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Nagasaki-e (長崎絵)


Anon Hollander (dutch couple)Nagasaki-e (長崎絵) were woodblock prints, paintings, and illustrated woodblock-printed books made in the port of Nagasaki. Often serving as miyage hanga (souvenir prints: 土産版画), nagasaki-e were inexpensive mementos for merchants or scholars who traveled to Nagasaki on business. Moreover, the market for such images was large and profitable, as the Japanese were themselves endlessly curious about foreign visitors whom they were typically forbidden to meet. Nagasaki-e were sold not only in Nagasaki, but also in Edo and Osaka, and no doubt in the provinces.

The image at the right is an early and decidedly rare example of nagasaki-e. Half-length portraits of foreigners were far less common than full-length depictions. This design, published by Bunkindô-han (文錦堂板), shows a Dutchman drinking spirits from a European goblet as his wife looks on. The title "Hollander" is given in English, while the inscription at the lower right cites Bunkindô's address, Nagasaki Katsuyama-machi (長崎勝山町). This impression, which measures 305 x 210 mm, is slightly later than the first edition, which might have been as early as circa 1770s-80s(?). Here, the character for "publisher" (han, 板) has been added to the firm's name at the lower left.

There were technical differences between standard nishiki-e ("brocade prints," or full-color woodblock prints: 錦絵) and nagasaki-e in the early and middle years (before nishiki-e methods were widely adopted). The former were entirely printed from woodblocks, and in the two centers of ukiyo-e production, Edo and Osaka, the papers were generally of excellent quality. The papers used for nagasaki-e, however, tended to be of inferior quality. Earlier examples were made with gasenshi, a Chinese-style paper containing tan tree fibers (Pteroceltis tatarinowii maxim), rice-straw, and bleached bamboo. These papers tended to absorb moisture very quickly and were prone to tearing under the pressure of applying lines and colors with the traditional baren (circular rubbing pad: 馬楝), so printers modified the baren by covering it with less abrasive horsehair rather than bamboo fibers. The result was often softer lines and colors. Sometimes, printers rubbed the colorants into the papers with horizontal or vertical strokes rather than the traditional circular motions used in nishiki-e. As a result, linear striations frequently appeared within the larger block-printed color areas. Moreover, as many nagasaki-e were colored by hand or brushed onto the papers through stencils, similar striated marks can be seen in some stencilled-color areas.

Nagasaki was the only port open to officially sanctioned foreign trade from 1641 until 1859, a period overlapping the Tokugawa shogunate's foreign-relations policy called sakoku (closed country: 鎖國), which was in effect from 1641 until 1853. Without special permission, both foreigners and Japanese were forbidden to enter or leave Japan on penalty of death. The exceptions were Chinese and Dutch traders on a man-made island in Nagasaki bay called Dejima ("Exit Island": 出島), constructed in 1634, shortly before the start of sakoku, to house Portuguese traders and prevent the propagation of Christianity. (There was also some trade with Korea out of Tsushima Province and with the Kingdom of the Ryukyu Islands from Satsuma Province.) Dejima was linked to the mainland by a small bridge, the Omotemon-bashi (Old bridge to the mainland; today, a modern steel bridge takes it's place, having been completed in November 2017). There were houses for about twenty Dutchmen as well as warehouses for trade goods. Thus Nagasaki became the center for the primary importation of foreign goods and the sole city that foreigners might regularly visit. However, after the American Commodore Matthew Perry (1794-1858) arrived just south of Yokohama with a fleet of American warships, first in 1853 and again in 1854, the opening of Japan to the West was inevitable. Yokohama became a treaty port in June 1859, and soon after, the appearance of ukiyo-e prints from Yokohama signaled the end of nagasaki-e as a unique genre of prints depicting foreigners and their customs. As a result, the production of nagasaki-e ceased in the 1860s. Soon thereafter, Dejima was expanded with reclaimed land and merged into Nagasaki, and in 1904 extensive redesigning of Nagasaki harbor further obscured the island's original location. However, today there are long-term plans to restore much of Dejima and its structures.

Anonymous diptych Dutch couple
Anonymous: (1R) Oranda-jin (Dutchman: 阿蘭陀人); and (2R) Oranda-nyonin (Dutch woman: 阿蘭陀女人)
Woodblock hosoban diptych with hand coloring; possibly pub. by Toshimaya, c. 1760(?), approx. 360 x 300 mm

The dating of nagasaki-e can be a vexing enterprise. Some designs were reprinted years after the original editions, and motifs were repeated with similar details from earlier works. Nevertheless, sometimes the events portrayed provide clues for dating. Occasionally, a publisher seal might be helpful, as firms typically remained active for not much longer than a generation. The first nagasaki-e were made around the late 1720s; there is, for example, a carved printing block (c. 1728) in the Fukusai Temple, possibly presented to replace a worn-out block for a Chinese nenga (年画 Ch: nianhua) or New Year's print. Otherwise, the earliest surviving prints date from the 1740s.

One writer (see Cal French ref. below) described early nagasaki-e as "full of the untutored candor which is the delight of Nagasaki print connoisseurs." Others were not so appreciative. The scholar/collector Jack Hillier called them "pronounced provincial gaucherie." A very early example is shown immediately above, an unsigned diptych that might have been published by Toshimaya (see next paragraph). The style is very much like the first known design issued by the publisher Hariya in the 1740s, titled Oranda-jin no zu (View of a Dutchman: 阿蘭陀之圖; again, see French, p. 38, no. 7). Each sheet is a pre-nishiki-e format (360 x 150 mm), slightly taller than the later nishiki-e hosoban, 330 x 150 mm). Sources for imagery such aswhat is presented in this diptych included more than what artists observed about foreigners in Dejima. Imported books were of enormous value, as were porcelains decorated with scenes of the West. In this instance, the artist likely relied on a European engraving (or an illustration of that engraving in an imported book), as the shading on the curtain takes the form of hatching in the Western manner. The woman's attire is also somewhat incongruous, as the dress is that of a peasant girl, whereas the collar imitates somewhat fancifully a more formal European ruffled collar. In any event, with rare exceptions, European women were forbidden to enter Japan, even at Dejima, so the artist could not have observed his subject in real life. The style of portrayal suggests a date as early as circa 1760.

Nagasaki-e were partly inspired by nenga, a tradition or printmaking originating in Suzhou (Jp: Soshû 蘇州), China. In fact, between one-third and one-half of the surviving nagasaki-e portray Chinese subjects; Dutch subjects were also plentiful. Later in the 19th century, Russians, Koreans, British, French, and, finally, Americans were represented. The range of subject matter was wide, including foreign couples, children, families, pets, exotic birds and animals, female beauties, courtesans, landscapes, cityscapes, ships, maps, and military events. As many as a dozen publishing firms were engaged in producing nagasaki-e from around 1750 to 1850, although four publishing houses were most significant: Hariya (針屋), which opened in the mid-to-late 1740s and is credited with developing the first of the aforementioned miyage hanga and launching the artistic tradition of nagasaki-e; the firm closed in 1754 upon the death of its proprietor, Hariya Yohei, and only three designs seem to have survived; Toshimaya (豊島屋 renamed Tomishimaya in the 1780s), which began business circa late 1750s, continuing until 1828; Bunkindô (文錦堂), established in the 1790s and operating until the early 1860s; and Yamatoya (大和屋), also opening in the 1790s, which remained active until 1857, although overwhelmingly the firm's surviving prints date from the early 1840s until its demise. The last two firms sold a variety of Nagasaki souvenirs besides woodblock prints.The book Nagasaki miyage (see below) states explicitly in its colophon that the Yamatoya had a side-business selling Japanese, Chinese, and Western decorative arts and souvenirs. Indeed, for many publishers, especially those who issued very few prints, the production of nagasaki-e was mostly a secondary business.

Anonymous: Map of Nagasaki, woodblock print and stencil color, 1821, pub. by Bunkindô (文錦堂)

Panoramic maps and guides to Nagasaki were among the earliest examples of woodblock prints from the city. A map published in 1764 by Ôhata Bunjiemon, founder of the Toshimaya, is inscribed with the following: "Since the locations of the mansions of the various domains have shifted, and precincts have been changed in recent years, the new districts and the anchorages of Dutch and Chinese vessels have been carefully studied and precisely indicated on this block print." [see Hosono ref. below, p. 35] These guides were so popular that they were published for many years without much change in format or details. Many were colored by stencil or hand. A stencil-colored map published by Bunkindô in 1821 is shown above. It is essentially a later printing of an 1802 map from the Gyûshinya firm. Dejima is visible just to the left of center as a curved, fan-shaped island connected to the mainland by a bridge to its right. There is a fence around the perimeter of the island.

Keiga portrait of van SieboldMost surviving nagasaki-e are unsigned. It is thought that some or possibly many print designers were amateur artists who worked in foreign-trade positions in Nagasaki. Prints with signatures are generally found in the later years. One of the best known artists was Kawahara Keiga (川原慶賀 c. 1786-1860), who had access to many Dutch paintings after meeting the German-born military physician and botanist Franz von Siebold who worked for the Dutch state at Dejima from 1823 to 1829. Von Siebold wrote in his 1826 diary that Kawahara Keiga was learning how to paint in the Western manner. We can see this in the modeling of the face in Keiga's portrait of von Siebold on paper painted around 1825-26, now in the Saga Prefectural Museum of Art. Kawahara's son Taguchi Rokoku (田口廬谷 1810 - c. 1870) also produced nagasaki-e, working in his father's style. Others included Matsuo Kokuhô (松尾谷鵬 died 1809, the art name of the Bunkindô owner Matsuo Reiuemon), and the rangakusha (scholar of Western [Dutch] learning: 蘭学者) and retainer of the Sendai domain, Hayashi Shihei (林子平 1738-1793).

Of particular significance, Isono Bunsai (磯野文齋 c. 1798-1851) was an artist and publisher who is said to have studied with the Edo master Keisei Eisen, possibly in the early 1820s. Bunsai married into the Yamatoya firm and became its manager and resident artist. The Yamatoya was the most prolific of all businesses involved in producing nagasaki-e. Bunsai was responsible for some of the innovations in later nagasaki-e, such as the adoption of Edo nishiki-e printmaking methods around 1839. In fact, when Bunsai relocated from Edo, he brought with him an Edo carver named Kyûgorô whom he had met in Osaka. Going further, he stated that the carver and printers employed in the production of Nagasaki miyage (Souvenir of Nagasaki: 長崎土産) were all from Edo (see image below). Bunsai published the book through the Yamatoya firm, acting as both publisher and illustrator while signing as Bunsai Isono Nobuharu (Bunsai Isono Nobuharu cho narabi ga: 文齋磯野信春著併画) in the colophon. Nagasaki miyage appears to have been the earliest illustrated book about Nagasaki and its foreign commerce published in the city. Bunsai also employed a number of other artists, including the aforementioned Kawahara Keiga and Taguchi Rokoku, as well as Bunsai's wife Yamatoya Sada (大和屋貞 1799?-1853), Araki Jogen (荒木如元 1773-1824, who also worked for Bunkundô), Morokuma Hachirô (dates not found), and the well-known kabuki print and painting designer Ryûsai Shigeharu, who was a Nagasaki native.

Bunsai Isono Nobuharu: Nagasaki miyage, illustrated woodblock-printed book (ehon), double-page spread
Hollandsche, Uurwerk ("Dutch timepiece"): Kômôjin ("red-haired man": 紅毛人), kurobô ("black boy": クロボウ)
(Book: 40 double leaves, texts plus four full-page and 12 double-page woodcut illustrations), 1847

The following two nagasaki-e were published around the end of the 18th century. On the left, a Dutchman is shown smoking a very long pipe and carrying a walking stick. Behind him, a Javanese slave holds a large umbrella above his master's head as a small dog follows along. The composition appears to take its inspiration from the publisher Hariya's aforementioned Oranda-jin no zu from the 1740s, as the drawing of the Hollander and slave are very similar. The dog, however, is a substitute for the sailor carrying a goblet and wine flask on a tray in the Hariya work. The image below right is titled Oranda-jo no zu (View of a Dutch woman: 阿蘭陀女の圖), while the inscription above the young boy reads jidôsaishi (four years old: 児童歳四). The cartouche rectangle on the far right appears to be a blacked-out publisher seal, suggesting, perhaps, that this impression was printed sometime after a first edition under the direction of a secondary publisher. Note, for example, that the stenciled colors are very much off-register throughout the image, suggesting a later printing. The "exotic" parrots would have added interest for the Japanese observer of this print.

Anonymous: Dutchman with Javanese slave and dog,
woodblock print with stencil coloring,
c. last quarter 18th century
Anonymous: Dutch woman with her four-year-old son
woodblock print with stencil coloring,
c. last quarter 18th century

With the start of the nineteenth century, the old manner of depicting foreigners prevailed for a decade or two. In the image below left, the paper format is pre-nishiki-e, one half the size of a minagami source sheet (460 x 330 mm), cut vertically to yield two 460 x 165 mm sheets, which were substantially taller than the more familiar hosoban nishiki-e format (330 x 150 mm; cut from kobôsho source sheets that were 330 x 470 mm) used in Edo and Osaka-Kyoto printmaking. Of course, the actual sizes of such sheets will vary due to slight differences in the cutting from larger source sheets, or trimming by publishers or collectors. The scene shown here is a simple one: a Dutchman is looking through a telescope as his dog gazes up toward his master. The telescope was a critical Western scopic device already well known to the Japanese, but a view of a foreigner using it in real life would have enticed the curious among potential Japanese buyers.

Moving forward into the nineteenth century, nagasaki-e began to exhibit more accomplished drawing, carving, and coloring, or put differently, professionalism gradually altered the tradition. Eventually, nishiki-e methodology was entirely adopted by Nagasaki publishers, with the colors applied from carved blocks, just as the contour lines always had been. Accordingly, the chromatic saturation increased. Below center is a portrait of a prostitute from Nagasaki's brothel district, called Maruyama-machi (丸山町). Published by "Nagasaki" Yamatoya-han (ナガサキ大和屋板) around the 1840s, the unsigned design is titled Dejima yûjo de-kawari no zu (View of a prostitute leaving Dejima: 蘭館娼妓出代ノ圖). The composition is unusual for a nagasaki-e, as it features a sex worker, rather than placing her incidentally within a larger composition, by far the more common mode of presentation in Nagasaki. Moreover, the style of drawing and printing is straight out of the Edo nishiki-e tradition (specifically, a softened adaptation of both Eisen's bijinga and those of the Utagawa school). Here, the "pleasure woman" is shown walking past two guinea hens as she glances back toward a portrait of her red-haired Dutch lover or client.

Dejima prostitute Chinese beauty
Anonymous: Dutchman with telescope
woodblock with stencil coloring,
450 x 150 mm; c. 1810s(?)
Anonymous: Prostitute leaving Dejima, nishiki-e, 460 x 160 mm
Pub: Yamatoya-han, c. 1840s
Anonymous: Chinese beauty
Pub: Yamatoya-han, c. 1840s

Another fine design published by Yamatoya-han portrayed a Chinese beauty standing by a tall table with a pile of woodblock-printed books (see above right). Given the coloring technique, in particular the bokashi ("shading off": 暈) on the woman's purple robe, this print was likely also published circa 1840s. Although unsigned, it has been suggested that the artist might have been Hua Kuntian (dates unknown), a Chinese painter who supposedly stayed in Nagasaki between 1842 and 1849. Regardless, Chinese paintings of women (Ch., shinu hua 仕女畫) had for centuries featured images of court ladies, palace beauties, and ladies-in-waiting (also referred to as "gentle-woman paintings," Ch., guixiu hua 閨秀畫 or 闺秀畫). By the eighteenth-century there was a shift in contextualization, from mid-sixteenth century Ming dynasty (1368-1644) views of women in outdoor scenes (often gardens) to later views of beauties indoors — a later favorite being the voyeuristic woman-in-her-boudoir composition, also a popular theme in ukiyo-e. Trade with Qing dynasty (1644-1912) merchants at Nagasaki became the primary source of imported books (many were illustrated), and no doubt images of Chinese beauties in the private quarters were well known through these publications. Chinese writers and artists defined beauty through the use of standard contextualized feminine spaces, both outdoors (on verandas, in gardens, etc.) and indoors (communal interiors, private rooms) populated with paintings, calligraphy, books, flowers, and furniture. Typical "womanly" activities characterized these spaces, such as leisurely play or reverie in gardens, gathering or arranging flowers, musical performances, reading, composing poems, or preparing tea. The beauty leaning on the books was meant to signify an erudite and wealthy young woman living in Dejima.

A brief summary of nagasaki-e should include at least one example of a popular subject — foreign ships. Long before Commodore Perry's arrival in 1853, artists designed prints of Chinese and Dutch vessels. The image below depicts a Chinese ship from the 1840s. Yet another product from the Yamatoya publishing firm, the design is titled Tôsen hito tsu no zu (View of Chinese in the harbor: 唐船人津の圖). Printed with nishiki-e techniques, the image has some of the characteristic simplicity in rendering land and sea that the Edo master Utagawa Hiroshige used to great advantage in many of his fûkeiga (landscape prints: 風景画).

Chinese ship
Anonymous: Chinese ship entering Nagasaki harbor, nishiki-e, c. 1840s
Pub: Nagasaki Yamatoya (長崎大和屋); ôban (360 x 255 cm)

The exclusivity of Nagasaki's trade-port status provided the opportunities and themes for the portrayal of foreigners for more than 200 years. However, with the opening of Japan and the establishment of Yokohama as a primary port for commerce with the West, Nagasaki quickly lost its unique access to the outside world. Occasionally, old blocks were used to reprint designs, an exercise in nostalgia, perhaps, more than anything else, but never again would the Nagasaki printmaking industry publish up-to-date images of foreign exotica. © 2020 by John Fiorillo


  • Chaiklin, Martha: "Off the block: A new look at the origins of Nagasaki prints," in: Andon no. 66. Leiden: Society fo Japanese Arts, July 2000, pp. 13-17.
  • Frédéric, Louis: Japan Encyclopedia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002 (reprint of 1996 ed.), p. 504.
  • French, Cal: "Views from the Port: Souvenir Prints of Nagasaki," in: Through Closed Doors: Western Influence on Japanese Art 1639-1853. Kobe City Museum of Namban Art, 1977, Chapter 2, pp. 31-57.
  • French, Cal: "More Views from the Port: Professional Painters of Nagasaki," in: Through Closed Doors: Western Influence on Japanese Art 1639-1853. Kobe City Museum of Namban Art, 1977, Chapter 3, pp. 59-94.
  • Hillier, Jack: The Art of the Japanese Book. London: Sotheby's, 1987, pp. 512-513 and no. 333.
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  • Kakudo, Yoshikô: Nagasaki and Yokohama Prints from the Richard Gump Collection. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 1981, nos. 1-3.
  • Mody, N.: A Collection of Nagasaki Colour Prints and Paintings Showing the Influence of Chinese and European Art on that of Japan. Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1969 (new edition after orig. 1939 ed.).
  • Reigle Newland, Amy (ed.), The Hotei Encyclopedia of Japanese Woodblock Prints. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2005, vol. 1, pp. 225-228 and vol. 2, p. 471 (articles by M. Chaiklin).
  • Tanaka, Atsushi: Nagasaki-kei yôfû-ga ("Nagasaki western-style painting": 長崎系洋風画), in: Yôfû hyôgen no dônyû (Development of Western Realism in Japan: 洋風表現の導入). Torû Asano, Masaaaki Ozaki, and Atsushi Tanaka (eds.). National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 1985, pp. 144-163.
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