Bird Print History


Published by the Reader Collection, Ontario,  Canada, 2014  ISBN 978-0-9937035-1-5

Reader Collection > Guides > History of Japanese Art: Bird Prints


Chapter 2 – Ukiyo-e Bird Prints


Picture Format


Ukiyo-e printmakers chose a vertical orientation for most of their bird prints. Three different vertical formats were used; namely, height 2-3 times the width (38%a), height 1-1.5 times the width (36%) and height more than 4 times the width (12%).  Examples of these three vertical formats are given below (prints 1, 2 and 3, respectively). The first two of these three formats were also used for painted picturesb which may account for their greater popularity.





 1   Common kingfishera (Alcedo atthis) by Hiroshige Utagawa, 165 mm x 380 mm, woodblock print


a   Both english and italized latin names of bird genera and species follow the nomenclature of Lepage (2013). 



2   Eurasian bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) by Utamaro Kitagawa, 165 mm x 225 mm, woodblock print courtesy of the Boston Museum of Fine Art


3   Blue magpie (Urocissa erythrorhyncha) by Shūchō Tamigawa, 75 mm x 350 mm, woodblock print



The third format was used only by printmakersc.   It is commonly called a pillar print because it was narrow enough to be attached to a pillar supporting the roof of a house of the time. Pictures with a horizontal format (14%) were inspired by European landscape pictures which appeared in books brought to Japan by Dutch tradersd. Print 4 is an example of a horizontal Japanese landscape scene featuring birds. Some printmakers also used the horizontal format for close up views of birds, as in print 5. In the latter picture the western practice of including a picture border was also adopted. However, only 7% of ukiyo-e bird prints had a border likely because pictures were not mounted in wooden frames as they were in Europe, making a picture border unnecessary.


4   White-naped crane (Grus vipio) and red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis) by Hokusai Katsushika, 370 mm x 250 mm, woodblock print entitled Umezawa manor in Sōshū. The cranes with black bellies are white-naped.












5   Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) by Hiroshige Utagawa, 225 mm x 145 mm, woodblock print

Printmakers normally included some written information about themselves on a print. Artists wrote their names using the Japanese kanji alphabet. This signature was written more often on the lower half of a picture (prints 2, 3) than on the top half (prints 1, 4). Some artists also added their personal seal (prints 1, 3, 5). Print publishers added their company logo to about 8% of ukiyo-e bird prints. One example is the rectangle and circle logo used by the publisher Yamaguchiya Tōbei on print 2. The circular seal above this logo is called a censor seal. To minimize political unrest and offensive behaviour the government censored some printed matter. A censor seal showed that an item had passed inspection. Bird prints were unlikely to offend or cause political unrest so only a few (1%) show evidence of having been inspected. A few printmakers (10%) also included written information about a picture’s subject. When the Japanese names of birds and (or) flowers were included they could appear either alone or as part of a poem written in any of the three Japanese scripts (kanji, hiragana, katakana). The poem written on print 1 mentions a flower. A landscape picture could include the name of the location depicted as it does in print 4.


a   All percentages are based on a sample of 932 ukiyo-e bird prints by 69 different artists. Their names, signatures and examples of their prints are included in Appendix 1.
b   A picture painted on paper was typically mounted on a scroll for display. The scroll was unrolled and hung vertically so pictures were usually vertically oriented as well. It is unclear whether bird prints were also mounted on scrolls for display or simply attached directly to the wall. A print was relatively inexpensive compared to a painting because multiple copies could be made and sold. It would be surprising to discover that purchasers of inexpensive prints incurred additional expense by having them mounted on scrolls. 
c   Invention of the pillar print is attributed to Masanobu Okumura (Pins, 1982).
d   See Woodson (1998) for more information about Japanese landscape prints.



Picture Composition

Birds were often (69%) paired with either flowering or fruiting plants in keeping with the Chinese bird-and-flower paintings on which ukiyo-e bird prints were based. The birds and flowers chosen for depiction typically had symbolic meaning. The swallows and cherry flowers in print 6 are both symbols of the spring seasona. Non-flowering plants appear in an additional 22% of ukiyo-e bird prints. Plants with symbolic significance, such as the pine treeb in print 7, were especially popular choices.

a   Ball (1969), Volker (1975) and Baird (2001) explain the symbolic associations of many of the plants and birds included in this book.
b   Due to its evergreen leaves the pine is a symbol of long life.



6   Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) by Hiroshige Utagawa, 100 mm x 285 mm, woodblock print








7   Red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis) by Yoshikazu Utagawa, 85 mm x 245 mm, woodblock print



Inanimate objects were included in about a third of ukiyo-e bird prints. Three of these objects, flowing water, the sun and earth appear in print 7 above. Artists worldwide use flowing water to suggest motion or action. The rising, red sunc likely indicates the start of a new year as well as a new day. Earth simply provided a platform for a standing bird. A full moon also appeared in a number of ukiyo-e bird prints, often with a flying cuckoo as in print 8. Cuckoos may sing throughout the night which is the basis for this pairing.

  c   Japan is popularly known as the land of the rising sun not only because the sun rises first in the east but also because the kanji name for Japan (i.e., Nihon) means sun-origin.  


Birds were combined with humans in a few prints (1%). In print 9 a courtesan is shown reading a love letter while riding on the back of a crane. This design parodies Chinese paintings in which a person of significance with good morals was shown being carried to heaven on the back of a large bird, often a crane. Humor such as this was characteristic of ukiyo-e prints showing human activity.  



8   Lesser cuckoo (Cuculus poliocephalus) by Kunisada Utagawa, 105 mm x 155 mm, woodblock print




9   Red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis) by Harunobu Suzuki, 210 mm x 275 mm, woodblock print


Man-made objects were shown on some (5%) ukiyo-e bird prints. Prints 10 and 11 provide two examples. According to Japanese legend a big drum was used to summon troops before a battle but in peace time it stood unused and became a favorite perching spot for domestic fowl instead. Peace time is symbolized by the combination of a big drum and domestic fowl in print 10.  In print 11 a northern goshawk was shown sitting on a man-made perch. Hawking was a popular sport for military government leaders and owning either a hawk or a print of this powerful predator was a sign of the owner’s power. 





10    Rooster (Gallus gallus) by Yoshimori Utagawa, 155 mm x 335 mm, woodblock print courtesy of the Rhode Island School of Design




11   Northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) by Hiroshige Utagawa, 130 mm x 380 mm, woodblock print




Bird Species Chosen for Depiction

Ukiyo-e artists chose a wide rangea of naturally occurring bird species to depict in their printed art. It is impractical to show an example of each species so only the most popular (i.e., chosen most often) and the most distinctive (i.e., chosen only by ukiyo-e artists) are described here. The most popular bird species were members of the following six bird families; (1) pheasants and fowl (41%)b, (2) sparrows (40%), (3-4) hawks and falcons (39%), (5) ducks and geese (38%) and (6) cranes (29%). Birds in these families are either large enough and (or) common enough to be seen easily by humans with their naked eye. Being easily seen, and therefore familiar, likely increased a bird species’ chance of being chosen for depiction. Each of the most popular species also had a symbolic association with a particular season of the year or human trait. These associations are mentioned in the following descriptions of species chosen from the six most popular bird families.


(1) Pheasants and Fowl (Phasianidae)c

Golden pheasant (print 12), green pheasant (print 13) and domestic fowl (print 14) each appeared often in ukiyo-e bird prints. All three species were associated with manly beauty because of the male bird’s colorful plumage. The male’s tendency to fight with rivals made it a symbol of fighting ability and power as well. The golden pheasant was imported from the Asian continent and was kept in aviaries along with other exotic species for entertainment. The green pheasant is native to Japan and was most likely to be seen when it searched for food along the edges of cultivated fieldsd

a   87 species from 41 bird families appeared in the 932 ukiyo-e prints examined.
b   percentage of ukiyo-e artists who chose a species from this bird family for depiction
c   scientific name of the bird family
d   Brazil (1991) describes the life of Japanese birds in more detail




12   Golden pheasant (Chrysolophus pictus) by Jakuchū Itō, 305 mm x 200 mm, woodblock print



13   Green pheasant (Phasianus versicolor) by Hiroshige Utagawa, 170 mm x 380 mm, woodprint















14   Domestic fowl (Gallus gallus) by Hiroshige Utagawa, 175 mm x 370 mm, woodblock print



(2) Sparrows (Passeridae)

The Eurasian tree sparrow (print 15) is common in both natural and man-made habitats throughout Japan and it is the wild bird most likely to be seen on a daily basis. It has many symbolic associationsa, including loyalty because its call sounds like a Japanese word for loyalty (chū).











15   Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus) by Ichiga Oki, 275 mm x 150 mm, woodblock print


a    the Eurasian tree sparrow is also a symbol of grace, kindness, honor and the winter season.



(3-4) Hawks (Accipitridae) and Falcons (Falconidae)

The northern goshawk (print 11) and peregrine falcon (print 16) are native to Japan but a captive hawk or falcon used for sport was more likely to be seen than its wild counterpart by the average Japanese person. Their symbolic association with boldness, courage and victory reflect its practice of successfully attacking other birds.


(5) Ducks and Geese (Anatidae)

The mandarin duck (print 17), white-fronted goose (print 18) and mallard duck (print 19) were the three species of waterfowl most often depicted in ukiyo-e bird prints. The mandarin duck is associated with marital fidelity and happiness so the male and female are usually shown together. Ducks and geese in general are symbols of autumn and winter because migrating flocks arrive in autumn from Russia to spend winter months in Japan. Arriving autumn migrants are often shown in descending flight, as in print 18. The falling snow in print 19 reflects their association with cold winter months.


16   Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) by Hiroshige Utagawa, 175 mm x 380 mm, woodblock print



















17   Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) by Hiroshige Utagawa, 135 mm x 380 mm, woodblock print




18   White-fronted goose (Anser albifrons) by Hiroshige Utagawa, 130 mm x 380 mm, woodblock print























19   Mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) by Hiroshige Utagawa, 140 mm x 380 mm, woodblock print



(6) Cranes (Gruidae)

The two species of cranes shown in print 20 were popular choices for ukiyo-e printmakers. The white-naped crane (with a black belly) is a winter visitor to Japan while the red-crowned crane is a year round resident. Consequently, the latter was depicted more often than the former. Cranes are associated with long life and prosperity both in China and in Japan which made them popular subjects for Chinese flower-and-bird paintings and for the Japanese ukiyo-e bird prints which they inspired.  

Some (8%) of the bird species depicted by Japanese printmakers only appear in Ukiyo-e prints. One such species is the mythical hō-ō bird (print 21).  Its tail feathers represent the five virtues of obedience, purity, loyalty, justice and kindness. The hō-ō bird was a favorite of Chinese artists and its choice by ukiyo-e artists is likely due to this influence.  






21   Mythical hō-ō bird by Koryūsai Isoda, 190 mm x 255 mm, woodblock print courtesy of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

20   White-naped crane (Grus vipio) and red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis) by Utamaro Kitagawa, 260 mm x 385 mm, woodblock print courtesy of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.





Accuracy of Depiction

Ukiyo-e artists adopted the Chinese philosophy of arta by attempting to reveal the inner spirit of the bird being depicted instead of its physical appearance. Some external features of a bird could be purposely ignored or distorted to help create a sense of movement and action which revealed inner spirit. Spirit was emphasized over form because the artist was often interested in using the bird as a symbol of some aspect of the human spirit. Features of a particular bird’s shape and (or) color that were needed by a viewer to make the correct symbolic association were shown but rarely in a true-to-life way. Semi-accurate is the word that best describes the level of accuracy used by ukiyo-e artists to draw birds. Their use of semi-accurate color or shape is illustrated below using two examples (prints 22 and 23). In print 22 the green pheasant’s beautiful multicolor plumageb is shown only in shades of grey. However, even without full color this bird is identifiable due to the accurate depiction of its body shape and plumage pattern. In print 23 the shape of the Eurasian tree sparrow is only semi-accurate because its wings are too pointed and head size is slightly exaggeratedc. However, the color scheme is sufficiently accurate for viewers to easily identify this bird as a Eurasian tree sparrow.


a   See Rowland (1954) for additional information about the Chinese philosophy of art and its consequences for the depiction of  animals and plants.
b   The green pheasant’s multicolor plumage is shown accurately in print 53.
c   See print 61 for a more accuracy depiction of the shape of a Eurasian tree sparrow.

















22   Green pheasant (Phasianus versicolor) by Hidemaro Kitagawa, 180 mm x 210 mm, woodblock print




23   Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus) by Hokusai Katsushika, 385 mm x 255 mm, woodblock print



  Method of Printmaking


Woodblock printinga was the method used to produce all ukiyo-e bird prints. In this method of printmaking the picture design was first outlined on the surface of a piece of wood. Areas surrounding this outline were then chiseled away. Next, ink was applied to the outline, followed by a piece of paper, and the back of the paper was rubbed to transfer ink to paper. To create a multi-colored print the piece of paper was placed sequentially on a series of wooden blocks each carved and inked differently to show a particular portion of the design. To avoid overprinting one color with the next in this sequence the piece of paper must be placed in exactly the right position on each block. It was not until the 1760s that a method was found to ensure the correct positioning of paper on sequential blocks. Consequently, multiple colors were used sparingly for bird prints produced before then.

     Print 24 is an example of an early multi-colored print. Three colors were used (i.e., black, dark red and yellow) for the eagle and monkey while the background was left uncolored. Later prints typically used more colors. For example, six different colors were used to completely fill the picture area of print 25. However, in most colored prints (e.g., print 26) the background was only partly colored and in others (8%) only shades of grey were used (e.g., print 27). Makers of the latter prints may have found less color to be more aesthetically pleasing. Alternatively, the greater of cost and technical difficulty of multicolor printing may have discouraged some printmakers from using it. 


a   For a more detailed description of woodblock printing as practiced in Japan see Sasaki (2005).




24   Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) by Kiyomasu Torii, 305 mm x 555 mm, woodblock print




25   Long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

by Koryūsai Isoda, 160 mm x 230 mm, woodblock print


27   Hawk (Accipiter sp.a) by Toyohiro Utagawa, 165 mm x 220 mm, woodblock  print


a    When the species is unclear the abbreviation  sp. is used.





26   Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus) by Taito II Katsushika, 375 mm x 255 mm, woodblock print








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