Signature card bearing the myoseki signatures of many modern Kabuki actors.
Click for larger image.

Actors' Names in Japanese Woodblock Theatre Prints (Kabuki-ga)


Probably the single most common category of ukiyo-e prints are prints about the kabuki theatre, or kabuki-ga - and in particular, prints showing actors, or yakusha-e. There are a number of reference books, as well as several sites which provide help with reading the signatures of the artists on ukiyo-e prints. There are also some very good sites about kabuki actors, notably Kabuki21, as well as an extensive list of the actors portrayed in one main artist's yakusha-e.

However there is no reference which I know of, either online or in print, that allows a collector who does not have some familiarity with Japanese to decipher the names of the actors portrayed in the prints; these names are invariably given somewhere on the print. This site is an attempt to fill that gap.

Finding the Name

This is a typical actor print (you can click on it for a large image of the print,if you want to look at details); it contains a number of different pieces of information, many written in kanji, the large set of logograms used to write Japanese (along with two syllabaries). One also needs to know that at this point in time, Japanese was usually written vertically, reading from top to bottom.

It is usually the case that the artist's signature is in a lower corner - as here, where the three characters read (from the top, as explained above) "toyo" and "kuni" (the artist's name, Toyokuni), and "ga" (literally, 'brush-stroke', meaning 'painted by'). Also, along the bottom or sides one can almost always find a censor seal (from 1790 until 1876, all woodblock prints had to be examined by official censors, and marked with their seals), which often allow the print to be dated quite accurately); this particular print does not seem to have one, though. Finally, there is quite often a publisher's seal (as here), also usually along either the sides or on the bottom.

In the upper corner(s) one can usually find the title (if any) of the print, and, for kabuki-ga, the name of the actor and the role they are shown in. (Sometimes the actor's name is lower down, though.) Kabuki-ga do not often have separate titles, although they are seen in some; titles are much more common in landscape and other prints. Some or all of this information will sometimes be in one or more cartouches (as in the particular example here), and sometimes simply inserted in the ground (as was done with the artist's signature in this print); the latter is usual for actors' names. In this particular print, the actor's name is at the bottom of the cartouche, in larger kanji.

The sorts of variations from the 'norm' exhibited in this print are typical for woodblock prints; one has to accept that (as with just about everything in Japanese woodblock prints!) there are no hard-and-fast rules which one can always follow. Something to remember! With time, you'll get used to what signatures, etc look like, and you'll quickly recognize when they are in an unusual place, or are missing completely.

To work out which characters in the top corner(s) are the name of the actor, it helps to know that:

In other words, if one can locate the family name in the string of kanji - and since there are only a relative few of them as possibilities, this is usually not too hard - then the rest of the process of working out which actor(s) the print shows is usually fairly straightforward.

Family Names

As mentioned above, there are only a relatively small number of common family names. The tables
below show the most common ones, using images from actual prints; this page uses images since kanji as printed in books, and on Web pages (which use a style called kaisho), often look somewhat different from those written on prints, which are often written in gyōsho or sōsho style. The page also attempts to provide multiple images of each, in an attempt to cover the common range of handwriting variants.

To use the tables, look down them until you find the family name of the actor you are trying to identify (you can click on any image to see a larger version). When you find it, click on the rōmaji version of the name; the link will take you to a subsidiary page for that particular family, which in identical fashion gives the names of the most commonly seen members of that family.

Individual Actors' Names

There is a separate page for each family, containing the names of the individual actors in the various families; to use them, use the exact same system as the base page. For extra utility, the individual name is linked to the page for the actor(s) of that name at the Kabuki 21 Web-site (if one exists).

When the actor's name is now usually written with different (simplified) kanji, they are given in brackets, with those used in the name as shown above them. Again, the names on each page are listed in alphabetical order (for no particularly good reason).

If you cannot find the actor's name there (there are many more Kabuki actors than we have scanned name images for yet), you can try to find it by clicking on the 'Other names' link at the top of the family section on each page. That link takes you to a page on another site which lists, and shows the kanji for, more actors in this family. Many of the images there are very small, but it is currently much more comprehensive.

Inherited Actors' Names

Complete coverage of the names of actors is a very complex topic (as are all Japanese names during the
Edo period, but actors' names are even more complicated than that). A complete treatment of them is beyond the scope of this page; in particular, the names called ya-gō are not covered here. (See this page for more on them.) However, it is worth knowing about the class of names called myoseki, since most of the names that appear on yakusha-e (and thus on this page) are myoseki.

Japanese artists in may fields have 'art-names' () in Japanese), a pseudonym used by an artist, which they sometimes change. In the field of kabuki-ga, this applies not just to the artists who drew the prints, but to the actors portayed in them. In both fields, prominent schools and/or families have over time developed a series of these names, the myoseki, and as people advance in seniority, they change names to succesively use the more 'senior' names; in kabuki, this process is named shūmei.

In kabuki, this system is even more advanced than it is in the field of woodblock prints. To use as an example the most honoured of all the myoseki, Ichikawa Danjūrō, there have been no less than 12 people holding this name since the first Ichikawa Danjūrō (who died in 1704). A page at the Kabuki21.Com site which lists the lineages for which they have pages contains almost 300 of these myoseki.

That is why the links to the page for the actor(s) of each name at the Kabuki 21 Web-site (if one exists) are to pages which contain a list of all the holders of a given myoseki - the prints themselves almost never show which holder of a particular name is portrayed.

One has to use a number of different clues to figure out which holder of the name is being shown in the print. One good one is using the censor seal to determine the date of a print, which will generally allow one to determine definitively which holder of a given name is shown. Another one, although more difficult to use, is that if the play, role, etc shown can be identified, cast lists may be able to ascertain the date of the performance, and thus the identity of the actor shown.

Family Names Table

There are two tables, to allow finding the family name more quickly and easily in most cases: the most common family names are in the first table, and rarer ones in the second. So, if you don't see the family name in the first table, try the second. The names in the two tables are listed in English alphabetical order (for no particularly good reason, other than the convenience of the maintainers).

Sometimes a name can be written in two ways; one will be in kanji, and the other partially or wholly in hiragana. In these cases, this page provides images of both (along with the printed formal form for each).

Note that usually in each family name there is one kanji which is simple and fairly distinctive, and easy to pick out; if one locates one of these, it's a simple matter to check the nearby characters to see if you have identified the family name correctly. (This page suggests characters to focus on by putting them in a slightly larger size in the kaisho column of the table.)

If you hover your mouse pointer over a signature image, it will show the name of the artist who produced the print which this version of the name is from. We have conciously tried to provide name images from many artists, to give a better idea of the range of variations to be found in the way particular characters are written.

Kanji image Kaisho Rōmaji Comments
市川 Ichikawa Both characters in this name are not uncommon, but the combination is unique. This is the most common family of actors, so one quickly learns to recognize it.
All Iwai
河原 Kawarazaki Searching for the character is not optimal, as this is a fairly complex character, but it's probably the best option; even the hurried variants look like it.

Kanji image Kaisho Rōmaji Comments

Arashi The hiragana form is quite rare, but is seen occasionally.
The first character in it is actually a hentaigana character; since these are not in Unicode (yet), we have given the kanji it is based on.
Mimasu Searching for the character is not optimal, as this is a common character (with alternate reading 'san'), but it will have to do.
Segawa Searching for the ('gawa') character is not optimal, as this is a common character, but it will have to do.

Additional Names, Errors, etc

If you notice any errors, please email me (at 'jnc -at-') to let me know.


Thanks to (in alphabetical order) Peter Chiappa, who provided the scanned images of some of the names, and especially to Horst Graebner, whose extensive
list of kabuki actors, on his voluminous site on the works of Toyokuni III, was incredibly helpful in the preparation of this page.

Back to JNC's home page

© Copyright 2009-2019 by J. Noel Chiappa

Last updated: 20/May/2019