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 1 - Introduction


Understanding the historical development of art is both of interest and the subject of study worldwide.  Many books have been written on the subject covering different historical periods and types of art. The historical period considered in this book extends from the early 1700s to present day and the type of art is Japanese prints depicting birds. Japanese artists have designed printsa featuring birds for about three hundred yearsb. During this time the characteristics of these bird prints have changed greatly.




The purpose of this book is first, to describe historical change in the characteristics of Japanese bird prints and second, to interpret these changing characteristics in terms of changing social conditions in Japan. To help achieve this objective the three hundred year history of Japanese bird printmaking is divided into three periods; namely, (1) early 1700s to 1860s, (2) 1870s to 1940s and (3) 1950s to present day. Social forces affecting the way that artists depicted birds differed greatly between these three periods but were more similar within each period. These social forces are outlined below to provide a basis for understanding the change in bird print characteristics which took place between periods.


Early 1700s to 1860s

During this period Japan was governed by a military dictatorship headed by men of the Tokugawa clan. Their preferences and policies affected the characteristics of bird prints in three ways.

First, they supported artists of the Kanō family who painted birds in a style similar to that used by Chinese imperial court paintersc. These Kanō painters trained other artists as well, including the first generation of bird printmakers. Consequently, the first Japanese bird prints, produced in the early 1700s, strongly resembled bird-and-flower paintings from the Chinese court.

Second, military leaders restricted the flow of other styles of foreign art into Japan. This restriction allowed the Japanese version of Chinese imperial court art to develop its own unique characteristicsd

Third, their social policy and ability to keep the peace created a market for printed art in addition to the painted art they sponsored directly. They adopted the four-level, Chinese model of social structure with themselves at the top, followed in turn by farmers, artisans and merchants. While merchants were at the bottom of this social hierarchy they had more free time to seek entertainment than either farmers or artisans. Members of the merchant class were also among the wealthiest in Japanese society. This wealth resulted from an ever increasing demand for goods as population size increased in a time with minimal warfare. Men with money to spend but little opportunity to participate in politics because they were at the bottom of the social hierarchy spent their free time seeking other forms of entertainment. One such form was art prints. Prints depicting beautiful women, sex and theater performers were the most popular but bird prints were also available for those with more refined taste. Literally thousands of prints were produced to meet the demand for this form of entertainment. Today these prints are collectively called ukiyo-e prints. The Japanese word ukiyo-e means pictures (e) of the floating (i.e., transient) world (ukiyo), referring to the transient life of sensual pleasure pursued by many of the purchasers of these prints. The term ukiyo-e bird prints is used through the remainder of this book as a synonym for bird prints produced between the early 1700s and the 1860s.


1870s to 1940s

Government officials, leaders of the art community and an influential publisher each had an important effect on the characteristics of bird prints produced during this period.

Government officials ended the policy of restricting the flow of foreign goods and ideas into Japan. They were forced to do so because two hundred years of relative isolation had left Japan far behind European nations and America in military technology. To avoid being invaded and colonized by one of these military powers the Japanese government accepted terms of trading agreements that greatly favored their new western trading partners. Government leaders also began a program of military, economic, social and political reform to narrow the gap between Japan and more powerful, industrialized western countries. The objective of this modernization program was to make Japan the equal of western countries in terms of world power and influence. To achieve this objective government leaders championed all things western, including art. New art schools were set up and European instructors were hired to provide training in western-style art. 

Understandably, many in the Japanese art community were reluctant to see traditional practices completely abandoned and they eventually achieved a compromise position allowing both western and Japanese art practices to be taughte. From this training program emerged a new style of art that combined Japanese and western stylistic features.

The publisher Shōzaburō Watanabef hired practitioners of this new style to express the traditional themes of ukiyo-e prints, including birds, in a new way. His Japanese name for these prints, shin hanga (i.e., new print), will be used through the remainder of this book when referring to bird prints produced between the 1870s and 1940s.  Shōzaburō marketed these prints not only in Japan but in Europe and America as well where the combination of a familiar western style and an exotic Japanese theme made them popular items for home decoration. Other Japanese publishers also capitalized on this new market for Japanese prints. 


1950s to present day

The three most important factors affecting the characteristics of bird prints produced during this period are an American preference for a particular style of Japanese prints, participation in international print competitions by Japanese artists using this preferred style and the subsequent introduction of new, western printing methods.

Following Japan’s defeat in World War II it was occupied until 1952 by American military and support staff.  Occupiers who were interested in Japanese printed art showed a preference for sōsaku hanga (i.e., creative print). The style used by sōsaku hanga printmakers was inspired by modern western art (e.g., cubism, surrealism, abstraction) as opposed to traditional western realism which had been embraced by shin hanga artists. To emphasize the originality of their designs sōsaku hanga artists referred to their prints as creative. Americans in Japan not only purchased sōsaku hanga but they also actively promoted it when they returned homeg.

Sōsaku hanga artists also received praise at international print competitions and the prizes they wonh starting in the 1950s increased the status and popularity of sōsaku hanga in Japan.

While sōsaku hanga artists adopted a style inspired by modern western art they continued to use the traditional Japanese method of printing (i.e., woodblock printing). Later, when western printing methods (e.g., intaglio, lithography, screenprinting) were introduced into the curriculum of Japanese art schools, young artists began to use these printing methods to create a range of new visual effectsi. Their goal was the same as that of sōsaku hanga printmakers; namely, modern, creative self-expression. To reflect this shared goal but range of different printing methods, the Japanese word gendai (i.e., modern times) is used instead of the words sōsaku hanga when referring collectively to sōsaku hanga plus other post-World War II prints. The term gendai bird print is used through the remainder of this book to refer to Japanese bird prints produced from the 1950s to present day.


Changing characteristics of bird prints

Many of the characteristics of bird prints changed in response to changing social conditions. These characteristics include picture format, picture composition, the bird species chosen for depiction, accuracy of depiction and method of printmaking. These five characteristics are each described below under the three headings of ukiyo-e, shin hanga and gendai bird prints. In addition, the work of notable bird printmakers is profiled to help illustrate the diversity of approaches used by Japanese artists to depict birds during the past three hundred years.     

a   In this book the word print refers to an original work of art created by impressing the design on paper by some means. Multiple copies of the design were usually produced by repeating the impression process. Prints featuring birds were either sold individually for home decoration or as a group in a picture book for art instruction or bird identification. Only bird prints sold individually for home decoration are considered in this book. 
b   Paine (1963)
c   This form of Chinese art was greatly respected by the Japanese. By associating themselves with art from the Chinese imperial court Japanese military leaders also gained respect from their Japanese subjects (Gerhart, 1999).
d   The motivation of military rulers was not to stifle competition for their preferred art style but rather to prevent political unrest caused by exposure to new ideas from abroad. All forms of foreign information and goods could only enter Japan through an island off the port city of Nagasaki where everything was carefully inspected. Only the Chinese and Dutch were allowed access to this island. However, neither could travel freely in Japan. Nor could Japanese citizens travel abroad. Of all the trade goods entering Japan, European books with western-style landscape pictures had the greatest effect on the artistic style of Japanese ukiyo-e printmakers.
e   See Merritt (1990) for an account of events leading to this outcome and the roles played by specific individuals in the Japanese art community.
f   Shōzaburō Watanabe’s influence is described more fully by Stevens (1993).
g   Volk (2005) describes forms of American support for the sōsaku hanga movement in more detail.
h   A list of prize winners is given by Merritt (1990).
i   Smith (1985) describes the printing methods used by modern Japanese artists in more detail.





Next Chapter or Back to Guides