The period in Japanese art history known as the Edo Period refers to the time when Edo (modern-day Tokyo) was the Shogunate’s capital of Japan, between the years 1603 and 1868. The Shogun in the year 1603 was Tokugawa Ieyasu, who moved his capital from the traditional city of Kyoto, to a small village in the East named Edo. Despite Edo’s original size, the Shogun’s decision proved popular, and within 100 years, Edo was the largest city in the world (Guth, 1996: 89).
At first, as a relatively new city, Edo had very little cultural heritage, particularly in comparison to Kyoto, with its vibrant silks and well-established culture. However, Edo soon established a distinctive culture of its own, utilising its own urban ideas to create a style unique to the city of Edo. Edo’s layout was based upon Japanese principles of geomancy, a set of guidelines determining the locations of particular buildings and areas, and where to place particular classes of people.
Normally citizens would not be allowed to look south upon the Shogun’s castle, yet when planning Edo, an exception was made and the castle surrounded on all sides, for defence reasons. Only those members of society closest to the Shogun such as his family and his retainers were able to occupy the area north of the Shogun, however. The northwest and southeast areas of the city were occupied by the lowest members of society, the townspeople, including craftsmen and merchants (Salter, 2006: 25).
Temples were built in the northeast and southwest of the city, as it was believed that energy known as Qi would pass over the city in this direction. The northeastern temple area replicates a similar area in northeastern Kyoto, which until now was traditionally the base of the Shogun and the Emperor, and is seen as the perfect example of what an East Asian city should be like. Every effort was made by the Shogun to accurately replicate this area of Kyoto, including the buildings, shrine, and an artificial lake was even built to appear related to the natural lake in Kyoto.
The Qi energy was thought to be cleansed as it passed over this temple area in the northeast, so as to be clean to pass over the city, and upon leaving the city, it was cleansed again, in case it had picked up any bad energy as it passed over. To ensure the energy was as pure as possible before passing over the city, areas bearing bad energy were placed before the temple in the northeast, so it would be cleansed shortly afterwards.
These areas housed the bad parts of society, and included the execution grounds, prostitution district, and the ‘untouchables’, who would not be allowed to enter into the main city, as it would be almost soiled by their presence. The most interesting part of these outcast areas to the art historian is the Yoshiwara district, or ‘pleasure district’, where wealthy men from the city went to experience the wonders of what is known as the ‘floating world’.
The transition between the city and the ‘floating world’ is said to have been a reality-shifting one, with twisted trees and even a change of time zone making the journey made by boat up to the pleasure district an altogether bizarre experience. Upon reaching the pleasure district, the men would have to remove their weapons, therefore abandoning any social status they held back in the city, also altering reality a little, as status was so important within society when one was in the city.
Within the Yoshiwara district, one’s money and taste took priority over one’s social status in the city (Guth, 1996: 94). The pleasures that awaited them in the district of Yoshiwara included prostitution, which held no stigma at the time. This area of brothels became the inspiration for numerous artists at the time, who found the district’s visitors and inhabitants highly suitable subject matter for their paintings. These pictures became known as Ukiyo-e, and became very popular within Edo, and eventually the whole country of Japan.
As well as the prostitution area in the northeast of the city, the Kabuki theatres that were allowed to be based in the city were also counted as part of the floating world, and were a popular source of entertainment for the upper classes of Edo. Initially, Ukiyo-e were just original paintings of the pleasure district, but soon they became more technologically advanced and began using methods of printing with wooden blocks, saving a great amount of time during the production of paintings, and meaning they could even be mass produced.
The method of woodblock printing was initially basic, and at first only monochrome prints were produced, though as more and more prints were being made, discoveries in colour usage began (Salter, 2001: 9). At first, illustrations for books by means of woodblock printing methods were in great demand, including books featuring tales of the floating world, but also detailed medical and botanical books, requiring highly detailed prints of plants and animals (Stanley-Baker, 2000: 189).
It is possible that colour woodblock printing methods were brought to Japan from China, as lots of Chinese people fled their home country for Japan following unrest there in the 17th Century (Salter, 2001: 9), though it is not known for certain whether this is true or not. The artist named Harunobu is considered by many to be the first Japanese painter to master the art of colour woodblock printing, and his work was often said to possess tenderness and innocence (Stanley-Baker, 2000: 190).
At the start of the use of colour printing in Japan, only a small number of colours were used in each picture, in the middle of the 18th century three or four colours could be found in many pictures, but in the latter half of the century, up to a dozen and sometimes more were used (Guth, 1996: 103). Colour woodblock printing with several colours was a masterful art, and involved careful precision and accuracy.
The technique involved using a block for each individual colour, though one side of each block could be carved differently, so only half the amount of colours used would be the amount of blocks needed (Guth, 1996: 103). Each block would be meticulously carved to reflect exactly the lines of a pre-drawn monochrome print, and would need to fit exactly within the lines, creating a faultless painting at the end. Though this was a highly technical process, it was still much quicker than painting all the pictures by hand, and did allow for mass production.
The owners of these prints would either hang them up as decoration on walls or screens, or place them in boxes or albums to preserve them for frequent viewing (Guth, 1996: 99). Woodblock prints became the cornerstone of Edo art, and overshadowed all other media in the city (Guth, 1996: 90), really allowing Edo to embrace its own unique culture rather than importing art from Kyoto. The polychrome prints of Edo came to be known in Japan as Azumo Nishikie, meaning ‘eastern brocade pictures’ (Guth, 1996: 103), suggesting the prints were seen as the eastern counterpart to the Kyoto silks of the west.
The prints depicted images of the floating world, a world inaccessible to the lower classes living in Edo at the time, and so allowed inhabitants who would otherwise not be able to experience Kabuki theatre and the Yoshiwara district to do so (Salter, 2006: 27). Famous Edo Ukiyo-e artists included Harunobu, the first artist to ‘perfect’ the colour woodblock technique, Utamaro, a later master of polychrome woodblock print, and Hiroshige, one of the last traditional Ukiyo-e Edo painters.
Utamaro’s prints are amongst the most sought-after and treasured of Japanese art by Western collectors and connoisseurs (Stanley-Baker, 2000: 190), and are said by many to be psychologically acute. One highly regarded print by Utamaro is ‘O-Hisa of the Takashima tea-house holding a fan’, which involved an incredible level of skill, as it is double-sided. Printed in 1792, the image portrays in full-length a young Japanese woman, front and back, and lines up perfectly on both sides of the paper, considered an extraordinary feat of accuracy (Salter, 2001: 83).
In conclusion, the production of pictures in Japan was greatly affected by the rise of Edo, as that was the birthplace of what are known as Japanese woodblock prints today. The technological advances utilised in 18th century Japan allowed for mass production of images otherwise unseen by the masses, and the interest in the culture behind the Ukiyo-e paintings popularised the medium of woodblock prints.
These prints became readily available to even the lower classes in Edo, and put the city on the cultural map of Japan, eventually defining the city, when they became known as Azuma Nishikie. Important developments in Edo’s culture such as the pleasure districts heavily influenced the art produced there, thus requiring more exciting mediums for the art produced, and having a catalyst effect on the technology of picture production in Japan.