After centuries of military upheaval in Japan, the Edo period (1603–1868) brought a new era of peace and stability. Social, economic and political changes led to rapid population growth in the cities – Edo (now Tokyo), Kyoto and Osaka – and the emergence of a newly wealthy merchant class. While the ruling samurai class sat at the top of the social hierarchy and held all the political power, affluent merchants came to vastly outnumber them and were increasingly influential as patrons of the arts. This shift in cultural power gave rise to new and popular art forms such as ukiyo-e (浮世絵) and kabuki theatre (歌舞伎).


Ukiyo-e, literally meaning ‘pictures of the floating world’, are multi-coloured paintings and mass-produced woodblock prints that were first produced for sale to the public during the Edo period. The multicolored prints can be compared to magazines and posters of the current day and give us an insight into the tastes and lifestyle of the people of Edo Japan. The period was characterised by a vibrant consumer culture, new fashions and recreational pursuits. People’s interest in travel, sport and the arts flourished and these interests are reflected in the subject matter of ukiyo-e. Popular subjects for ukiyo-e included landscapes, beautiful people, celebrities such as actors and sumo wrestlers, famous tales of brave warriors, folk tales and scenes from kabuki theatre.


Still a popular art form today, kabuki theatre developed as a popular live theatre performance that was enjoyed by the masses. Kabuki is characterised by colourful costumes, music, stylised movement and dramatic poses known as mie (見得), which were adopted by the actor at a climactic moment. Popular themes and stories include chivalry, love, betrayal, tragedy and revenge. Ukiyo-e artists produced prints that celebrated famous kabuki actors, dressed in character and posed in mie poses, as well as theatre prints that captured dramatic kabuki scenes. These works were readily purchased, collected, and adored by the general population of Edo Japan.


Yakusha-e (役者絵) are actor prints. A popular form of ukiyo-e, they advertise and commemorate kabuki performances, and often depicted well-known actors in character. Fans would collect yakusha-e prints of their favourite actors.

MUSHA-E (武者絵)

Musha-e (武者絵), or warrior print, is a type of ‘story print’. It is a form of ukiyo-e which depicts legendary tales of famous warriors and heroes – often showing a dramatic moment. These tales, along with folk tales and supernatural stories, were popular subject matter in kabuki theatre. Ukiyo-e artists depicted climactic scenes from folktales or kabuki by presenting them in bold and vivid colours in a stylised way that captured the drama and excitement of the scene. These images might remind you of scenes from action films and anime.

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