Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Japanese woodblock print markings

In two recent blog posts, I wrote about the topic of Japanese woodblock prints. One post was about Utagawa Hiroshige's bestselling ukiyo-e print series, The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō (東海道五十三次), and the other post was about the woodblock prints in the Taishō Shinsai Gashū (大正震災画集), which is a collection of prints depicting scenes pertaining to the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923.

In this post, I'd like to touch a little more on the markings that could be found on Japanese woodblock prints from the Edo period. Let me add in this preface that I am by no means an expert on woodblock prints. But I've been trying to learn about them, and I'm sharing here what I've learned and my own observations.

There are a few kinds of markings that could be found inscribed on woodblock prints: The artist's signature, the artist's seal, the print's title, the series title, the publisher's mark, and censor and date marks. Note that not all of these marks may be present on a woodblock print. Sometimes there is just the artist's signature.

Japanese woodblock print markings.
Figure 1: The markings on a print from the Hōeidō edition of Hiroshige's Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō [1]. Click on the image to enlarge.

In Figure 1, I have annotated in red the different markings that are on a print from the Hōeidō edition of Hiroshige's Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō, which I will use here as an illustration. This print depicts Mishima-shuku (三島宿), the 11th post station from Edo along the Tōkaidō. The quiet scene shows a group of travellers at the Mishima Shrine on a misty morning [1]. Isn't it a wonderful scene? This is how a master paints fog and remoteness and invites reflection.

Since the markings on the prints in the Hōeidō edition of this series are consistent from print to print, the description I wil give here holds for all prints in the collection. On this print and others, you can see Hiroshige's signature and seal, the series title, and the print's title and subtitle. There is no publisher's mark or censor's mark.

Hiroshige's signature can be found on the bottom left corner of this print. It comprises his name followed by the kanji 画 (ga) (see Figure 2):

(Hiroshige ga)

Note that the kanji 廣 is the old form of the kanji 広. So Hiroshige's name is written in the new kanji system as 広重, but he signed his name as 廣重. New Japanese kanji forms are called shinjitai (新字体), and their original forms are called kyuujitai (旧字体). You can find a table of shinjitai and their corresponding kyuujitai on this website.

Hiroshige's signature and seal.
Figure 2: Hiroshige's signature and seal on a print from his Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō.

The kanji 画 was commonly, but not always, written after the artist's name as part of the signature. It's meaning when written this way was similar to an ascription, so Hiroshige's signature would mean something like "by Hiroshige." It is the same kanji which appears in Japanese words such as:

画 [かく] stroke (as in kanji stroke)
画する [かくする] draw (a line)
画引き [かくびき] looking up a kanji character by the number of strokes
画家 [がか] a painter; an artist
画架 [がか] an easel
画学生 [ががくせい] an art student
画聖 [がせい] a master painter; a great artist
画面 [がめん] a screen
画集 [がしゅう] a book of pictures, paintings, or drawings
画室 [がしつ] a studio
画用紙 [がようし] drawing paper
画帳 [がちょう] a sketchbook
画筆 [がひつ] a paintbrush
画像 [がぞう] a portrait
版画 [はんが] a woodblock print

And so on. Besides 画, another common kanji used to denote "by" is the character 筆 (hitsu).

Below Hiroshige's signature, we can see his artist's seal in red (see Figure 2). This was but one of the many different kinds of seals that Hiroshige used. Even within the Hōeidō edition, he used a wide variety of seals on the different prints.

Hiroshige's Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido series title.
Figure 3: The series title of Hiroshige's Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō written on one of the prints.

At the top of the print, we see the title of the series (see Figure 3):

(Tōkaidō gojyuusan tsugi = Fifty-three stations of the Tōkaidō)

Additionally, there is the term 之内. The character 之 is the old form of the Japanese possessive particle の (no), so the term can be read as の内 (no uchi). Also, in Chinese, 之内 means "within" (or so says Google Translate). So the series title could be read as, "Along the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō." Note how, in the old Japanese title, the character used for the number 10 is 拾, which is an alternative way of writing 十.

Lastly, to the left of the series title, we see the print title and subtitle (see Figure 4). In this case, the print title is the name of the post town:


Next to the title, the subtitle is written in red. I've found that the subtitles in this series are often hard to read, either because they are indistinct or because they are written in script, or both. It is barely readable in this case:

(asagiri = morning mist)

Title of a print from Hiroshige's Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido.
Figure 4: The title and subtitle of a print from Hiroshige's Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō.

So there you have it—an introduction to the kinds of markings you might see on Japanese woodblock prints from the Edo period. It's not an easy task for a Japanese language learner like me to decipher these inscriptions because they are written in script, and also because of the use of old words and kyuujitai. It's like doing detective work—tedious, but potentially satisfying when you have that "Aha!" moment.

Here is a link to a useful website with various samples of ukiyo-e artist signatures.


[1] Narazaki, Muneshige. Translated by Gordon Sager. Hiroshige: The 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō. Tokyo and Palo Alto: Kodansha International Ltd., 1969.


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