Mokuhanga, a brief history

Mokuhanga has a very long and colourful history, and it can be quite intimidating at first. Let’s have a look at the three main traditions that compose this beautiful medium:

Image Credit: Bath House in Hakone, Kunisada, c1827.


Whenever someone first thinks of mokuhanga, they probably imagine an ukiyo-e print. They have become so ubiquitous that whenever Japanese art is referred to, it is usually done so with an ukiyo-e picture. But ukiyo-e hasn’t always been associated with fine art. Much like its western cousin – relief printing – mokuhanga was an artform for the people; easy to produce, cheap, widely available and often scandalous!

Ukiyo-e translates to “floating world picture” and is so named because of its imaginative, idealised and hedonistic subject matter. This art form started during the Edo period (1603-1868) and lasted until the end of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). It is easily identified by a very formalised and stylised imagery. 

During the Meiji period, Japan opened up to trade with the Western world. This contact lead to Ukiyo-e having a great influence on the Impressionist and later Post-Impressionist artists. Look at some Van Gogh paintings; can you identify the ukiyo-e influence?

Image Credit: Hiroaki Takahashi, Mt. Fuji Seen from Mizukubo


Shin-hanga, or “new prints”, can be seen as the successor to ukiyo-e. Like ukiyo-e, shin-hanga maintained the collaborative approach to printmaking with the design, carving and printing done by separate, specialised craftsmen. While ukiyo-e was a huge influence on western painting, shin-hanga was in turn greatly influenced by western painting as well as photography. What makes shin-hanga so fascinating is the near photorealism the artists achieved. Shin-hanga pushed the limits of what can be achieved with mokuhanga. While Ukiyo-e has become synonymous with the Edo period, shin-hanga is the artform of the Showa period (1926-1989).

Image credit: Junichiro Sekino, 1970, The Six Jizo at Yamashina, Kyoto


While shin-hanga took its western inspiration from impressionist painting and photography, sosaku-hanga – which was developed at the same time as shin-hanga – took its inspiration from western expressionist woodcuts. Sosaku-hanga translates to “creative prints” and differs from shin-hanga in that sosaku-hanga artists did not work in collaboration, but designed, carved and printed by themselves. While shin-hanga was still formalised in its subject matter and execution, sosaku-hanga was, as the name implies, incredibly open and varied.