Guide to collecting 20th-century Japanese prints

An exhibition of 20th-century Japanese prints, highlighting two emerging traditions, reveals why the genre is so collectable today.

During the late 19th century, traditional Japanese prints (ukiyo-e) faced an unprecedented crisis. The introduction of new techniques of reproduction such as lithography, and later of mechanical presses, had revolutionised the world of printing and illustration. In addition, huge numbers of classical prints were bought and exported by foreign collectors, causing a scarcity within Japan of
fine 18th and 19th century ukiyo-e. Japanese artists themselves left to study in Europe and the United States, where they found a very different approach to the role of the artist in the creative process than the one current in their native country.

Sekino Jun’ichirô (1914–88) Portrait of Onchi Koshiro, 1952, 64.8 x 49.5 cm (251⁄2 x 191⁄2in.). © Nihon no Hanga, Amsterdam
Sekino Jun’ichirô (1914–88) Portrait of Onchi Koshiro, 1952, 64.8 x 49.5 cm (251⁄2 x 191⁄2in.). © Nihon no Hanga, Amsterdam

In the early 20th century, two traditions of printmaking developed in Japan, each representing a different reaction to these changing conditions. The publisher Watanabe Shōzaburō (1885-1962), concerned about the loss of fine prints to the West and the disappearance of the technical knowledge to produce them, sought out artists capable of reinvigorating print design and of creating a new style, while retaining the traditional division of labour, that is to say the collaboration between the artist, the blockcutter, the printer and the publisher.
Shōzaburō’s movement is generally called shin-hanga or ‘new print’. On the other hand, many artists who took their inspiration from Western practices felt that the creator of the design should maintain control over each stage of the production process. Breaking with tradition, they began designing, carving and printing their own works. Those who subscribed to this new ideology are generally glossed under the term sosakuhanga ‘creative print’. Today, these two traditions of printmaking provide us with a dual legacy of fascinating diversity.

Shin-Hanga Landscapes

Kawase Hasui (1883–1957) Ochanomizu, from the series Twenty Views of Tokyo, 1926, 39 x 26.7cm (15 x 101⁄2in.) © Nihon no Hanga, Amsterdam
Kawase Hasui (1883–1957) Ochanomizu, from the
series Twenty Views of Tokyo, 1926, 39 x 26.7cm (15 x 101⁄2in.) © Nihon no Hanga, Amsterdam

Shin-hanga landscape prints, particularly those of Kawase Hasui (1883-1957) and Itô Shinsui (1898-1972), may be distinguished on several points from the scenes of their illustrious predecessors such as Hiroshige and Hokusai. First of all, they were based on sketches and watercolours made during actual tours of the countryside, a practice adopted in Japan from Western methods of teaching drawing. Hasui in particular had travelled throughout Japan, virtually visiting every province. Shin-hanga artists no longer sought out the well-known beauty spots and touristic attractions, but rather portrayed places that were uncelebrated, if not totally obscure. At a time when the Japanese countryside and towns were being transformed through modernisation, these artists chose to illustrate a timeless and still untouched Nature. Their landscapes, serene and often nostalgic, favoured the shimmering play of rays of moonlight on water or orange skies at dawn and dusk. In these scenes shrouded in mist, snow and rain, figures play only a minor role, man’s presence being mainly indicated through his constructions.
Shin-hanga landscapes are examples of prints of the highest standard. Even those with a limited colour scheme would have involved the use of at least 10 woodblocks, with sometimes more than 20 superimposed printings. Kawase Hasui’s prints were enormously successful and editions sometimes exceeded two thousand impressions. Watanabe Shôzaburô, the dominant force in shin-hanga publishing, recognised the sales potential of the overseas market, concentrating on the United States and, to a lesser extent, on Europe. Shin-hanga artists, most notably Yoshida Hiroshi (1876-1950), travelled abroad and created images of landscapes outside Japan, of the United States, of China and India. During his trips to the United States, he kept himself alive by selling first paintings and later his woodblock prints.

Modern Woman

Takehisa Yumeji (1884–1934) Preparatory watercolour for Cool Outfit (Mitsukoshi department store) 1925 env., 31.7 x 23.8cm (121⁄2 x 93⁄4in.) © Nihon no Hanga, Amsterdam
Takehisa Yumeji (1884–1934) Preparatory watercolour for Cool Outfit (Mitsukoshi department store)
1925 env., 31.7 x 23.8cm (121⁄2 x 3⁄4in.) © Nihon no Hanga, Amsterdam

Prints of women, along with landscapes, represented two major themes of the shinhanga movement. Under the influence of practices borrowed from Western academic art training, artists such as Hashiguchi Goyô (1881-1921) now worked in their studios with models, creating preparatory sketches in pencil rather than in the traditional ink. A new format was chosen, corresponding to a slightly enlarged oban, measuring 43 x 26cm or more.
While in the 18th and 19th centuries, prints of beauties were closely connected to the world of courtesans, geisha and the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters, this completely disappeared in the 20th century, and from 1920 on, the modern woman emerged as the favourite subject. Known as modan gaaru, or moda for short, the ‘Modern Girl’ was a free spirit, liberated and westernised, venturing out into the trendiest places of her time. Above all, she was a financially independent consumer. In Tokyo, alongside her male counterpart, the ‘Modern Boy’ or mobo, she cruised the streets of Ginza with its fashionable dance halls, cinemas, and revue theatres. The atmosphere there was distinctly foreign, and the restaurants and cafés, specialised in Western food and drinks, offered a space where men and women could interact freely and safely. The large department stores became the consumer playground of the Modern Girls and Boys, where they could shop and find the attributes to their carefully cultivated modern image.


At the beginning of the 20th century, influenced by Western ideas, a debate emerged in Japan about the role of the artist in the creative process. The advocates of sosaku-hanga, or ‘creative prints’, wished to enhance the status of woodblock prints, as well as ensure that the artist take full control over all steps in the production of his own works, without any interference from

Yamamoto Kanae (1882-1946) Fisherman, from the magazine Myojo (Morning Star) no. 7 1904, 19 x 26.3cm © Nihon no Hanga, Amsterdam
Yamamoto Kanae (1882-1946) Fisherman, from the magazine Myojo (Morning Star) no. 7 1904, 19 x 26.3cm © Nihon no Hanga, Amsterdam

specialists such as engravers or printers, however highly skilled. Thus, the trace of the knife on the woodblock became the mark of the artist’s self-expression, just as the trace of the brush on paper was that of the calligrapher or painter. In contrast to the technical sophistication of shin-hanga prints, the result was often rough and unpolished, with a spontaneous, even unfinished feel to it.
In the pre-war years, sosaku-hanga editions were small, rarely more than 50 copies, and often limited to 10 or 20 impressions. Spurning the traditional publishing networks, the artists turned to the numerous, often short-lived, coterie magazines which served as a forum for the intellectual avant-garde of the time, also reproducing works by German and Russian Expressionists. The print credited with being the first sosaku-hanga image was the portrait of a fisherman by Yamamoto Kanae, published in the magazine Myojo (Morning Star) in 1904.
Unlike their shin-hanga counterparts, which attracted foreign buyers, the prints designed by the sosaku-hanga artists were largely sold within Japan through exhibitions and by subscription. The Japan Creative Print Association (Nihon sosaku hanga kyokai), founded in 1918, organised department store shows attracting large crowds; from 1933, a touring exhibition was organised in Europe, visiting the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva in 1936, exactly 80 years ago.

The 1923 Earthquake

Onchi Kôshirô (1890–1955) Tokyo Station, from the series Recollections of Tokyo 1926, 25.6 x 20.1cm (10 x 8in.).
Onchi Kôshirô (1890–1955) Tokyo Station, from the series Recollections of Tokyo 1926, 25.6 x 20.1cm (10 x 8in.).

The paramount event which would change the urban landscape of Tokyo forever was the Great Kantô Earthquake which struck just before noon, on September 1, 1923. Measuring around eight on the Richter scale, it literally flattened much of Tokyo and Yokohama in a matter of minutes, its effects worsened by the devastating fires which followed. Over 100,000 people lost their lives, and the homes of three million people were destroyed.
Post-earthquake sosaku hanga prints emphasise the modern architecture, the many parks, steel bridges, subways, cranes and factories of the nascent Tokyo, as well as documenting the new pastimes in which people engaged, such as going to the movies, visiting the dance halls, riding the subways and shopping in Ginza.

An exhibition of Japanese Prints is currently running at the Baur Foundation, Museum of Far Eastern Art, Geneva, until May 22. 

Starting a collection

Eddy Wertheim of the Japanese Gallery shares some advice on how to start collecting Japanese prints.

If you are starting to collect prints from this era the complexity lies in knowing whether a print is a first edition, or later, which is a factor that will dramatically alter the price, writes Eddy Wertheim. Each publisher had various seals, while certain artists used trademark features in their work that allow a specialist to ascertain the authenticity, or date, of a specific print. Though pieces from this era can appear in auction houses, the knowledge required for ccurate authentication may not be at hand.
The best point of call is to approach a specialist Japanese print dealer, who will be able to recognise the difference between various editions. Once faced with originals, and guided by a specialist, the world of 20th century prints becomes a visual dream world. It is no surprise the era has inspires collectors around the world captivated by the stunning works of these Japanese maestros.

20th-century supremacy

For the amateur collector of Japanese prints the reason why prints dating from the early 20th century are more expensive than those of the previous century remains a mystery. The reason is that Japanese prints from the earlier period were primarily products of mass production. At the start of the 20th century, prints took on the identity of a separate art form, blending the traditional medium of Japanese woodblock prints with the influence of Western art.
The result is artwork that crosses cultural boundaries creating a universal appeal, which has subsequently led to huge demand in the art world. Prices can vary hugely depending on condition of the print, size of the work and popularity of the artist. Expect to pay for Hashiguchi Goyô (1881-1921) £3,000-£9,000; Torii Kotondo (1900-1976) £1,500-£6,000; Kawase Hasui (1883-1957) £800-£5,000; Yoshida Hiroshi (1876-1950) £400-£4,000; Natori Shunsen (1896-1960) £200-£1,000; Sekino Jun’ichirô (1914-1988) £250-£2,000.

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