Making News

When talking about News today, we are talking about things that happened just a minute ago. News of today are a reality show, which we can follow up any time we like. It is easy to get hooked in rapidly progressing chain of events in the internet. At the same time it is quite exhausting to do so. We also have now a phenomenon called "Fake News". Truth and Lie have become mixed and blurred in the midst of all available sources of information. In the end, it is up to us what we decide to believe. 
Making News is not a new thing. Making news for entertainment is not a new invention either. A little bit of exaggeration adds spice and interest to any matter, and scandalous reporting adds no doubt the sales profit. News makers know how to tickle peoples curiosity.

Osaka Nishikie Shimbun
no. 23 (1875)
In Japan the first newspaper style print came out already in 1615. It was a leaflet about the victorious invasion of the Osaka Castle. But beginning of actual mass production of newspaper prints (kawaraban) did not start before 1682. That is a year when a large number of prints came out reporting all major fires that had happened previous year. Edo-period was a peaceful time in Japan and the news concentrated mainly in calamities like earthquakes or various scandals around celebrities. Sometimes ghost stories or other mysterious events were also highlighted in the leaflets.

In the end of 18th century the outlook of newspaper prints became more refined. Multi-color prints appeared in the market alongside with hastily produced black and white kawaraban prints. Newspaper leaflets printed from woodblock reached their peak during the Meiji-period when publishing of ukiyo-e style nishiki-e shimbun news started. The pictures in them were often designed and painted by established ukiyo-e artists, like Ochiai Yoshiiku and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. The images and texts on nishiki-e shimbun were based on reports about incidents among ordinary people and townsmen, so readers could identify themselves with the news subjects easily. The prints usually carried some educational advice, or they acted as a warning example. In 1890’s the production of woodcut newspaper prints diminished rapidly due to imported printing machinery and the introduction of photograph. Even though the time of woodcut printed newspapers has long ago passed, we can still find ageless good advice in them. Here I introduce two such prints to you.

Osaka Nishikie Shimbun
no. 8 (1875)
Osaka Nishikie Shimbun no. 23 (1875)
In Nagoya, a man called Banno Shinzaemon got a very bad burn on his leg. Doctor looked at the injury and said that the leg might be lost because of rotting of the flesh. Shinzaemon's little brother Shinzo worried about the matter so much, that he cut a piece of his own leg and tied it on the injured leg of Shinzaemon. The cure worked. Shinzaemon's leg was saved by this unselfish act. People in the village awarded Shinzo for his great brotherly love with 5 yen coin.
The message of this news print is obvious: Compassion between people is appreciated and good deeds will always be awarded.

Osaka Nishikie Shimbun no. 8 (1875)
In the night of March 6th in Yodo of Kyoto a courtesan and her poor lover decided to flee from this desperate world to better conditions in the Afterlife. They went to the brige and took off their clothes. Then they jumped together into the river. But their double suicide attempt was doomed to fail, because the water in the river was not deep enough. The secret love affair between the couple was revealed to people in an embarrassing way. The educational part in this print is, of course, the old wisdom: Look before you leap! Never do important things unprepared.

I wonder what would be a piece of news today worth making a multi-colored woodcut print?

Kawaraban newspaper print reporting an unusual event on the backyard:
The frogs attack fiercly a snake which was threatening them.


Reproduction or reprint – what’s the difference?

When you travel in Japan what would be more wonderful souvenir to your friends and family than a genuine ukiyo-e woodblock print. It is light to carry and is sure to keep its value in the future. Finding a shop that sells ukiyo-e prints is not a problem nowadays, thanks to the internet. Nevertheless you might get bewildered in the shop when going through a pile of prints on display. How to pick up “the original, genuine old print” among hundreds of beautiful picture sheets. The publishing date and the number of edition is not marked. All you get is the artist’s name and the dates when he lived. 

As you maybe already know, ukiyo-e prints have been produced steadily already over 250 years. If you try to find the first edition of a certain picture you will soon learn that it is almost impossible. First prints from the most famous artists are already located in museums and in safe houses of private collectors. They have literally spread all over the world. Because of the excellent durability of the block material, wild cherry, there might be thousands of the same image printed. Which is the most valuable edition then? Is it really always the oldest?

To me, not only the antique prints are precious, but also the freshly printed good quality fukkoku-reprints are valuable. They are all made with the same unique printing technique as in the very first edition of the image. It might be wiser to start appreciating ukiyo-e prints not only as objects for collecting but also as representatives of a very special cultural form. In Japan not only old and rare THINGS are National treasures, but also many traditional SKILLS are considered as cultural assets. A human being possessing a traditional craft is a living treasure. Technique of the ukiyo-e woodblock printing is among these appreciated cultural forms. There we find the reason why they are still produced: To keep that unique tradition alive.

Ukiyo-e prints were produced, and are still produced as teamwork of skillful craftsmen. In a matter of fact all kinds of Japanese old crafts, such as hand papermaking are connected to the print production. Unfortunately the number of traditional ukiyo-e craftsmen is diminishing rapidly nowadays. There are only less than 70 professionals who master the carving and printing in the old style. The last resort of ukiyo-e production is centered in Tokyo and Kyoto.

By buying a fukkoku-reprint, you are helping Japanese craftspeople in keeping the old ukiyo-e printing tradition alive. After next 100 years when this unique craft is completely disappeared, you can boast to have a genuine handmade mokuhanga from the last period of Japanese ukiyo-e printing


Mokuhanga = Woodblock print in general, including contemporary prints 
Ukiyo-e = “Pictures of the floating world“. Genre of art,
including prints and paintings made in Edo period 
Shozuri = First editions of ukiyo-e prints (original printing blocks used) 
Atozuri = Later editions of ukiyo-e prints (original printing blocks used) 
Fukkoku = Reprint, freshly printed old ukiyo-e woodblock print, 
made with old printing technique and newly carved printing blocks 
Reprint = see fukkoku. 
Reproduction = Digital print or poster made with contemporary printing methods
1. Hanmoto (publisher) decides to launch a new picture. 2. Artist makes a design in black and white outline drawing. 3. Hanmoto accepts the design and hands it over to the block carver. 4. Carver makes a key block and takes test prints from it. Test prints go to artist for making the color plan. 5. Color plan is handed to the carver who makes the color blocks. 6. Color blocks are delivered to the printer who makes the first test prints. 7. Artist and hanmoto negotiate about the design and decide the final colors 8. Final color plan goes back to the printer who makes the print edition. 9. Hanmoto sets the price and takes the prints to the market. (© Drawing by Tuula Moilanen)


There are multiple ways to estimate ukiyo-e prints, starting from the aging of the paper and color pigments. The artists signature style and the publishers seal also give a hint for finding the original production dates. Those methods are used by the specialists in museums. For common traveller in search for a interesting souvenier there are some simpler ways to check the originality of the print. 

1. Baren marks. Flip the print around and check the reverse side. If you see the rubbing marks of the baren and color pigments have penetrated through the paper, you have a genuine mokuhanga in your hand. In digital reproduction the reverse side has no marks.
2. Margins. Fukkoku prints often have wider margins than in the old ukiyo-e prints. You can find the carver’s name and printer’s name on the margin. You can also estimate the aging of the paper from the margins.
3. Hair line. Check the hair line in a beauty print or in actor print. If it is minutely carved and looks sharp, it is made by professional and skillful ukiyo-e carver. In the old days carver master could carve 4-5 hairs in one millimeter. Nowadays I have heard that 3-4 has become maximum.
4. Sharpness. Prints were produced in editions of 200. First editions (shozuri) up to maybe 600 have sharp and thin black outlines. When editions exceed 800-1000 copies (atozuri) the lines on the pictures are flattened and the result is shabbier.
5. Colors. Old prints look old and faded, depending of course how well they have been kept. Fukkoku-prints generally look the same than the original first edition when it came out. Color variation can also be seen in the old print editions. The publisher changed the color scale if the picture did not sell as expected.
6. Study more! Find more information about ukiyo-e artists and mokuhanga printmaking in books and in the internet. Go to exhibitions and see the original prints. Get the collector’s spark!

Here are two variations of an Utamaro beauty print. 
Guess which one is fukkoku!


Mountain Cherry and Japanese woodblock printmaking

In the West the most famous examples of Japanese woodblock prints are the masterpieces of ukiyo-e, “Pictures of the Floating World" from late Edo-period (1600-1868). A lot of research has been made on the artists who designed these refined prints, but the method used in their production was quite unknown until about 20 years back. Starting from the 1990’s Japanese non-toxic and water-based woodblock printing technique, mokuhanga, started to gain attention among non-Japanese artists. While the interest in Japanese woodblock printing methods has increased internationally, in Japan the continuance of ukiyo-e print tradition is threatened by lack of successors. Today there are less than 70 professional craftsmen left in Japan preserving the valued ukiyo-e carving and printing skills. Although the union of ukiyo-e craftsmen gets acknowledgement and financial support from the Japanese government, young people have no interest and patience in training themselves in this very demanding craft. But even if the ukiyo-e craft would suddenly become popular among the young it is already difficult to find traditional materials for doing it.  Especially Mountain Cherry, the essential wood material for making the printing blocks, has now almost completely disappeared from the market.

Hiroshige: Arashiyama in cherry blossom time

Mountain Cherry as printing block material
Until the end of 19th century cherry was the main wood material in all Japanese print production from black and white storybooks and advertisements to collector’s multi-coloured picture sheets. From all cherry species the mountain cherry was considered to be the best block material. Old written records (1912) by professional block makers reveal that especially boards coming from Izu and Nikko were the most appreciated material in late Edo-Meiji-period.
Cherry tree belongs to the Rose family, which includes nearly 3000 different sub-species of flowering plants. Prunus serrulata, sometimes called as Hill Cherry, Oriental Cherry or East Asian Cherry, is a species of cherry native to Japan, Korea and China. Mountain Cherry, called yamazakura in Japan, can be identified by its pure white flowers which come out simultaneously with foliage in spring. Someiyoshino and other cultured decorative cherry trees have leaves only after losing their flowers. In natural conditions yamazakura can grow over 20 meters in height and to one meter in circumference. It has a straight trunk where the branches develop higher than with the other cherry species. This feature makes it possible to gain long and even-quality printing boards from the trunk. The wood has straight grain, tight density and quite inconspicuous growth rings. The hard and even quality of yamazakura enables the carving of extremely minute details and lines on the printing block. The durability of the block surface is also a great advantage when making large print editions.
Preparing the cherry wood for printmaking blocks takes time and attention. Ukiyo-e craftsmen are particulary strict about the surface structure and the direction of the wood grain when they are choosing their wood material. Large blocks cannot be constructed by gluing together two or more separate boards, because the joint would show in the print and eventually crack during the wetting and heavy printing process.
Maximum size of the printing blocks for sale is determined by the size of the yamazakura tree trunks in production. To prevent strong warping the sliced boards are left to dry for several years (traditionally for 10 years) after cutting down the tree.
Difficulty to find proper mountain cherry wood has given birth to invention of cherry plywood. It has already replaced full-wood blocks in most traditional print workshops. Cherry plywood for ukiyo-e print production is made by gluing c. 4 mm thick sheet of yamazakura on both sides of shina-veneer. The yamazakura sheets come from old disposed printing blocks. The carved image on the surface of the block is planed away to reveal the untouched wood inside. Old antique blocks, especially ukiyo-e keyblocks, are never used in plywood production. They have great historical and cultural value and thus they are preserved in private and public collections. AIthough the cherry plywood blocks work well and are now commonly used in ukiyo-e workshops, they are not the final solution to the block material problem: in the long run, there will be no old blocks anymore to use for making the plywood.

The future of Japanese traditional ukiyo-e craft is closely connected to the availability of wild mountain cherry. The print production is continuing for the time being, thanks to the enthusiasm of devoted craftsmen and art lovers. Although
this unique craftsmanship will eventually fade away one day, the beauty and excellence of yamazakura will still reside in ukiyo-e prints for future generations.

Tuula Moilanen
Full presentation on the subject can be found at http://worldwoodday.org/2015/


Sakura Gokujō Ita, “The Very Best Sakura Blocks”. Sales advertisement of block maker Minoya Matsuzo in Habashita Sugimachi. Woodblock print, Meiji-period (1868-1912). Published on the 5th month of the year (year not marked).  
Sales items are shown on the right as simplified line drawings. The blocks are depicted with hashibami, the supporting side strips. Text in the middle gives appraising information about the products. The selling prices of the blocks are marked as follows: Block for printing on hanshi-paper, 10 zen (c.2000 yen), for printing on Minoshi-paper, 13 zen (c.2500 yen), and for Yoncho-paper, 8 zen (c.1600 yen). The corresponding contemporary prices in yen are counted by comparing the price to a noodle cup price in 1904 (Meiji 37), which was 2 zen. Today (2014) the same cup of noodles costs about 400 yen. The price for hand-planed yamazakura printing block today (2015-16) is about 14000 yen  (thickness c. 23 mm, size c. 39 x 27 cm).


Arioka Toshiyuki: Sakura I and Sakura II (Mono to ningen no Bunkashi 137-I, 137-II). 2007, Hosei University Press, Tokyo 有岡利幸:I、桜II(ものと人間の文化史137-I,137-II) 法政大学出版局

Hanga Geijutsu 124, Nihon no mokuhanga 100 nen. Article: Dentōteki mokuhan no dōgu-zairyō no ima. 2004, Abe publishing co., Tokyo 版画芸術124号、2004年。日本の木版画100年。伝統的木版の道具材料の今

Ishii Kendo: Nishiki-e no hori to suri. 1929, Unsodo, Kyoto 石井研堂:錦絵の彫と摺。昭和4年、芸艸堂発行、京都

Kaneko Takaaki: Hanbon no hangi. Sono kihonteki kōzō (Physical Structure of Japanese Woodblocks for Printed Books). Art Documentation Kenkyu, no.17, 2010. 金子貴昭:版本の版木その基本的構造。20103月、アート・ドキュメンテーション学会、大阪
Kaneko Takaaki: ”Shokiken Bokuchifuku” no hangi. Art Research Journal vol.10, 2010. Ritsumeikan University Kyoto. 金子貴昭:「賞奇軒墨竹譜」の版木、Art Research vol.10, 2010 立命館大学京都
Miyoshi Manabu: Sakura. 1938, Fuzanbo, Tokyo 三好学:桜。昭和13 富山房、東京
Nodasaka Shinya: Ki wo erabu. Zōenjumoku-jiten. 2011, Apoc, Tokyo野田坂伸也:木を選ぶ。造園樹木事典。2011年、アポックス社、東京



Ofuda Hakase Frederick Starr

While organizing the vast collection of senshafuda, which I have in my possession for research in Helsinki, I came across a fuda-style print, that seems to be a copy of a letter. The message is signed by Frederick Starr in Tokyo, on March 23th, Taisho 6 (Western calendar year 1918). The Japanese translation of Starr’s handwritten words can be found on the left side of the print.

Frederick Starr (1858-1933) was a professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago. Among other things he is known as an enthusiastic researcher of Japanese culture and life. Starr travelled in Japan multiple times in the early years of 20th century. He also took part to Shikoku pilgrimage. Probably he was the first foreigner who seriously attempted to visit all the 88 temples on the holy route.

The thing that the letter of gratitude by Starr, written freely at the nosatsu-collectors meeting, was carefully transferred and carved on woodblock, and then printed into several copies, reveals the high appreciation that Japanese people felt towards this American professor. Story goes that people came in cheering crowds to welcome Starr at railway stations when he traveled in the countryside. Such stories may be somewhat exaggerated but the fact remains that Starr was truly well-liked among Japanese people. He seems to have adjusted seamingly with the Japanese daily manners. A Japanese writer who knew Starr noted in his article that "Starr is no different from the Japanese, having a bath, eating sashimi and miso... and can even sit properly on the tatami."

Frederick Starr had various research projects while in Japan. The one for which he is best known is his study of senshafuda (senjafuda), woodblock printed votive slips, which originally were produced for pilgrims as personal name tags to be pasted on temple gates and pillars. The nick name Ofuda Hakase, meaning “Doctor of Fuda” or “Fuda Professor” in English, comes from Starr’s notably strong interest in fuda-prints.

In the latter half of the 19th century senshafudas developed into beautiful multicolour artworks with widely ranging motifs and large scale themes. They were designed by professional artists and were executed as woodblock prints by highly skilled artisans. The fuda-collectors formed groups that gathered in regular Nosatsu-kai meetings to exchange their prints. Starr probably attended in many of those gatherings. The activity of fuda-collector groups reached its peak during the first decades of the 20th century, but the tradition has not completely faded. Small Nosatsu-kai meetings still take place in Tokyo. They have even made a present-day fuda-print of Frederick Starr! You can find it and other interesting collector’s info at  http://www.geocities.jp/edoutako_y/ (in Japanese)

I am anxious to know more about Starr and his relationship with Japan. I wonder if there are such keen fuda-collectors in the West nowadays?

Left: Another interesting fuda-style woodblock print carrying Starr’s name. Estimating by the appearance of the lettering and variation in the thickness of lines, the original writing was written with an ink brush. This one is a thank-you note, too. The print is signed by Maebashi Hanbei, Starr’s regular interpreter, who accompanied him in all his travels.

Fuda-prints in this blog:  Sumio Yamazaki Collection, Kyoto
Link to F.Starr in Wikipedia:

Other references: David C. Moreton, An Account of the Shikoku Pilgrimage by Frederick Starr. Article in The Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, vol. 19 / 2005


Welcome to Mokuhanga Study Room!

This blog is created by Finnish printmaker and book artist Tuula Moilanen in co-operation with Sumio Yamazaki, a dealer and collector of antique Japanese prints and art books in Kyoto. Together we study Japanese old printing methods, especially woodcuts, and bring you new information about their yet hidden secrets.

More information about us:


Word mokuhanga means "woodcut print" in Japanese language. Nowadays it is also used to describe Japanese watercolor woodcut printing technique. Famous ukiyo-e prints from 18th and 19th century, which were designed by master artists such as Hokusai and Utamaro, are all made with mokuhanga. In those days this demanding printing technique was also widely used in book production, advertising and in various paper crafts. 


Please follow our next updates on curious old print items from Meiji-Taisho period.

Hikifuda posters were designed in Japan as New Year gifts for customers by various shops and manufacturers. They usually carry well-wishing images of good luck and fortune, for example Fuji-mountain, cranes, Fukusuke or O-Fuku. Among the seven lucky gods the most popular ones used are Daikoku and Ebisu. Sometimes a calendar for the becoming year is included in the advertisement. A picture base for the poster was often provided by the printing workshop. The product information and the merchant’s name was printed on the blank space usually composed on the left side of the poster.

The short production period of hikifuda posters dates around the turn of the 20th century. The most valued posters are made with woodblock printing technique, but also the ones printed with lithography and offset methods of the time are nowadays considered as highly interesting collectible items.


Original senshafuda (senjafuda) votive slips are always made with woodblock printing. They came into fashion in the beginning of the 19th century when a trend for travel begun and many pilgrimage routes developed. First senshafudas were simple black and white name labels that were pasted on the pillars of shrines and temples. This was to prove the visitor’s own faith and also to gain appreciation from the other visitors coming into the same temple.

Gradually senshafudas developed into multicolor small artworks that were published by devoted collectors in senshafuda-exchange groups. Each collector group produced senshafuda prints with various themes, starting with famous kabuki-actors and landscapes in ukiyo-e style to modern style design of folk traditions and objects of daily life. The activity of senshafuda exchange groups reached its peak during the first decades of the 20th century.

Senshafuda with kabuki-actors


Takarabune (treasure boat) prints have magical powers. They were used in Japan during the New Year for gaining the best possible hatsuyume, the first dream of the year.  The print was placed under the pillow before going to sleep on the last night of the old year. The picture of a boat filled with rice and various treasures, and with the seven lucky gods on board helped to provide good omens for becoming year. 

Merchants in Edo-period Japan cleverly adapted the custom of takarabune pictures to their own advertising purposes. They started to publish ever more finely executed takarabune prints in vast quantities as gifts to customers and also for sale. A new magic was attached to the prints: When the print is pasted over a doorway, so that the boat in the picture is heading inside the house, it will bring you good luck and riches all the year round.


Pochibukuros are printed envelopes used for giving small money gifts. Their production started during the 19th century, when a vast variety of woodcut printed items came out to the market. The exact production date for each individual pochibukuro is unknown due to their practical use as wrapping.

There are many skillful art works among the early pochibukuro. The motifs on the envelopes vary from cultural peculiarities and literary themes to simple kimono patterns depicting fauna and flora. Sometimes miniature ukiyo-e images were printed for the enjoyment of wealthy customers.

In the first half of the 20th century the use of pochibukuro concentrated to the New Year’s time. Nowadays genuine woodblock printed pochibukuros have become extremely rare, but the custom of handing out money wrapped in an envelope still prevails in Japan