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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
e See Merritt (1990) for an account of events leading to
this outcome and the roles played by specific individuals in the Japanese art
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.