The Art Of Japanese Block Printing

Block printing has been practiced in Japan for over a millennium now. During this period, it has prospered and grown as an art that retains its charm, charisma and significance in the world of automation and computerized designing. It has also evolved complex processes that provide it its characteristic finesse and quality and allows it to retain its unique status.
The Art of Japanese Block Printing
Source - Wikimedia Commons (

Japanese Block Printing is one of the most intriguing arts of our times. Given the painstaking nature of this art, it a nothing less than a miracle that it has survived the mechanical advances of this ages and been able to hold its own.

History of Japanese Block Printing

The art of Japanese block printing has a long history that goes back to the eighth century, when Empress Shotoku ordered the creation of one million 'stupas', containing woodblocks on which Buddhist text (Dharani) was printed. Many of these stupas, distributed to temples across the country, as a thanksgiving for the suppression of

Emi rebellion of 764 A.D. have survived up to this day.

Till the sixteenth century, Buddhist temples were using wooden block printing to create religious texts, but these were not easily available to the masses, neither the public was literate or capable of owning them up. Most of these prints containing sutras, mandals and Buddhist tales with or without images were used and preserved in the temples.

The wood block printing got a major boost in the Edo period (1602 - 1867 A.D.), when Tokogawa Leyasu, the shogun, as well as his chief opponent, Toyotomi Hedeori, both encouraged the literacy and learning of the urban public of Edo (as Tokyo was called at the time). During the same time, Wood block printing faced a tough competition from Korean movable type printing press, but in the end it was decided to pursue with the Wooden block printing.

The artistic genre of Wood block printing, 'Ukio-e' (literally meaning 'pictures of floating world') blossomed during the Edo period as a form of art that has retained its charm worldwide till today. It began with single color printing methods that were not very dissimilar from their Chinese and Western counterparts, and used India ink in the beginning of sixteenth century. However, the art was popularized and developed further by consistent innovation and mastering of technique by artistes such as Hishikawa Moronowu in 1670s, and by eighteenth century, the efforts of Suzuki Harunobe and others have evolved it into a unique form of multi-color printing, called 'Nishiki-e' that prides itself in its immaculate detail, and an extraordinary multi-colored product that matches the richness of colors of water color pictures, as well as the depth of oil bound paintings, even while printing multiple copies at the same time.

Characteristics of Japanese Block Printing

The multi color Japanese Wood block printing follows a complex process to ensure its richness and preserve its color. It is a long drawn process, unlike the single color Western block printing, and follows its own set of rules devised from the experience of masters over a period of several centuries. The process begins with creation of 'Genga', the original sketch on paper, developed into a drawing, which is then converted into an outline drawing or 'Sen-gaki', which is to be used for making the key block. 'Minogami' paper treated with 'dosa' (a special sizing) is the preferred medium for sen-gaki. The sen-gaki is allowed to dry before

it is pasted face down on the wood block. The preferred wood for wood-block is Cherry, but others like sakura and honoki are also used. The process of pasting sen-gaki on wood-block is a very delegate process, and it is said that in the Edo period, even an apprentice with seven years of experience was not allowed to handle this part, which was handled by the Master himself.

The accuracy of pasting sen-gaki properly ensures that the Wood-block will develop just as the original picture. Special tools including the knife, called 'to', and different types of chisels, called 'aisuki' (digging chisels), 'maru nomi' (round chisels) and 'hira nomi' (flat chisels) are used to prepare the wood block. These wood blocks are then used to create impressions called 'Kyogo', on which different colors are indicated to create the 'Iro-sashi', and which are in turn used to create different color blocks (Iro-ban), in the same manner as done with the 'sen-gaki' on wooden block in the first place. In case of color blocks, the right-angle and horizontal register marks called 'kagi' and 'hikitsuke' become very important as they ensure that each color block prints exactly the place it is intended to print.

In Japanese multi color wood block printing, the number of color blocks that are used may go up to over a hundred, a feature not seen in any other form of block printing, and the accuracy of these multi prints, and the impact of each of these colors is what makes this form of art unique an very different from any other block printing. Following the Meiji restoration in 1868, popularity of ukiyo-e gave way to photography imported from the West, but simultaneously, it was also exported as a form of art to the West, where its influence has been referred to as 'Japonism' in art circles.

Contemporary Japanese Block Printing Styles

In modern times, Japanese wood printing is surviving in two forms- Shin-hanga (new prints) and Sosaku-hanga (creative prints). Shin-hanga is a more traditional form and is more popular, while the Sosaku-hanga is more experimental and draws inspiration from the European style of creativity of the artists.

In today's modern world of computers and mechanized production, Japanese artists have been able to keep this heritage alive, and by succeeding in doing so they have made the global human society richer in a way that cannot be quantified in monetary terms.


  1. Yoshida H., Japanese Woodblock Printing, The Senseido Company Ltd., Tokyo & Osaka, 1939. Available at: /011_07.html [20.4.08]
  2. Wikipedia, Woodblock printing in Japan, available at: apan [20.4.08]
  3. Wikipedia, Ukio-e, available at: [20.4.08]

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