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This article series outlines roughly 120 years of Japanese printmaking from the Edo period under the Tokugawa shogunate until the Westernization of Japan during the Meiji era. The article describes the development of the popular Japanese print as the result of the political, social and economic environment of the times in which they were made and the people for whom they were produced.
Part four is a short description of the urban Edo culture as the socioeconomic basis for woodblock printing.
I would like now to turn to an analysis of how the desires of the commoner were mobilized to national ends, and how the popular print transformed from a mode of satire and resistance to political authority in the late Edo period, to one of active participation in Meiji. As I do so, I wish too to question part of the framework I have set up here, by interrogating the idea that a popular culture can ever represent a pure reflection of "the people", outside of political control.
In order to set up the vastly altered political orientations of the Meiji print, I would like for a moment to look back briefly at the relation between the government and commoner culture in the Edo period. The woodblock print itself developed as a commercial venture completely outside of government intervention or control, though this very development was made possible by the socioeconomic changes brought about by the Tokugawa bakufu.
In removing samurai from the land and establishing them in castle towns, the bakufu unintentionally set into motion a series of complex social transformations with extreme consequences. One of the most significant of these is the rise to wealth of a merchant class, who was responsible for supplying the city samurai-bureaucrat with his material needs, in return for cash.
This merchant group, in turn, supplied both the initial venture capital and the original audience for experiments in woodblock printing, with the concentration of goods and specialized artisans in the big cities (Edo, Kyoto and Osaka) providing the necessary materials and skills for woodblock production.
The single-sheet print (ichimaie) developed in the 1660's out of illustrations for early books, from which it should be distinguished, for the ichimaie, being less demanding of wealth and literacy, soon spread to all classes of merchants and artisans, and even to the countryside in the nineteenth century.
For this reason, the print is even more ubiquitous than popular fiction, even after the development of the urban lending library, for it could touch the lives of children, the illiterate and those without leisure for reading, and in its use as a display item in teahouses and restaurants, even those who had not purchased it. The print, then, was a form that had the potential to influence all sorts of lives, and certainly not only reflected, but shaped, the outlook of the urban commoner in particular.
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