Japan Ukiyoe Museum

One of the best museums of ukiyoe art in Japan, the Japan Ukiyoe Museum (JUM) is located in Matsumoto in Nagano. The word “ukiyo-e” means “the picture of the buoyant and joyful (or floating) world”. While the term has become synonymous with Japanese wood-block print art, it is actually a genre style of the 17th to 19th centuries that also incorporated painting. Two famous examples of this art form are Hokusai Katsushika’s masterpiece “Namiura” (Great Wave), from his “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” series, and Toushuusai Sharaku’s 18th century portrait of a kabuki actor.

The development of this art form occurred during the Edo period (1603-1867) which was a time of relative peace whereby the middle class and common man could afford to spend their spare time and resources on transient pleasures such as Kabuki theater and geisha entertainment in establishments such as the Ichiriki Ochaya. Ukiyoe artists derived their subjects from this “floating world”: beautiful women (often courtesans), sumo wrestlers, kabuki actors, and landscapes.

The art form reached Europe during the Meiji period where it also became popular. Ukiyoe was an inspiration for cubism and it is widely known that it had a great influence on impressionists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Ukiyoe is a treasured art not only because of its depiction of life in the Edo period but also since its form is an enduring preserve of Japanese culture during that era. The art depicted popular subjects of the time and more importantly, was affordable because much of it could be mass-produced and thus was embraced, collected and passed on by all, not just the privileged minority. Furthermore, even today, the wood-block prints can be reproduced, not copied, in the same manner as the original so long as the original wood-blocks that created the print still exist.

The museum’s ultramodern building, opened in 1982, houses the private collection of the Sakai family. With more than 100,000 prints, it’s believed to be the largest collection of its kind in the world and includes representative masterpieces of all known ukiyoe artists. The exhibition changes every 2 months with approximately 100 to 150 prints on display at any one time. A 10-minute slide show with explanations in English introduces the current exhibition, and a pamphlet in English describes the history of the collection and how woodblock prints are made.

History of the Sakai Collection

The Sakai family records date back to 1632, and the current director of the museum, Sakai Nobuo, is the eleventh generation of the family. Of the ancestors of the Sakai family, Sakai, Shun’un (1640’s-1700) is first recorded in the service of feudal lords as a daimyou. Later, Sakai Yasutaka (1689-1765) and Sakai Hokyuu (1726-1796) went into business in the stationery trade which flourished.

By the Kansei period (1790’s), Sakai Yoshiaki, the sixth generation of the Sakai family, was the second richest businessman in Matsumoto through the family business and his financial skill. He was also an ardent art patron who invited many ukiyoe artists, as well as calligraphers, literary men and practitioners of poetry such as kyouka (satirical verse), haiku and waka, from all over Japan to his home in Matsumoto. His guests included ukiyoe masters like Hokusai Katsushika and Hiroshige. It is from these contacts and connections, that the Sakai collection of ukiyoe prints and other fine art began.

Succeeding generations not only continued to expand the collection but also developed the study and exhibition of ukiyoe. Sakai Touyoue established the Sakai Koukodou gallery at Kanda Awajicho, a neighborhood in Tokyo, where he educated many students and scholars of ukiyoe. Sakai Shoukichi founded an academic periodical called “Ukiyoe” and, for the first time, scientifically studied the art form. Called a “living collection”, the family has spent over five generations working around the world organizing exhibitions and obtaining ukiyoe art from private collections.

Today, the Sakai collection has over 100,000 ukiyoe prints, paintings, screens, old books, and modern contemporary prints. Much of the art is in excellent condition and includes several dozen extremely rare works. The aim of the museum is to collect, examine and exhibit ukiyoe as being a major part of Japan’s international and cultural heritage.

How Ukiyoe wood-block prints were made:

Producing ukiyoe wood block prints were actually a collaborative effort between craftsmen such as painters, engravers and printers. At first, only India ink was used to produce one-color wood-block prints made with brush-added color in the 1710’s, then two or three color wood-block prints evolved in the 1740’s. In the 1760’s, multi-color wood-block prints called “nishikie” (brocade picture) was invented and continued to the early Meiji period in the 1890’s. This style needs at least the same number of different wood-block carvings as there are colors. It can often take more than twenty steps to produce the final product.

While at least the same number of different wood block carvings as colors was generally needed, to save expenses, the key block and several subsequent blocks were produced using different areas of both sides of the same piece of wood for different color impressions. The most difficult technique was to apply the color to the blocks. Sometimes, the same blocks were used twice or three times by inking it again to impress the same sheets for getting the right gradation of tone. Therefore, it might be said that twenty or more impressions were needed to get a copy.

First, the artist contrived a design and produced a hanshitae (underdrawing) in all black outlines of thin Japanese paper. This was done in coordination of the producer who chose the subject carrying out the project and promoted sales. The producer then had to submit the design to government censors for approval. The government’s seal of approval can be found stamped with that of the designer somewhere on the print.

The design was then sent to the block carver’s workshop which was mainly comprised of the master carver and his family, live-in apprentices and assistants, and various other craftsmen. The work was divided among these people depending on their skills. Some unskilled workers prepared blocks and others items such as tools and paper.

The hanshite was pasted face down on a block of cherry wood whcich was then carefully carved so that the lines of the drawing were left in relief. Kentou (guide marks) were also carved in relief on the block as well as all subsequent blocks. The block was next handed to the printer who placed on it Japanese minogami-paper and then rubbed the paper with a baren (a pressing pad) to make an ink proof.

Generally, ten or more such proofs were produced. The artist indicated on these by vermilion the colors for which the various color blocks were to be carved. Color block carvers then took the proofs and pasted each on a separate block and carved them in relief.

When it finally came to produce the actual print, the printer prepared the sheets of printing paper called housho (paper mulberry) by sizing and then moistening them. He pressed the paper down and rubbed it with his baren. Then, the color blocks were employed in succession to produce the print.


2206-1, Koshiba, Shimadachi, Matsumoto-city, Nagano prefecture, Japan, 390-0852
(one minute from the Matsumoto Interchange of Nagano Highway)
Phone: 81 0263-48-0208

Admission and Hours:

Opening Hours – Tuesdays-Sundays, 10:00-17:00
Admission – 1,000 adults, half price for children

How to get there:

To get to Matsumoto the easiest way to get to Matsumoto is by train. From Aichi take Matsumoto. To get to the Japan Ukiyoe Museum, take a train from platform 7 in Matsumoto Station on the Kamikochi Line (10 minutes) to Oniwa Station (170 yen – JR Rail Pass not accepted) and then walk 15 minutes. (Turn left out of the station, left at the post office; after passing under the bridge, take the 2nd right at the small cemetery and continue straight on). Or take a 1,500 yen/ 7-10 minute taxi ride.

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