Hokusai’s Printed Illustrated Books in 19th-Century Japan
By Mai Yamaguchi
PhD Candidate in Art History
Katsushika Hokusai is among the most celebrated Japanese painters in the world. His print Under the Wave off Kanagawa, or The Great Wave (1830) is instantly recognizable. While Hokusai is primarily known today for his prints and paintings, like many ukiyo-e painters of his time, he also worked in other media such as book illustration. Here I focus on three of Hokusai’s illustrated books, Illustrated Book of Humorous Poems “Mountain on Mountain,” Hokusai Manga, and Picture Book on the Use of Coloring to showcase the broad range of Hokusai’s artistic creativity.
The Rise of the Printed Book
The technology of printing advanced rapidly as it became available to commercial publishers in the seventeenth century (before this printing had been the purview of temples). The rise of printed books (as opposed to those whose text and images were created by hand) throughout the Edo period (1615–1868) was closely associated with the growth of literacy, increased opportunities to travel, and people with time and money to spend on leisurely activities. Before the Edo period, literacy education was largely limited to elites in the warrior class or aristocracy. As non-elites began to acquire wealth, and education became available through terakoya from the seventeenth century onward, the increased literacy rate allowed non-elites to enjoy books as well, and laid the groundwork for publishers to cultivate a readership hungry for new genres.
As with prints, publishers relied on woodblock printing for book publications. Because the Japanese did not use movable type, both text and image were carved into the same block. For books without color, only one block was necessary for each sheet. Colored books required multiple blocks per sheet, but only the most luxurious publications employed more than a handful of colors for an entire book.
Illustrated Kyōka Poetry Books
From the seventeenth to nineteenth century, a genre of poetry called kyōka became popular. Translated as “mad poetry,” the poems followed the basic format of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables, and were humorous and witty. Hokusai produced books and prints with kyōka poems. His prints were surimono—a special kind of woodblock print that was usually printed with lavish materials and attention to detail. For example, a surimono print might have mica, a mineral pigment that sparkles, and employ embossing, in which pressure was applied to the paper to leave uncolored but raised patterns. Commissioned by private poetry groups, surimono usually circulated in limited quantities within exclusive circles. Some sumptuously printed kyōka books may have been commissioned by private poetry circles as well.
One example of Hokusai’s illustrated kyōka poetry books is the Illustrated Book of Humorous Poems “Mountain on Mountain” (Ehon kyōka yama mata yama) first published in 1803. This book is printed using multiple colors, indicating that the production cost must have been relatively high.
The reader follows two women wandering around Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Poems and the corresponding poet’s names float along the top of the page as the scenes change. The women would have been considered “beauties,” with their small mouths, slender yet long noses, and pale skin. In this scene, the two beauties are joined by another on an outing to Takatanobaba (Takadanobaba today) in Edo. The women sit on a large gray cloth, upon which they have placed a tobacco tray and a package wrapped in a green cloth. Portuguese merchants first introduced tobacco to Japan in the sixteenth century, and by the nineteenth century smoking had become a popular and fashionable activity. The three are ready to enjoy the view as they relax and smoke, and perhaps compose a few poems like the ones in the register above.
The women have a telescope set up to view Mount Fuji. The triangle formed by the legs of the telescope stand echoes the shape of the splitting tree branches upon which the three women have propped the device, which in turn echoes the mountain in the distance, leading the viewer’s gaze from the foreground to the background. The white areas at the bottom right of the mountain are clouds, indicating that they have found an area that is quite high up.
The poems above interact with the images below, and add to the meaning of both. Takata (the abbreviated form of Takatanobaba), the setting of the image, appears in some of the poems. Takatanobaba was a meisho, a famous site that evoked poetic, literary, and historical associations for readers. As travel became less restricted in the Edo period, people toured these sites for leisure. Certain details within the image are not immediately evident without reading the poems. The first poem at the top right, for example, mentions a cuckoo bird, thus giving an identification for the bird seen flying toward Mount Fuji. Readers would have read the poems as they admired the pictures, discovering new layers of humor.
Of Hokusai’s book publications, Hokusai’s manga was one of his most popular publications. Hokusai’s manga is unlike narrative manga circulating today (which includes graphic novels and comics), but rather consists of disconnected sketches of animals, people, landscapes, and more. In one example of two open pages, we see figures engaged in different activities, helping to show off Hokusai’s artistic abilities of drawing bodies in motion. On the left page, some people bow, perform a puppet play, and play music while others dance and sing. In the middle-right of the page, an armed man robs another, who has fallen to the ground and is putting up his arms in fear. The page on the right shows people at work on the bottom half. One figure strings a bow, with his body visibly straining from the action, as others strike metal with a hammer. In the top half, a man entertains children by blowing something out of his mouth, another fans particles from his hands, and a man massages his client.
Originally planned as a single-volume work, Hokusai manga’s popularity encouraged the publisher to push Hokusai for more volumes, resulting in a series that spanned fifteen volumes (the last two of which were published posthumously). Hokusai’s illustrations have appealed to audiences across time and space. In the late nineteenth century, when Japanese objects became widely available with the opening of the ports, collectors in the West purchased books like Hokusai manga as references and as entertainment. Images from Hokusai manga circulated widely in Western publications as well, as writers incorporated Hokusai’s figures to illustrate their own books on Japanese history, society, and culture. Today, in Japan, vignettes from Hokusai manga continue to appear on stickers, files, and a range of souvenirs available at museums and exhibitions.
‘Picture Book on the Use of Coloring’ (Ehon Saishikitsū)
One of Hokusai’s final publications was Picture Book on the Use of Coloring (Ehon saishikitsū). Published in 1848, a year before Hokusai’s death, the book consists of two volumes filled with images and text. Although the title of the book includes the word for coloring, saishiki, the book is printed entirely in black ink. The book presents various subjects—ranging from figures to animals and plants—and provides instructions on how to color each image. For example, the text tells the reader that the beak of the white phoenix should be yellow. Little is known about how this book was used. Some scholars have interpreted this book as Hokusai’s final treatise to painting because of its detailed instructions on how to paint and thus was meant for his students, of which he purportedly had over two hundred across Japan.
Later in the book, the text describes how to prepare specific pigments, which has led some scholars to suggest that Hokusai’s daughter, Ōi, might have contributed to the publication. Ōi was a painter as well, and frequently helped mix paint for her father.
Hokusai’s picture books captivated audiences in Japan in the nineteenth century, and later in Europe and America as well. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, when the Japanese art craze took off amongst Western collectors, illustrated books were collected as well, perhaps because collectors could entertain themselves with the illustrations without reading texts in Japanese. As a result, today, many rare illustrated books from early modern Japan can be found in libraries and museums outside of Japan.
- Illustrated Book of Humorous Poems “Mountain on Mountain” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Random Sketches by Hokusai, Volumes 1 to 11 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Picture Book on the Use of Coloring, first volume at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Learn more about Japanese illustrated books at the Pulverer Collection, Freer Gallery of Art
- Browse the Arthur and Charlotte Vershbow Collection of Japanese illustrated books at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Read more about Hokusai manga at the Princeton University Library
- Read more about Illustrated Book of Humorous Poems “Mountain on Mountain” at the Princeton University Library
- Julie Nelson Davis, “Hokusai and Ōi: art runs in the family.”
Originally published by Smarthistory, 09.17.2020, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.