Censor’s seal sheds light on ukiyo-e history

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A key block for a work by Keisai Eisen is attached to the side opposite “Hawk and Cherry Blossoms.” The block is placed sideways to form the brazier, with the right side being the top. Ryogoku Bridge and a crowd are seen on the top, while the river and boats are seen on the bottom.

Renowned ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) may have created many beautiful prints, but a recently discovered woodcut block used in the production of one of them also bears the work of someone else — a censor.

Courtesy of Sumida Hokusai Museum
“Hawk and Cherry Blossoms” (about 1834), a nishiki-e colored woodblock print in a naga-oban vertical format.

The block of wood was an omohan, or key block, for Hokusai’s “Hawk and Cherry Blossoms,” a single-sheet nishiki-e colored woodblock print believed to have been produced around 1834. The discovery will likely shed light on unknown aspects of the ukiyo-e printing process by the artist, who was active in the late years of the Edo period (1603-1867).

A key block was used in the initial stage of multicolor printing, to lay down the compositional outlines of a woodblock print in sumi ink.

The block was found attached to the side of a rectangular hibachi brazier. It was confirmed to have the signature “Saki no Hokusai Iitsu hitsu,” one of the names used by Hokusai.

A Tokyo-based art dealer obtained the brazier when it went on the art market in Fukuoka Prefecture last year.

Leading ukiyo-e researcher Shugo Asano, director of the Museum Yamato Bunkakan, a private art museum in Nara, examined the item. He noted that a part indicating an aratame-in censorship seal had been made separately and was embedded into the block.

At that time, as part of ukiyo-e production, gyoji inspectors selected from among fellow publishers were responsible for censoring the draft sketches drawn by ukiyo-e artists to make sure that they did not contain any content deemed inimical to the Edo shogunate.

If they approved the draft, they used a seal to mark it with the kanji “kiwame.” The engraver then carved the design of the preliminary draft, including the seal, onto a wooden board to create the key block.

However, on the newly found key block for “Hawk and Cherry Blossoms,” it can be seen that the seal was embedded separately. Asano speculated that the production was carried out in a rush because it was part of a naga-oban vertical format series of bird-and-flower prints. They were typically made for display during the New Year as auspicious artwork.

“Newly printed ukiyo-e works usually go on sale in the New Year holidays. So to secure engravers during the busy period from autumn to year-end, the key block may have been engraved first, and then the seal part was embedded into it before the printing process,” Asano said.

All four sides of the brazier were covered with what used to be key blocks. In addition to the key block for “Hawk and Cherry Blossoms,” the lower part of the key block for “Harumichi no Tsuraki” from the series “A True Mirror of Chinese and Japanese Poetry,” also by Hokusai, was confirmed on the brazier as well.

The side opposite the “Hawk and Cherry Blossoms” block was the key block for a work by 19th-century ukiyo-e artist Keisai Eisen (1791-1848), depicting people enjoying the cool of the evening on Ryogoku Bridge in Edo (now Tokyo). It was one of the key blocks for printing a three-part naga-oban series, which, according to Asano, were “extremely special” nishiki-e colored woodblock prints.

The artist for the key block attached to the remaining fourth side is unknown.

Ukiyo-e works printed with the three newly found key blocks were all published by Moriya Jihei in Edo. As a well-established publisher active from the late Edo period to sometime in the Meiji era (1868-1912), Moriya published ukiyo-e prints by popular artists such as Utagawa Hiroshige in a store in the post town district of Bakurocho, according to the archival documents.

“Owning woodcut printing blocks meant owning their copyrights,” said Asano. “The three key blocks are believed to have been owned by Moriya and stored somewhere in one place.”

So, why were the three key blocks recycled as the sides of a brazier?

According to Asano, woodcut printing blocks were basically consumable, so the surface of each block would be shaved down to be reused to carve a new design, or even used as firewood after the printing process was completed.

The dense wood of wild cherry blossom trees was used as the material for key blocks. With the surface carved with sophisticated designs, the blocks were occasionally reused as elements of craft items in the modern era.

Asano said whoever reused the key blocks as the sides of the brazier might have thought they would be suitable for that purpose due to “the high-quality material and the naga-oban dimensions.”

Ukiyo-e woodcut printing blocks have sometimes been found in bulk in Japan and abroad.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has more than 520 items, including woodcut printing blocks for Hokusai’s picture books. They were all collected by William Sturgis Bigelow, a doctor who lived in Japan in the early Meiji era.

About 370 woodblocks of the Utagawa School were discovered in an old family house in Toyama Prefecture in the 2000s. The National Museum of Japanese History in Chiba Prefecture has been keeping and studying them since 2007. “In the future, we would like to compare the actual prints with the woodblocks and conduct research mainly on the production process,” said Junichi Okubo, deputy director of the museum and a ukiyo-e researcher.

The key blocks discovered this time are valuable as research material, raising hopes that they will be made available for research and possible exhibition.