Ukiyo-e (浮世絵) is a genre of paintings and woodblock prints that was very popular in Japan from the 17th to the 19th century. It is a kind of art genuinely Japanese, aimed at the rich merchant class of Edo period. Although at that time the merchant class occupied one of the lowest positions in society, it was the one that profited the most by the urbanization and economic growth of the 17th century. Far from the strict discipline of the military class, merchant and artisans soon discovered the pleasure of a hedonistic lifestyle: kabuki theaters and the pleasure districts became extremely popular. Ukiyo-e is the kind of art chosen to document the shift in values and popular activities at that time. Ukiyo-e has influenced many Western artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Gustav Klimt and more.

Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Courtesan (after Eisen)”

Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Courtesan (after Eisen)”. From Wikipedia

Meaning of the name

The literal meaning of Ukiyo-e is “pictures of the floating world”; it is an ironic allusion to the homophonous Buddhist term 憂き世 , “sorrowful world”. Its original subject was city life and the pleasures it had to offer: Kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, beautiful women and erotica. Other popular subjects included landscapes, flora and fauna, travel scenes, and scenes from history and folk tales. The images were used to decorate the house, and also for illustrations in picture books and guide books, as well as posters for kabuki theater.


Behind an Ukiyo-e print there was usually the work of many artists and artisans. The work process was divided among four groups of people: there was the publisher, who commissioned the prints and was in charge of promoting and distributing them; the artists, who drew the image; the woodcarvers, who carved the woodblocks according to the image to represent; and the printers, who made impressions of the woodblocks on paper. Usually only the publisher and the artists were credited for their job.

The first Ukiyo-e prints were monochrome; color was seldom added by hand for special commissions. It was only in the 1760s, with the success of Suzuki Harunobu, that colored Ukiyo-e prints became standard. This new kind of Ukiyo-e required more work, as several woodblocks needed to be used in order to add the different colors.

You can watch how to put on the color in this video;

Main artists

1. Hishikawa Moronobu

Ukiyo-e is thought to have originated from his polychromatic paintings (1670s). He started to illustrate books using woodblock prints, and developed a technique for the mass production of paintings, making them accessible to more people.

Ukiyo-e piece “Beauty Looking Back” from Hishikawa Moronobu

Ukiyo-e piece “Beauty Looking Back” from Hishikawa Moronobu

2. Okumura Masanobu

He was one of the first painters to use different woodblocks to color areas of the print.

Ukiyo-e piece “Niô Ume” from Okumura Masanobu

Ukiyo-e piece “Niô Ume” from Okumura Masanobu

3. Kitagawa Utamaro

He is considered to be one of the greatest Ukiyo-e artists. His work embraces several different subjects, from portraits to landscapes to court scenes. Utamaro is also the main character of Kenji Mizoguchi’s movie Five Women Around Utamaro (1946).

Ukiyo-e piece “Three Beauties of the Present Day” from Kitagawa Utamaro

Ukiyo-e piece “Three Beauties of the Present Day” from Kitagawa Utamaro

4. Katsushika Hokusai

He is the author of the block prints Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, (created around 1823–1829), which includes the incredibly famous In the Hollow of a Wave off the Coast at Kanagawa.

Ukiyo-e piece “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” from Katsuhika Hokusai

Ukiyo-e piece “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” from Katsuhika Hokusai

5. Utagawa Hiroshige

his style had a deep influence on Western painters: many impressionists and post-impressionist found inspiration in his work.

Ukiyo-e piece “View of Awa no Naruto” from Utagawa Hiroshige

Ukiyo-e piece “View of Awa no Naruto” from Utagawa Hiroshige

Ukiyo-e Museum in Tokyo

For those who want to find out more about Ukiyo-e, the Ōta Memorial Museum of Art (浮世絵 太田記念美術館) in Shibuya, Tokyo, presents rotating exhibitions of Ukiyo-e from a collection of over 12,000 pieces, gathered by Seizo Ōta V over more than 50 years, including works of Hiroshige and Hokusai. The Museum can be easily reached with the JR Yamanote line, it is located just a few minutes walking distance from Harajuku station.

Ukiyo-e Ōta Memorial Museum of Art

1-10-10 Jingu-mae Shibuyaku Tokyo


Admission Fee:
Depends on each exhibition

10:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. (Last Admission: 5:00 p.m.)

・Mondays (except National Holidays) If Monday is a holiday, closed on the next work day.
・The period of changing exhibition (See the calendar for the details)
・The museum will be closed from November 24th, 2015 to February 1st, 2016 due to renovation work.


Please refer to the official website for the latest information.