Image of Japanese print showing Party under wisteria trellis


Edo in Colour

Prints from Japan’s Metropolis


Print delighted in Edo’s prosperity: not only its material wealth, but also the constant hum of activity, entertainments and observances across the city. Following the model of traditional arts, print artists pictured the passing seasons to align heaven and earth in good fortune. They also borrowed practices of playful allusion from literature, elevating the everyday by blending high and low culture. When civic order was threatened, however, the ruling shogunate clamped down on popular culture. Regulating what each social group could consume and meting out punishments to artists and publishers, they tested the resilience and ingenuity of Edo’s printmakers.

Back to Edo in Colour

Party under wisteria trellis
Chōbunsai Eishi
Japan, 1789–93
CBL J 2486

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  • Image of Japanese printed book Eight views of Tōei’s foothills

    Eight views of Tōei’s foothills
    Attributed to Kitao Shigemasa
    Japan, c. 1777
    CBL J 1680
    This group of prints adapts the Chinese trope of ‘Eight views of the Xiao and Xiang rivers’ to districts around Edo’s Kan’eiji temple. While it follows the original pattern of time and seasonal atmosphere, the subject matter is playfully localised. As such, ‘Evening glow on fishing village’ is rendered as ‘Sunset glow of the tea house’, and ‘Vespers bell at mist-shrouded temple’ becomes ‘Vespers bell at the temple shop’, shrouded not in mist, but the fragrance of grilled eels from a neighbouring stall.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Seven lucky gods

    Seven lucky gods
    Attributed to Kitao Shigemasa
    Japan, 1770s
    CBL J 2415
    While expressing proper seasonality was one means to assure good fortune, some artworks went a step further and functioned as talismans. In Edo-period Japan, pictures of the seven lucky gods sailing on their treasure ship were tucked under the pillow to bring lucky dreams at New Year. Often produced as folk paintings or more ephemeral prints, this design was also adopted by leading publishers and artists.

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  • Image of Japanese print Fifth month: Catching fireflies

    Fifth month: Catching fireflies
    From the series Twelve months of children’s games
    Kitao Shigemasa
    Japan, 1770–75
    CBL J 2513
    The fireflies that glimmered in the dark of summer evenings were quarry for Japan’s younger residents. Finding a quiet spot where the water pools, these boys wait for lights to appear. When a firefly hovers within reach, a sharp knock from the fan—here customised with a bamboo rod-extender and emblazoned with the crest of actor Ichikawa Danjūrō—renders it prone. The firefly is then added to the insect cage, sharing its glow like a magical lantern.

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  • Image of Japanese print Tenth month: Autumn leaf viewing and festival of Ebisu

    Tenth month: Autumn leaf viewing and festival of Ebisu
    Utagawa Toyoharu
    Japan, c. 1773
    CBL J 2508
    This print is part of a series juxtaposing day and night views in the different months of the year. In the daytime scene below, a young woman catches a musician dozing beneath autumn leaves. Above, the viewer steals in upon his dream. Now a wealthy trader, he celebrates the festival of Ebisu with his associates. The god of food and merchants, the ever-smiling Ebisu is the embodiment of prosperity. His statue stands in the tokonoma alcove. The bold use of black ink adds to the playful contrast.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Child prodigy Shima Eimo giving a reading lesson

    Child prodigy Shima Eimo giving a reading lesson
    Torii Kiyonaga
    Japan, c. 1785
    CBL J 2430
    There was no state-organised system for education in Edo-period Japan and access varied by gender, locality, status, wealth and occupation. Here the child prodigy Shima Eimo leads a private reading lesson. As she reads aloud at the lectern, the girls recite with her, following the text in their books. The popularisation of printed books and growing literacy rates in the Edo period brought works of classical literature to new audiences.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Sumō wrestlers Tanikaze and Onogawa

    Sumō wrestlers Tanikaze and Onogawa
    Katsukawa Shunkō
    Japan, 1787–89
    CBL J 2640
    In 1789, professional wrestlers Tanikaze Kajinosuke (right) and Onogawa Kisaburō (left) were each awarded the title of yokozuna— the highest rank in sumō. The rivalry between these competitors held audiences in thrall for almost a decade, ever since newcomer Onogawa brought Tanikaze’s run of 63 consecutive victories to a slamming halt in 1782. Meanwhile, sumō achieved a level of popularity to rival kabuki theatre. As the wrestlers’ fanbase expanded, printmakers too capitalised on their growing fame.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Back-mask dance by people of Kaji-chō

    Back-mask dance by people of Kaji-chō
    From the series Kanda shrine festival
    Katsukawa Shunzan
    Japan, 1789–95
    CBL J 2638
    It is said that in Edo, a festival could be found on any given day of the year. Combining faith with festivity, these shrine and temple rites energised deities and communities. They were also an arena for neighbourly competition. Kanda shrine was home to gods that guarded the shogunate and townspeople of Edo. Its lively festival was held in alternate years and had the rare honour of official commission, the parade entering Edo castle for the shōgun to observe.

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  • Image of Japanese print showing Dry goods store Ebisuya

    Dry goods store Ebisuya
    Utagawa Toyokuni
    Japan, 1793–97
    CBL J 2571
    Ebisuya occupied a prime location on the road between downtown Nihonbashi and Shinagawa. It was one of the city’s leading stores for kimono silks. Colour prints of landmark stores were probably sponsored by the shops themselves. Behind the women and children, the beaming face of Ebisu (god of merchants) is splashed across the shop curtains. The vertical signboards between advertise the sale of summer goods at exceptionally low prices.

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  • Image of Japanese printed book Fat tails of lucky mice

    Fat tails of lucky mice
    Utagawa Toyohiro
    Japan, 1804
    CBL J 1621.2
    This richly illustrated book offers a classic floating world story of love against the odds as a charismatic commoner battles for the affections of a woman well above his rank. Except here the protagonists are all elegantly whiskered white mice. Fat tails of lucky mice was published at New Year in 1804, year of the rat. Only a few months later, authorities decided its vibrant colours were too luxurious for common consumption and ordered its colour printing blocks be destroyed.

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