Spotlight on Contemporary Japanese Prints

Celebrating Contemporary Japanese Prints

It is widely acknowledged that the Japanese excel at whatever it is they choose to do. They have borrowed many things from other cultures, both Asian and Western, perfecting them and making them their own. This is evident in every field of endeavour and art is no exception. Japanese printmakers were and still are amongst the finest in the world. Here we take a look at the traditions and techniques of Japanese printmaking and showcase a selection of contemporary masters in our online exhibition.

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Japanese Woodblock Print c1850
Japanese Woodblock Print c1850
Moon and Tree in Ancient City No 3 by Yoshikazu Tanaka
‘Moon and Tree in Ancient City’ wood engraving by Yoshikazu Tanaka
Masako SEO_Deep Forest
‘Deep Forest’ multi block woodcut by Masako SEO
Yuji HIRATSUKA_Figure Finger
‘Figure Finger’ etching & aquatint with chine collé by Yuji Hiratsuka
‘Iseki PYxxxv’ etching & aquatint by Kunito Nagaoka


Japan’s long history of printmaking began in the 8th Century, sparked by the introduction of Buddhism to Japan from China. As with all great religious traditions, there was a need for devotional images and the missionaries, along with their philosophy, brought with them the art of woodblock printing (moke-hanga) through Korea and into Japan. During the following centuries, devotional woodblock prints were produced with an ever increasing degree of technical expertise. During the late 15th Century, Portuguese and Spanish traders came to Japan, introducing Christianity as well as the art of Western drawing and printing techniques. However a strict ban on Christianity in 1637 discouraged artists from practising and developing these techniques due to their religious associations.

Until the middle of the 17th Century, fine art remained the domain of the elite classes but with the dawn of the Edo period in 1603 came increased trade and with it, more demand for popular, mass art. Japanese printmaking was given the name ‘ukiyo-e’ – meaning ‘pictures of the floating world’ a term used for the celebrations of the pleasure areas of big cities, notably Edo, later known as Tokyo. Woodblock prints started to be mass produced as book illustrations, broadsheets and advertisements as well as for wall decoration and souvenirs.

Subject matter started to transition from the strictly religious to include street scenes, landscapes and portrait prints of famous Kabuki actors, geisha women and courtesans. Production was a group activity.  An artist would design an image using watercolour. This would be passed on to a team of artisan-woodcutters who would cut elements of the design into the long grain of hard woodblocks.  Multiple wood blocks were needed to contribute colours to the design, maybe one or two colours on each block. The key line block would be printed in black and from this the colour separations could be worked out.

These handmade colour prints would be sold at very modest prices and many people collected them almost as people used to collect cigarette cards.  Edition sizes were huge – up to 5.000 – and if required by the market more would be printed.


This established tradition was disrupted when, in mid-19th century, Japan became a more open society and Western influences had an impact.  In the early 20thcentury Japanese artists were introduced to the European techniques of etching, wood engraving, metal engraving and lithography.  Screen printing became part of the repertoire in the mid-20th century.

In the second half of the 20th century and up to the present time Japanese artists have been regular participants in competitive international exhibitions in many parts of the world. The refinement of contemporary Japanese printmaking is often enhanced by the use of their famous handmade paper which combines strength and delicacy.


The contemporary artists in this group demonstrate impressive technical diversity and virtuosity.  The woodcut by Masako Seo (f) is perhaps closest to Japanese traditions though it is printed and over-printed from separate smaller elements which gradually combine to make the whole image.  However she breaks with tradition by using a heavyweight European paper.

Tokyo artist Shin’ichi Nakazawa combines etching with stunning overlays of gold, silver, or platinum leaf, sometimes oxidised. His compositions are centred around these overlays and often accompanied by Japanese classic script. His philosophy is simply to create order and balance in a given limited space, taking a traditional theme to a modern conclusion. His inspiration comes from the highly decorative screen of Sotasu, a seventeenth century Japanese artist who used traditional Japanese style painting to illustrate an accompanying text.

Reunion 9 by Shin-ichi Nakazawa
‘Reunion 9’ etching with gold leaf by Shin-ichi Nakazawa

Yuji Hiratsuka has lived for many years in Portland, Oregon.  In all his etchings he makes use of a subtle chine collé technique which helps him to get vibrant colour into his prints.   His characteristic and sometimes humorous images play with the ukiyo-e tradition.

Kunito Nagaoka has spent part of his creative life living outside Japan in Germany, Finland and Iceland.  The subtle effects of colour and texture in his etchings involve the use of multiple plates overprinted to create a single impression.  It is possible that the ominous mood of these works relates to the time he spent in Germany and Poland during the Cold War period.

In contrast the artist Koen Sakamoto in his Snow Work series uses photography and inkjet digital processes but prints the image on refined paper which comes from a workshop close to his home in the Echizen area of Japan.

Koen SAKAMOTO_Snow Work 90-8
‘Snow Work 90-8’ digital inkjet by Koen Sakamoto

Exhibition and Spotlight Feature in association with the Off Centre Gallery, Bristol.

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