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Tokyo, called Edo, was the center of Ukiyo-e printmaking. But the good things need not always come from the capital. Osaka was another print center during the Edo period and its prints have become quite popular among collectors.
Edo, Osaka and Kyoto were the major political, commercial and cultural centers in Japan in the 17th, 18th and 19th century. To understand ukiyo-e printmaking during the Edo period, one should take a closer look at the importance of these three cities.
Kyoto was the imperial residence. But the Japanese emperor had a purely representational function and no real power. He lived in his Kyoto palace like in a golden cage.
Kyoto had a population of about 400,000 citizens in the 18th century and remained an important cultural center. However the show was going on in Edo.
In 1730 Edo (Tokyo) had roughly one million inhabitants - a huge metropolis. It was then larger than London and probably the largest city in the world. Edo was the residence of the Shogun, the military and political leader of the country, and the administrational and cultural center of Japan.
After Tokugawa Ieyasu had ultimately pacified and unified Japan, he moved the capital from Kyoto to Edo - then a small village.
Tokugawa imposed some strict rules on the daimyo, the provincial leaders, to prevent them from becoming again strong enough to defy the central shogunate rule. The daimyo were obliged to maintain permanent residences in Edo. Every two years they had to march to the capital in a big ceremonial procession with whistles and bells.
The effect on the city of Edo was a permanent presence of noblemen and samurai with a huge staff of retainers, attendants and servants. Historians estimate the number of samurai at 8% of the whole Japanese population. Manfred Pohl (see literature source below) even assumes that 50% of the population of Edo City were samurai.
The aristocrats and the samurai, the warrior class, had an idle life during the Edo period. The country had not seen any wars since the foundation of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603. These guys were bored and were looking for entertainment and distraction. Although they were not supposed to visit the licensed quarters with their brothels, teahouses and kabuki theaters, they did it nevertheless - in disguise. Sometimes you can see on Japanese prints from the Edo period persons with a strange, bee-hive-like huge hat. These were the 'shy' samurai.
The dominating clientele in the kabuki theaters and brothel quarters were however the merchants. The social ranking of their class was even below the farmers and artisans. They had become rich by commerce and by money lending. But they had to be careful not to show their wealth with too much ostentation. It could have provoked increased tax payments and even the confiscation of their property by the shogun. The social conditions encouraged the wealthy merchants to blow their money in the company of prostitutes and geishas and in the kabuki theaters.
These were excellent conditions for a flourishing entertainment business in Edo. And with the entertainment sector, the production of ukiyo-e flourished automatically. The commissions for ukiyo-e came from the kabuki theaters, the teahouses and brothels - the so-called green houses.
Osaka was the crossing point between Kyoto and Edo. The city had the largest harbor next to Beijing and was an important commercial center. In the 18th century Osaka had about 400,000 inhabitants.
Osaka was the first town with a separate quarter for the more worldly pleasures. In 1589 Saburoemon Hara received permission from Hideyoshi Toyotomi to establish a brothel in Osaka - close to the castle. Later it was moved a bit further out of town and became Shimabara. But the Shimabara quarter remained small in size compared to the Yoshiwara, the huge licensed quarter in Edo.
Thus the market for ukiyo-e was simply much smaller than in Edo.
Osaka prints are by definition prints that were designed and produced in Osaka. But what makes them different from ukiyo-e made in Edo?
First of all, it should be pointed out that the numbers of ukiyo-e designs made in Osaka, were only a fraction of those produced in Edo. Matthi Forrer (see reference below) gives an estimate of 10,000 to 15,000 ukiyo-e designs produced in Osaka versus 250,000 coming from Edo.
Due to the lower volume of the market, also edition sizes were definitely smaller. And this makes Osaka prints so interesting for today's collectors. With each copy printed from a woodblock, the impression quality worsened due to the wear of the block. Hardly more than 3,000 copies could be made from one block - with the later copies looking visibly poorer in quality.
Osaka prints are with a few exceptions of bijin prints exclusively designs of actors and kabuki scenes. It is not quite evident, but the reason is probably the restricted demand from the local market.
There are also compositional and style differences between Edo and Osaka prints. Whether a typical Osaka style exists or if the difference is simply a result of different, individual styles of the Osaka artists, I don't dare to say.
Don't panic. Kamigata prints and Kansai prints are only different words for Osaka prints. Kansai is the name for the area around Osaka in contrast to Kanto, the region where Tokyo and Yokohama are located. And the Kansai area is also called Kamigata region.
Even people who have no special relation to arts, have heard of Utamaro, Hokusai or Hiroshige who all lived and worked in Edo. The names of the Osaka ukiyo-e designers are more a thing for the serious collector.
The majority of the Osaka prints you will find on today's art market are by Hirosada. He was the most prolific of the Osaka printmakers. But not even the precise year of his birth and death are know - circa 1810-1864. He preferred the small Chuban print format for his portraits of kabuki actors.
Another rather well-known and prolific artist is Hokuei - active after 1830. Typical for his print designs are the dramatic if not strange facial expressions of the actors.
Other important Osaka print artists are:
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