Ukiyo-e Prints of Beautiful Women: What Are Bijin-ga?

Explore some of the most famous prints of beautiful women, or bijin, as subjects in Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock art.

Jun 28, 2024By Elizabeth Berry, BA English, Italian, & Writing Seminars

ukiyo e prints women bijin ga


During Japan’s Edo period in the 17th through 19th centuries, a genre of art called ukiyo-e, meaning pictures of the floating world, rose to prominence. Within ukiyo-e, beautiful women were some of the most popular subjects. Artists designed lavish kimonos and hairstyles for these women, and some of the women in the prints became famous after being depicted. From Utamaro’s Three Beauties of the Present Day to Takashima Ohisa, The Tea House Beauty by Shuncho, here is a tour of the beauties of ukiyo-e.


Takashima Ohisa, The Tea House Beauty (c.1790s) – Katsukawa Shuncho

Takashima Ohisa, The Tea-House Beauty by Katsukawa Shuncho, c. 1790s. Source: The British Museum, London


These prints served many purposes in Japan, from promoting fashions to advertising courtesans and brothels in red-light districts. Known in the genre as bijin-ga, the prints highlight beauty, symbolism, and the way women were viewed in Edo-period Japan. Takashima Ohisa, The Tea-House Beauty (c. 1790s) by Katsukawa Shuncho is a stunning example of a typical subject matter in Edo-period bijin-ga: the women in and around tea houses.


In Japan, ochaya (which translates as tea house) were establishments where merchants, travelers, and businessmen would go in order to be entertained by geisha. While there, they could also consume light snacks and beverages. The subject of this print is Ohisa of the Takashima tea house, the beautiful and well-known daughter of Takashima Chobei, who owned several establishments in Edo. She holds a fan over her mouth and her name is written in the upper right with purple irises, a flower that represents honor and wisdom in Japanese culture.


Woman Reading a Letter (c. 1792/93) by Kitagawa Utamaro

Woman Reading a Letter, from Ten Classes of Women’s Physiognomy by Kitagawa Utamaro, c. 1792-1793. Source: Art Institute of Chicago


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This print is from Kitagawa Utamaro’s series Ten Classes of Women’s Physiognomy. It shows a woman with what were considered desirable features. She has a slender neck, small hands, small shoulders, and a large head. The entire series of prints is dedicated to showcasing women with these beautiful features as objects through scenes of their everyday actions.


In Woman Reading a Letter (c.1792/93), the figure’s eyebrows are shaved, another sign of elegance at this time in Japanese history. The way the sash is tied at her front indicates that she is married, and she holds the letter close to her face, suggesting it might be a love letter or some other type of intimate means of communication.

Kitagawa Utamaro (c.1753-1806) was a highly regarded Japanese artist who created many iconic bijin-ga prints. It is said that he changed the way beauties were portrayed in Japanese art. Throughout his lifetime, the women he designed evolved to have more exaggerated features. Their heads became larger, their necks became slimmer, and their mouths became smaller.


Three Beauties of the Present Day (c.1791) – Kitagawa Utamaro

Three Beauties of the Present Day by Kitagawa Utamaro, c.1791. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


This stunning print, also by Kitagawa Utamaro, is one of the most iconic examples of ukiyo-e bijin-ga. Titled Three Beauties of the Present Day or Three Beauties of the Kwansei Period (c.1791), this print depicts three women who were famous at the time for their beauty: a geisha and two tea house waitresses. These women were carefully depicted here with crests on their clothing to make their identities known. Typically in bijin-ga the facial features of women were not seen as important to illustrate, but in this print, each woman’s face is unique and indicative of how they looked in real life.


Enjoying the Evening Cool on the Banks of the Sumida River (c.1784) – Torii Kiyonaga

Enjoying the Evening Cool on the Banks of the Sumida River by Torii Kiyonaga, c.1784. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Enjoying the Evening Cool on the Banks of the Sumida River (c.1784) by Torii Kiyonaga, is a fascinating example of a ukiyo-e print depicting beautiful women. Although many bijin-ga prints depicted women as objects, this scene is more atmospheric and indicative of social dynamics in Edo period Japan. The three women seen on the right of the print are watching two courtesans and a tea house mistress walk by. Much care has been taken to illustrate the body language of each woman in the scene. This interaction is casual, taking place along the banks of the Sumida River which flows through central Tokyo (which was then called Edo), but it also gives a clear window into the cultural dynamics between women at the time.


Village by the Tama River (1858) – Utagawa Hiroshige

Village by the Tama River by Utagawa Hiroshige, 1858. Source: Minneapolis Institute of Art


Village by the Tama River (1858) by Utagawa Hiroshige is a stunning example of a landscape print containing women. This image depicts a scene near the Tama River, which is located near Tokyo. The women in the print are seen washing their clothes with the iconic Mount Fuji centered in the distance.


Similar to Kiyonaga’s Enjoying the Evening Cool on the Banks of the Sumida River (c.1784), this piece provides a window into the everyday lives of people in Edo period Japan. Rather than the women being objects for enjoyment here, they are pictured performing typical daily labor.


Chang E Flees to the Moon (1885) – Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Chang E Flees to the Moon by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1885. Source: Ronin Gallery


In this 1885 woodblock print, artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi illustrated a figure from Chinese mythology. Because China was a major historical influence on Japanese culture and mythology, it was common for Japanese prints to depict scenes from Chinese folklore. Titled Chang E Flees to the Moon, this print shows a woman named Chang-e ascending to the moon after consuming an elixir of immortality. As the story goes, the elixir was a gift to Chang-e’s husband from the gods as a reward for performing well as an archer, but she stole it and consumed it herself. Because she is considered a goddess of the moon, artist Yoshitoshi created this print for his series 100 Views of the Moon.


Two Beauties (c.1801-4) – Kitagawa Utamaro

Two Beauties by Kitagawa Utamaro, c.1801-4. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Another print by Kitagawa Utamaro, Two Beauties was designed toward the end of the artist’s life, between 1801 and 1804. This work shows a contrast between two women: one lavishly dressed from a wealthy merchant family and another wearing a cotton kimono that is open at the front, revealing her breasts. There is also a poem written in the upper left of this print, a couplet by Ubu Kanjin. The poem compares the beauties to two butterflies, stating: “It is strange how a pair of butterflies/Come fluttering towards me, fly away, then return.”


Origin of Iwato Kagura Dance Amaterasu (1856) – Utagawa Kunisada

Origin of Iwato Kagura Dance Amaterasu by Toyokuni III (Kunisada), 1856. Source: Wikimedia Commons


This next print by Toyokuni III Kunisada depicts the goddess Amaterasu-Ōmikami, the goddess of the Sun in Japanese mythology. She is located in the center panel of this triptych, which illustrates a scene in which she emerges from a heavenly rock cave. According to legend, the goddess Amaterasu shut herself in the Ame-no-Iwayato (heavenly rock-cave door) following a dispute, which plunged the world into darkness and despair. Many other gods, including Omoikane, a Shinto kami of wisdom and intelligence, gathered to try to get her out. Eventually, she emerged, touched by their actions. This print shows the scene in which sunlight was brought back to the world.


Two Beauties (19th C) – Katsushika Hokusai

Two Beauties by Katsushika Hokusai, early 19th century, via MOA Museum of Art, Atami


This last ukiyo-e on this list was made by Katsushika Hokusai, one of the most iconic ukiyo-e artists of the Edo period. Though he is most famous for his landscape paintings like The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1831), he also produced prints with other subjects and used other artistic mediums like painting. This work was made on a hanging scroll, composed of color on silk.


The beauties depicted here are quite typical of those in Hokusai’s earlier work, marking Two Beauties as having been created in the early 19th century. Based on their dress and posture, the woman standing appears to be a courtesan while the woman sitting appears to be a geisha. Both women have thin faces, a common feature in ukiyo-e bijin-ga prints.

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By Elizabeth BerryBA English, Italian, & Writing SeminarsElizabeth Berry is a writer from Los Angeles, California. She holds a BA in English, Italian, and Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University, and is working towards her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews. In her spare time, she writes articles about Italian art, culture, and literature. She loves golden retrievers, the color fuchsia, and kayaking.