Japan has a long and colorful history in the medium of printmaking, representing many styles. While traditional content, particularly the landscapes and seascapes, comprises much of the subject matter, there are some contemporary Japanese artists doing experimental work with the art form. You can find landmark Japanese prints in museums, galleries and private collections, and there are many pieces with high edition numbers that are affordable for beginning collectors.
The roots of Japanese printmaking extends back to the eighth century, when the empress of Japan commissioned a series of woodblock scrolls to be inscribed with Buddhist text. Three centuries later, Buddhist temples used printmaking techniques to create religious text and images for distribution among disciples.
The key features of Japanese prints are that they are printed in editions, typically using woodblocks made of cherry, and are often signed, dated and numbered by the artist. They often feature a seal which serves as an artist's signature. The seal is either printed from the woodblock as well, or added later as a stamp from a stone impression. Most Japanese prints begin as a drawing on Japanese paper known as washi. The artist glues this image onto the woodblock and carves around it. Then, the artist coats the wooden carving in ink and presses or burnishes the washi onto the inked surface. Early prints were monochrome, typically in black ink, while later prints featured many colors and layers of ink.
When people think of Japanese prints, the artist that immediately comes to mind is Hokusai, considered a master of the form. Working in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Hokusai was astonishingly prolific, said to have made 35,000 prints and drawings during his long career. His subject matter encompassed mythology, folklore, history, customs, animals and nature. His landmark series, "Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji," displays his mastery of color and technique.
The popularity of Japanese printmaking continues today. One artist making a splash in the art world with his contemporary interpretations of age-old Japanese traditions is Kenichi Yokono. The artist uses the carved woodblocks themselves, rather than prints from them, as his finished product. His haunting pieces evoke scary movies, monsters and psychologically dark situations.
If you are in the market for Japanese prints, it's key to understand and identify their distinctions. The term "original print" signifies it was printed during the artist lifetime from original blocks of works sketched by the artist. Reprints, also called restrikes or reissues, are also printed from the original blocks but do not represent the first edition, and they tend to be less valuable than originals. Pirated editions are made from blocks that were recut and inspired by, but not necessarily copied from, original designs. Reproductions are copies, typically in high edition numbers, that are made from recut blocks. Fakes are prints that are reproductions that dealers attempt to sell as originals. They may used vintage papers or aging techniques to add a patina of antiquity to the prints.