The Forbidden Ukiyo-e of Edo Japan

Censorship during the Edo period (1603-1867) had a significant impact on ukiyo-e. Japanese artists had to find clever ways to avoid being censored to continue making these popular artworks.

Jun 26, 2023By Rebecca Stevens, MA History of Art & Archaeology of East Asia, BA History

ukiyo e censorship


Kabuki actor prints (yakusha-e) and beauty prints (bijinga) dominated ukiyo-e visual culture throughout the Edo period. They gave the public sensational insights into the “floating world” (Yoshiwara), the capital of Edo’s district of licensed brothels and theatres. However, the government believed that these depictions would have a detrimental effect on the societal values of the Japanese population. Therefore, several censorship reforms were introduced to limit the output of ukiyo-e and maintain public order. Three significant censorship reforms of the Edo period impacted popular ukiyo-e images. But Japanese artists endeavored to silently articulate the forbidden.


Ukiyo-e Censorship Reforms in Edo Period Japan 

Cherry Blossoms at night on Naka-no-cho in the new Yoshiwara, by Ando Hiroshige, 18th century, via Colorado Art Museum


Due to the relatively serious economic and social problems from the mid-Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate (the military government of Japan during the Edo Period) became concerned about public morals. They feared a potential threat to the strict Tokugawa social structure. In 1782 and 1830, there were nationwide famines following crop failures, inflation of the cost of rice, as well as several measle epidemics. Furthermore, in 1847, a devastating earthquake hit the capital. These events coupled with growing literacy levels forced the government to implement a series of censorship reforms. By implementing these reforms, the government could control its peoples and attempt to uphold its idealized and “morally superior” vision of society.


However, these stringent censorship reforms greatly affected the development and dissemination of ukiyo-e. The freedom of the artist was restricted for fear that they would convey controversial material which would provoke the Japanese population.


The Edicts of the Kyōhō Reforms 

Tokugawa Yoshimune, by Kano Tadanobu, 1929, via Wikimedia Commons


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The first set of reforms, the Kyōhō Reforms, were introduced in 1721-22 by the shogun (the military dictator), Yoshimune. This set the pattern for future regulations. For example, it emphasized currency reform as well as increasing control and taxation through merchant guilds. In terms of ukiyo-e, erotic material was banned and no mention of current events, anything unorthodox, or references to leaders or ancestry was permitted. Finally, the artists and publishers’ names had to be included on the print in order to easily trace their origin.


The Edicts of the Kansei Reforms

Kabuki Theatre District, by Okumura Masanobu, 1745, via


In 1787, violent clashes broke out in the city of Edo. Consequently, the authorities became increasingly concerned with subversive culture and the potential dissemination of fiction that would damage their political power. Therefore, the government reinforced the censorship of the ukiyo-e printing industry. In the 1790s, under senior councilor Matsudaira Sadanobu, the Kansei reforms were introduced. This banned satirical books that used fake historical settings to mock present-day policies. Moreover, it was required that prints must include a censor seal (kiwame). Images were submitted to an official publishing guild whose permission was granted by an approved seal carved into the wooden blocks used for the printing of the ukiyo-e. In 1800, okubi-e (large actor head prints) were also banned.


The Edicts of the Tenpō Reforms

Hanaogi and Takigawa of the Ogiya, by Kitagawa Utamaro, 1754-1806, via the British Museum


Finally, the Tenpō reforms of 1841-43, under senior councilor Mizuno Tadakuni, prohibited illustrations portraying kabuki actors, bijin (courtesans) and geisha (female entertainers) as they were believed to negatively influence society. Furthermore, for economic reasons, ukiyo-e prints were limited to triptychs (pictures with no more than three sections), using no more than six or seven color blocks.


Such reforms were intended to stabilize the economy, reinforce social hierarchies, and promote thriftiness. However, they also significantly affected the production and dissemination of ukiyo-e for ordinary people. Under such a severe censorship system, artists had to find ways to circumvent the strict rules so that they could continue creating ukiyo-e. Outstanding artists of the late Edo period stretched the guidelines, discovering new ways in which they could evade the censors while subtly disguising the true intentions of their artworks.


Anthropomorphism of Courtesans and Actors

The Yoshiwara Sparrow’s Temporary Nest, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1846, via


One way in which ukiyo-e artists overcame the strict censorship was by anthropomorphizing the kabuki actors and courtesans. Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics onto animals. In other words, courtesans and actors were depicted as animals to mask their true identity. In the nineteenth century, only 10% of prints depicted actors and courtesans as a result of the censor edicts.


An artist particularly talented in this method was Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861). The Yoshiwara Sparrow’s Temporary Nest, is a triptych print by him that depicts the interior of a temporary brothel (karitiku), where prospective customers peer at extravagantly dressed courtesans within the latticed showrooms (harimise). However, Kuniyoshi anthropomorphizes the courtesans and clients into sparrows, therefore, disguising the real individuals. Brothels were a popular and marketable subject matter for ukiyo-e prints, therefore, with his creative resourcefulness, Kuniyoshi circumvented the repressive conventions in order to depict this type of print for the Japanese population.


A Hundred Cats’ Physiognomies, by Kuniyoshi, 1842, via Smithsonian Magazine


Another example by Kuniyoshi is A Hundred Cats which portrays the reflections of famous kabuki actors of the time as anthropomorphized cats. The title of this print and the motifs on the sleeves of their haori (traditional Japanese jackets) suggest that this artwork depicts the various main characters from the kabuki Kana Dehon Chūshingura – Shichidanme (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers – Act Seven). Furthermore, the identity of these actors and the characters they played is also suggested by the patterns on their kimonos, the cloth hanging from the mirrors, and their facial features. Accordingly, for the viewer, it was easy to identify the actors represented in the prints without the artist ostensibly portraying them. This innovative genre added a new and entertaining aspect to ukiyo-e which became popular with Japanese people.


The Introduction of the Landscape Genre: Hokusai and Hiroshige 

Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill, by Utagawa Hiroshige, 1857, via the Brooklyn Museum


Landscape prints (fūkeiga) remained a minor genre until the 1720s as it did not conform to the pursuits of the pleasure quarters. However, the changing social and political contexts of the Edo Period stimulated the creation of new subject matter within ukiyo-e culture beyond that of typical actor and beauty prints. Landscape prints included an array of outdoor endeavors such as pilgrimages, sightseeing, festivals, and day-to-day activities. They also served as a form of escapism; creating an enticing and reassuring landscape compared to the harsh realities of Edo.


A Fisherman at Kajikazawa, by Katsushika Hokusai, 1831, woodblock, via Wikimedia Commons


The two great artists, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), seized the opportunity to create a new epoch in ukiyo-e visual culture in Japan. These prints were an effective means of continuing artistic expression as they were less disrupted by censorship compared to other genres. It is during the upheaval of ukiyo-e that landscape became a notable genre.


Avoiding References to Contemporary Realities 

Namazu and the Foundation Stone, 1855, via


As mentioned, the Kansei reforms prohibited any direct reference to contemporary realities in ukiyo-e. Therefore, artists portrayed them indirectly through satire, puzzling pictures, and parodies. One example of this is the catfish print (namazu-e). This special type of topical print features a mythical catfish as a symbol of the Great Ansei earthquake in 1855. The connection between the catfish and the earthquake is derived from the Japanese belief that the catfish can naturally predict earthquakes. However, these prints had a political subtext of topical themes such as world renewal, redistribution of wealth, and the relationship between the winners and losers from the natural disaster. The catfish was deemed a yonaoshi daimyōjin (god of “world rectification”), in other words an “avenger of social injustice”, a theme relevant to the sentiment of the time.


One namazu-e print depicts the capital of Edo divided in half by the great catfish. In the upper half are those who regarded this natural disaster as an opportunity. They are labeled by occupation — a physician, a tiler, a carpenter, and even a prostitute. These are the individuals who will gain work from the earthquake. On the other hand, the bottom half shows fear and disappointment. These professionals include a tea-house proprietor, a diamond seller, and entertainers, who would be greatly affected.


However, it is important to highlight that approximately two months after the namazu-e first appeared, they abruptly disappeared. This is because the Edo government realized these prints allowed the opinions of artists and the desire for an alternative society to be articulated in a visual format.


Ukiyo-e Prints Reformed and Thriving

Drunkenness After Namazu the Great Catfish, 1855, via


It is clear that censorship significantly impacted the production of ukiyo-e. The reforms initiated innovative methods as well as new subject matter within print culture. Despite these drastic changes, ukiyo-e continued to resonate with the masses in Japan.

Author Image

By Rebecca StevensMA History of Art & Archaeology of East Asia, BA HistoryRebecca holds a BA in History with French from the University of Liverpool as well as a MA in History of Art and Archaeology of East Asia from SOAS. She currently works at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Her research specializes in the influences of the Silk Road on Chinese art. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, cooking, and rock climbing.