Prints made in lithograph technique were rather popular during the Meiji period. However among collectors of Japanese prints, Meiji lithographs are not well known. Maybe it is the lack of literature in English about this interesting aspect of Japanese art history that kept these prints in the dark.
When commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry anchored in the bay of Edo (Tokyo) in 1853, he had a photographer and a German born artist, William Heine, on board of his ships. Later, lithographs were made from these daguerreotype photographs. These were the first lithographs with scenes from Japan.
As a result of the Perry expedition, Japan had opened its borders to foreign commerce with the United States in the Treaty of Kanagawa (1854) and in a series of similar treaties with England, France, Russia and the Netherlands. In 1860 the first printing machine was brought to Japan by the Prussian diplomat Friedrich Albrecht Eulenburg, 1815-1881.
For the foreigners living in Japan, a newspaper called Bankoku Shimbuin was published using the technique of lithography.
Before Japan's forced opening, the only printing method for text and images known and used in the country, was the technique of woodblocks.
Lithography was invented in 1798 by the Bavarian Alois Senefelder. He used a flat limestone on which the design was drawn with a water-repellent, greasy substance like a crayon. After the design was finished, the plate was inked. Only the greasy parts absorbed the ink. Now the plate could be put in any kind of a press and paper copies could be pulled in large numbers without much wear.
Later the limestone was replaced by zinc plates and the whole process was more refined. To produce a colored lithograph, one had to use several plates - one for each color - or the black and white lithograph was colored by hand.
The Japanese called lithography sekihan - meaning stone printing.
After circa 1873 the use of lithographs became popular in Japan. The Japanese government established a governmental printing department and lithography was used by the Japanese army.
After 1882/83 more private publishers used lithography. In 1885 they organized themselves in the Tokyo Lithograph Union - Tokyo Sekihan Insatsugyo Kumiai with 96 members - all publishers. In 1888 there were more than 100 publishers in Tokyo alone who used lithography.
Lithographs had the advantage of being much easier to use for mass production compared to woodblocks.
Early lithographs were printed in black and white and sometimes colored by hand. After 1887 color lithographs came into use.
The Japanese used certain pastel type colors which in combination with Japanese-like subjects give these prints a very special look. Typical motifs for decorative prints were those only too familiar from woodblock prints - bijin (beautiful women), landscapes, children and emperor Meiji and his family.
In Meiji 33 - 1900 in Western calendar - a new postal system was introduced in Japan and postcards and picture cards became popular - another field for the use of lithography.
Starting around Meiji 40 - 1907 - elaborate lithographs with 10 to 20 different colors and in large formats were produced. They were for instance offered as posters in department stores. Department stores are until today an important place where serious art objects are offered and sold.
With the Russo-Japanese war, photography and photo-mechanical techniques such as offset printing, rapidly began to replace lithography. Ironically the replacement happened when lithography had reached new technical heights with multi-color prints.
While the Japanese used to conserve woodblock prints in folders or keep them in drawers, lithograph prints were not considered worth collecting. This is the reason why inspite of its mass production character not many Japanese lithographs survived the times.
Author: Dieter Wanczura