volume, may have reached 15,000 copies due to high demand. In the opening shown here, a note explains that the first printing was issued at the New Year of 1829, and that this impression is from the second month of 1830. Further installments appeared at the beginning of each year. Unfortunately, Tanehiko did not finish the story–the last volume was published in 1842, in the same year of the author’s death. 

Nicholas Purgett

Selected Readings:


Emmerich, Michael. “The Splendor of Hybridity: Image and Text in Ryūtei Tanehiko’s Inaka Genji.” In Envisioning the Tale of Genji: Media, Gender, and Cultural Production, edited by Haruo Shirane, 211–39. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.


———. The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.


Markus, Andrew Lawrence. The Willow in Autumn: Ryūtei Tanehiko, 1783-1842. Cambridge: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1992.


Utagawa Kunisada 歌川国貞, Totoya Hokkei 魚屋北渓, Natsu no Fuji 夏の富士, 1827

Utagawa Kunisada 歌川国貞 (1786-1865), and Totoya Hokkei 魚屋北渓 (1780-1850)

Santō Kyōzan 山東京山 (1769-1858), author

Natsu no Fuji 夏の富士

Volumes 1-2 

Publishers: Tsuruya Kiemon, Yamamoto Heikichi, Nishimuraya Yohachi, Izumiya Ichibē and Moriya Jihē, Edo

Edo period (1603-1868), 1827
Woodblock printed book; ink and color on pap​​er

22 x 15.8 cm


The title of this book, Natsu no Fuji, is a pun on the notion that actors’ faces without white makeup resemble the snowless peak in warm months. This metaphor was used for the first time in Katsukawa Shunshō’s book of a similar title published in 1780; there, Shunshō depicted kabuki actors offstage pursuing a variety of activities at home, going on boat rides, and strolling the streets of the city. Kunisada illustrated this new version of Natsu no Fuji in the late 1820s, almost fifty years later. 

This opening shows famous actors of Kunisada’s time enjoying the cool evening breeze on the Kamo River in Kyoto. Ichikawa Momotarō (Danzō VI, 1800-1871) is depicted standing in the water emptying his pipe, while Seki Sanjūrō II (1786-1839) leans to greet the female entertainer. Bandō Minosuke II (Mitsugorō IV, 1802-1863) and Sawamura Gennosuke II (Sōjūrō V, 1802-1853) are shown looking on from behind. The figure on the left with a sake cup is Nakamura Karoku I (1779-1859), a renowned Osaka actor specializing in female roles (onnagata). Since women were prohibited from performing in theater, their roles were played by men, and these actors can be easily identified by their purple headscarves covering the shaved portion of the adult male hairstyle.


Kabuki was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the early modern period and its actors were akin to contemporary celebrities. Fans were ready to pay to read stories about their idols and get a glimpse into their private lives. In a commercially driven ukiyo-e world, publishers were eager to supply them with books like Natsu no Fuji. Kunisada was a fitting choice as a designer since he had a close relationship with many of the actors and, like Toyokuni before him, was also famed among his contemporaries for actor likenesses (nigao).


Maria Puzyreva

Selected Readings:

Izzard, Sebastian, J. Thomas Rimer, and John T. Carpenter. Kunisada’s World. New York: Japan Society of America, 1993.


Tinios, Ellis. “Greater than Utamaro: The Fame of Utagawa Kunisada.” Ukiyo-e geijutsu 171 (2016): 95–113.


———. Mirror of the Stage: The Actor Prints of Kunisada. Leeds: University Gallery Leeds, 1996.

Digital facsimile for browsing 

Yamaguchi Soken 山口素絢 Soken gafu sōka no bu 素絢画譜草花之部, 1806

Yamaguchi Soken 山口素絢 (1759-1818)

Soken gafu sōka no bu 素絢画譜草花之部

Volumes 1-3

Publisher: Hishiya Magobē and Noda Kasuke, Kyoto

Edo period (1603-1686), 1806

Woodblock printed book; ink on paper

26.9 x 18.6 cm

In Soken gafu sōka no bu, Yamaguchi Soken illustrates seventy-three kinds of plants in three volumes. The opening shown here presents a bitter melon in full bloom, the tendrils of the plant arching gracefully across the page. To achieve the variation of tone, the leaves were carved in lower relief than the vines, attainingthe effect of gradation of color in a single monochrome block. This visual style and innovative method of using a single block came to be associated with Soken. The more frequently employed technique of printing with two separate blocks to apply various shades of ink also appears in this book.

Soken was often employed to produce illustrations for painting manuals. The publisher’s colophon page advertises another Soken-illustrated title,Yamato jinbutsu gafu (Picture Album of the People of Yamato), issued in two parts a few years earlier, in 1799 and 1804. The colophon also advertises that Soken’s painting manual of landscapes, figures, and flower-and-bird scenes will soon be published; however, only the volume on landscapes came to print. Soken was probably commissioned by his publishers to produce studies on various painting themes, and he may have been responding to Chinese painting manuals like the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting

The preface to Soken gafu sōka no bu introduces two approaches to flower-and-bird painting and elevates Soken as one of the great painters of this subject. It reports that the subject was established by Chinese painters Huang Quan (903-965) and Xu Xi (d. 975), who used detailed linework and vibrant color. The freehand style of the monochrome paintings that flourished during the Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming dynasties (1368-1644) constituted the next phase of development. It further claims that Soken has surpassed both of these lineages and is thus no longer limited by imitation. The preface adds that painting manuals as a genre had become a device of promoting the painter, often through dialogues with established precedents in Chinese painting.

The second and third volumes in the Tress collection include plant names inscribed in red, but the first volume does not, suggesting that these volumes were brought together at some point to form a set. This is further indicated by the different collectors’ seals and inscriptions in the first volume and the other two volumes.

Tim Zhang


Selected Readings:

Mitchell, Charles H. The Illustrated Books of the Nanga, Maruyama, Shijo and Other Related Schools of Japan: A Biobibliography. Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1972.

Suzuki, Jun, and Ellis Tinios. Understanding Japanese Woodblock-Printed Illustrated Books: A Short Introduction to Their History, Bibliography and Format. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Tinios, Ellis. “Soken gafu sōka no bu.” The World of the Japanese Illustrated Book: F|S Pulverer Collection, 2016.