Glossary of Terms Useful for Discussing Woodblock Prints

Print Subjects

Bijin: Literally, "beautiful person"; the term for a beautiful woman; from which comes bijin-ga, the term for images of bijin, often geishas or courtesans, that being one of the original canonical forms for woodblock prints.

Genji: The great novel of classical Japanese literature, 'The Tale of Genji', detailing the lengthy and complex love adventures of Prince Genji; written in the late Heian period. A perennial source for Japanese arts, it was a favourite subject of ukiyo-e artists of the nineteenth century, hence Genji-e, or illustrations of the Genji story. A number of parodies of the original novel were also popular during this period, especially the Nise Murasakai Inaka Genji, or 'Imitation Murasaki and the Rustic Genji' (sometimes shortened to Inaka Genji). Each chapter has its own special glyph, the Genji-mon, which notionally are in the form of connected bundles of incense sticks.

Forty-Seven Ronin: The story of the Forty-Seven Ronin (a ronin is a masterless samurai) is perhaps the most-known story of Japanese history, described by one noted Japan scholar as the country's "national legend". It concerns a group of samurai who were left masterless in 1701 by the execution of their master. After over a year of patient waiting and plotting, they succeeded in avenging him by killing the court official who has caused his death.

The story was popularized in Japanese culture as emblematic of the loyalty, sacrifice, dedication and honor which all should reach for in their daily lives. It was eventually turned into a Kabuki play, the Kanedehon Chūshingura (literally, "Treasury of Loyal Retainers"). It quickly became (and remains) one of the staples of the Kabuki repertoire, and remains one of the two most popular Kabuki plays.

Sumo: Sumo wrestling is a Japanese sport with ancient roots; mentions of it are found as early as the 8th Century (although it would have been nothing like today's sumo at that point). It has always had deep connections with Shinto religious rituals and festivals, and even today Shinto priests officiate and serve as referees. Professional sumo dates from around the start of the Edo period.

Print Classes

Abuna-e: Risque pictures; they came into fashion in the early 1720's after a government crackdown on more explicit images, shun-ga. They are the closest analogue in Japanese art to the nudes of Western art, and usually capture the subject in a private moment, partially undressed.

Banzuke: Printed programs for public entertainment events, often for the Kabuki theatre; the earliest form of woodblock-printed material associated with Kabuki. Often produced for the kaomise, when they are known as kaomise-banzuke.

E-goyomi: Literally, "calendar picture"; surimono which gave identity of the long and short months (the Japanese year was divided into months of 29 and 30 days, in a pattern which changed every year) for that year. Since production of calendars was a monopoly of the government, one denied to general publishers, this information was usually woven into the design in some cunning manner.

E-hon: Literally, "picture book"; the general name for illustrated bound works such as albums and illustrated book. Often used as part of the title of such a work.

Fūkei-ga: Images of landscapes.

Kacho-ga, Kacho-e: Images of birds and flowers.

Kuchi-e: Frontispiece illustrations for novels and literary magazines around 1900; many of the leading woodblock artists of the Meiji era produced them. The primary subjects are bijin, which kuchi-e displayed in the idealized depiction that was usual throughout most of the the history of ukiyo-e, although by then, influenced by western art, a more realistic style was also appearing.

Meisho-e: Meisho (literally, "place with a name") are famous locations, often with literary and historical connections, which sometimes led to standardized poetic connotations; seasonal associations were often also present. Hence meisho-e, prints of famous places.

Mitate-e: Mitate (literally, "likened") are contemporary recreations of well-known scenes from history or myth, often with a parody in mind; hence mitate-e, prints in this mode.

Musha-e: Originally, paintings of historically important warriors; also includes warrior prints.

Okubi-e: Literally, "large head picture"; a bust portrait showing just the head and shoulders of the subject.

Sansui: Landscape (literally "mountains and waters"); hence sansui-ga, landscape images.

Shin Hanga: Literally, "new prints"; the resurgent Japanese woodblock print movement beginning in the Taisho period, which joined traditional Japanese woodblock subjects and printing techniques, together with Western drawing techniques, to revitalize the traditional woodblock print.

Shini-e: Prints commemorating the death (Literally, "death pictures") of some important person from the 'Floating World'. Most depicted Kabuki actors, but some prints also commemorated woodblock artists, and on occasion musicians. The deceased is usually portrayed in light-blue robes (associated with death), and the print usually includes the date of the person's death, their age, their posthumous Buddhist name (kaimyo), and the location of their grave. Some also included the death poem of the deceased, or memorial verses written by friends or associates.

Shun-ga: Erotic images (literally "spring images", a typical euphemism for erotica); another of the classic original woodblock forms.

Sosaku Hanga: Literally, "creative prints"; a Japanese woodblock print movement of the 20th century which utilized Western concepts of art; both in the production, in which the artist was more involved in the production of the prints (often undertaking the entire process on their own), and in the subject matter and presentation, which was that of modern art.

Surimono: Literally, "printed things"; privately issued and distributed prints, mostly produced in small numbers. Most had poetry (usually comissioned by private poetry clubs) or calendars on them, and were often used as invitations, notices, holiday and greeting cards, etc. They were usually very finely printed, with elaborate and unusual printing techniques such as use of powdered metals.

Uki-e: Literally, "floating pictures"; perspective prints, i.e. prints done with the newly introduced Western perspective technique, as opposed to the classical Chinese method of portraying depth and distance.

Ukiyo-e: Literally, "floating world picture", often given as "images of the floating world"; a term originally used to describe actor and courtesan prints depicting life in the Epicurean world of the Edo middle-class (the chonin), the so-called 'Floating World'. Now used to describe woodblock prints in general.

Uta-e: Literally, "poem picture"; a print which depicts the setting of a poem or other verse; the text is usually written above or beside the image. In some cases, e.g. in surimono, the image alludes to the poem by skillfully incorporating pictorialized Japanese characters and allegorical images, to form a kind of visual code for the poem, something which is now very difficult to decipher.

Yakusha-e: Prints of Kabuki actors; one of the first major types of Japanese woodblock prints, and a mainstay of the field down to this day.

Print Types

Aizuri: Literally, "blue printing"; a later artistic effect in which the colour blue (typically the newly introduced imported Prussian blue, also called Berlin blue - hence its Japanese name of berorin burau - which was a brighter and longer-lasting pigment than the fugitive native vegetable blue) predominates. Introduced in part as a response to sumptuary laws which limited the number of colours that could be used in a print, it also was commercially successful, in part because it became fashionable because of the Japanese fascination with new things. Hence aizuri-e, pictures in this technique.

Beni-e: Literally, "pink pictures"; hand-coloured prints using a pink ink produced from the safflower (benibana); most common in the period 1720-40.

Benigirai-e: Literally, "pink-hating pictures"; prints using a muted colour scheme, most common in the 1780's - 1790's.

Benizuri-e: Literally, "pink printed pictures". Benizuri was an early technique for mass-producing colour woodblock prints, reputedly developed in about 1745. It initially used two colour blocks: a light green, and a light red, in imitation of the simple red and green colour scheme of the hand-coloured tan-e prints. Later, a third block and colour, usually yellow, was added. Hence benizuri-e, pictures in this technique; most common in the period 1745-55, with the third colour appearing in the 1750's.

Ishizuri-e: Literally, "stone-printed picture"; a print using white lines on a black ground, in imitation of stone rubbings.

Kappazuri-e: Literally, "stencil printed picture"; the outlines are printed from a block, in the normal manner, and the colour is applied with stencils.

Mizu-e: Literally, "water picture"; woodblock prints printed in a pale vegetable blue, or with a coloured instead of black outlines, from the 1760's; very rare.

Nishiki-e: Literally, "brocade picture"; the final stage of development of woodblock prints printed in multiple colours, first produced in Edo in 1764-65.

Sumizuri-e: Literally, "black-ink printed picture"; sumi is the name for black India ink. Hence sumizuri-e, a print done in black and white, although sometimes one finds shades of grey as well, as in Hokusai's famous and fabulous illustrated book, '100 Views of Fuji'. The first ukiyo-e prints were produced with this technique.

Tan-e: Hand-coloured prints, which used tan (a pigment made from a mixture of red lead, saltpeter and sulphur, which intended to be orange, but turned to blue as it slowly oxidized), and roku (a green pigment produced from ground malachite, which turned black and often ate into the paper as it aged). The earliest coloured prints were produced with this technique.

Urushi-e: Literally, "lacquer pictures", from their use of glue mixed with the black ink which was then burnished after printing, to emulate lacquer; hand-coloured prints which were the next stage stage in the technical development of woodblock prints after tan-e. They used the techniques of laquer-ware, including a number of new colours such as red and yellow, along with gold dust, to produce exquisite hand-coloured prints; most common in the period 1720-40.

Format and Orientation

Harimaze: Prints of two or more (usually three to five) images on one sheet; originally intended to be cut out and displayed separately.

Hashira-e: A tall, narrow print used on pillars, on a special size paper, hashira-eban.

Kakemono: A hanging scroll, with a long and narrow format; hence kakemono-e, a tall, narrow format, often composed of two ōban-sized prints, one above the other in a vertical diptych.

Uchiwa-e: Prints intended to be used to decorate non-folding fans (uchiwa); usually in the shape of a rectangle with the longer axis horizontal, with rounded corners, and a cutout at the bottom.

Tateban: Also tate-e and tat-eye (the latter transliteration now obsolescent); vertical (i.e. portrait) orientation.

Yokoban: Also yoko-e and yok-oye (the latter transliteration now obsolescent); horizontal (i.e. landscape) orientation.


Ōban: By far and away the most common print size; about 15" x 10" (38cm x 25cm).

Ō-ōban: Literally "large ōban"; a rare size somewhat larger than standard ōban, about 23" x 12" (58cm x 32cm).

Chūban: A somewhat common small print size; half an ōban, by division along its short axis; about 10" x 7" (25cm x 19cm).

Aiban: A somewhat rare print size, roughly halfway between chūban and ōban; about 13" x 9" (34cm x 23cm).

Koban: A fairly rare small print size; half an aiban, by division along its short axis; about 9" x 7" (23cm x 17cm).

Vertical Koban: A fairly rare small print size; half an koban, by division along its long axis; about 9" x 3" (23cm x 9cm).

Hosoban: A fairly rare narrow print size; about 13" x 6" (33cm x 15cm). It was more common in older actor prints of the eighteenth century, although still used for kacho-ga in the nineteenth.

O-hosoban, O-tanzaku: Literally, "large hosoban", a fairly rare narrow print size; about 15" x 7" (38cm x 17cm). This size was often used for kacho-ga prints by Hiroshige.

Nagaban: A rare large print size first used around 1800; about 22" x 10" (56cm x 25cm).

Yokonagaban: A very long format (i.e. horizontal nagaban, hence the name), used for some surimono in the early 1800's; sometimes about 15" x 22" (38cm x 53cm), more often 8" x 22" (21cm x 56cm).

Shikishiban: A mostly square format, usually of heavy paper, often used for surimono; about 10" x 9" (26cm x 23cm).

Hashira-eban: The size for hashira-e; it varies depending on the time period, but normally it was about 29" x 5" (68-73cm x 12-16cm). In later times, this was produced by gluing together two hosoban sheets, one vertically above the other.

Habahiro hashira-e: The size for extra-wide hashira-e; varies, but normally it was about 29" x 10" (68-73cm x 26cm).

Chū-tanzaku: A very rare long print size; half an ōban, by division along its long axis; about 15" x 5" (38cm x 13cm).

Ō-tanzaku: A very rare long print size; two-thirds of an ōban, by division along its long axis; about 15" x 7" (38cm x 18cm).

Ko-tanzaku: A very rare long print size; one third of an aiban, by division along its long axis; about 13" x 3" (34cm x 8cm).

Yotsugiri: A fairly rare small print size; half a chūban, by division along its short axis; about 7" x 5" (19cm x 13cm). Prints of this size were often obtained by printing 4 prints from a single ōban-sized block.

Mitzugiri: A very rare small print size; one third of an ōban, by division along its short axis; about 10" x 5" (25cm x 13cm).

Ko-yotsugiri: A very rare small print size; half a koban; about 7" x 5" (17cm x 12cm).

Terms Used to Describe Condition

Woodblock prints have their condition rated on a scale which usually includes 'poor', 'fair' (sometimes 'moderate'), 'moderately good', 'good', 'very good', and 'fine'. This gradation is applied to several different aspects of the print:

Colour: How clear and bright the colours of the print are today; in part this refers to fading of the dyes, but it may also refer to yellowing or browning of the whole print, etc. Many prints are printed in vegetable dyes which are subject to potentially severe fading if exposed to sunlight; others (particularly in later prints) use chemicals which sometimes degrade on exposure to air.

Impression: How good an impression the print was when new; i.e. (principally) how worn were the blocks, but also how much care was used in registering the different colours, how careful the printer was with printing, and effects like bokashi, etc.

General Condition: This includes both impression and colour, but also takes into account such things as: whether the print is trimmed (removing not only the margins, but in many cases censor, publisher, date and other seals); whether the print has been repaired; whether the print is soiled; whether the print has any stains; whether the print is worn from handling; whether the print has creases from being folded; and whether the print has any wormholes or other damage.

Toned: This term is used to refer to paper that has turned brownish. Toning can be caused in a number of ways; most commonly, it is caused by a faint acid residue acting on the paper of the print, over a period of time. The acid may be present for one of two reasons; either the print itself is printed on non-acid-free paper (generally this is only seen in prints from the early Meiji period), or the print was mounted in a frame using materials which were not acid-free. (If the toning is caused by acid, the acid will also tend to make the paper friable.) Toning may also be caused by exposure to sunlight, or by cigarette smoke.

Printing Technical Terms

Baren: The circular flat pad (usually made of a bamboo sheath wrapped around a flat coil of straw and/or bamboo fiber), used to press the print down on the block during the printing.

Dai-ban or Keyblock: The first block carved in the process of creating a woodblock print; it prints the thin black outlines, and prints pulled from this block are used in the creation of the blocks for printing the colours.

Gofun: A white power substance composed of ground and burnt seashells; it is often applied by hand to prints when a powdery look is needed. It is also used by painters, mixed with other materials, in a variety of ways: as a gesso-like undercoating, as the colourant in white paint, and also to build up painting surfaces.

Han-ga: Literally "printing-block image"; the Japanese term for a woodblock print.

Hanshita-e: Literally, "base block picture", a copy of the artist's original drawing, made on very thin, translucent paper, and then glued down to the keyblock to provide a guide to the carver. They were prepared by specialists called hanshita-e-shi, literally "hanshita-e master".

Iro-ban or Colour-block: The blocks carved later in the process of creating a woodblock print; they are used to prints the areas of solid colour. They are created using special prints pulled from the keyblock after it is carved.

Kento: The registration marks (one right angle, into which the corner of the paper fits, and one straight one, along one of the adjoining edges) used to ensure registration of the different colours in nishiki-e print.

Printing Effects

Kiri, Gin, Akegane: Metal pigments used to imitate metals:

These were placed on the blocks with small brushes (hake-hake), and then printed on areas where paste had previously been printed (nori-zuri, literally "starch-printing").

Bokashi: A shading or gradation in the depth of the colour, produced by a number of different techniques, such as:

Fuki-bokashi: Literally, "blowing-shading"; an alternative name was fuki-e, literally "blown picture". A method of stippling colour onto early hand-coloured prints by blowing pigment through a small tube, while masking the areas to be left uncoloured.

Kara-zuri: Literally, "empty printing"; an embossed printing effect, a technique called gauffrage in the West. It was produced by hard pressure with a hard polisher (often a boar's tusk) on an un-inked block, with the print dampened, leaving whatever pattern is carved in the block embossed into the paper. Especially deep patterns, called kikekomi, were impressed with a gutta percha hammer.

Nunome-zuri: Literally, "fabric printing"; another embossed printing effect. Produced by hard pressure on a piece of muslin or silk fabric wrapped around an un-inked block, with the print dampened, leaving the pattern of the fabric embossed into the paper.

Shomen-zuri: Literally, "front-printing"; a polishing technique similar to gauffrage, which was used to produce a shiny surface on black areas of some prints, often in intricate patterns; to produce this, a carved block was placed behind the print and the printed surface rubbed with a hard polisher (in addition to a boar's tooth, the usual implement, mention is made of use of the use of porcelain, and also spoons, during the Meiji period).

Tsuya-zuri: Literally, "lustre-printing"; an inclusive term for a number of techniques which could produce a surface sheen, among them shomenzuri. One that is seen on occasion is the use of glue to produce a sheen, often on animals' eyes, and areas of blood. At one point, the craze for Western things, the sheen covered the entire surface, in an apparent attempt to emulate Western oil paintings; in some cases, wax was applied over the entire surface to aid this effect.

Mokume-zuri: Literally, "wood-eye printing"; the use of the natural grain in a woodblock to produce effects such as the appearance of waves on water, or of raked lines on sand-beds.

Itame-mokuhan: Literally, "imitation woodgrain"; the use of a densely grained woodblock which has been soaked in water to emphasize the pattern of the grain. It was used in some prints to print areas of woodwork portrayed in the print.

Kira-zuri: Literally, "mica printing"; the use of fine mica flakes scattered on the print while the ink is wet, which produces a subdued sparking effect. The mica was made to adhere by using a glue consisting of either egg-white, or rice-paste. For large areas, the glue was applied with a special block, and the mica brushed on with a soft brush, using a stencil.

Kiri-fuki: Also known as fuki-botan; a method of stippling colour onto prints, two techniques were used. In one, pigment could be sprayed off a stiff brush, either by shaking, or drawing a thumb across the end of the brush. Pigment could also be sprayed, either directly from the mouth, or by blowing through a right-angled small tube with a hole at the vertex, thereby using a Venturi effect to draw up pigment.

Other Woodblock Terms

Aratame: Literally, "examined"; a character found in many censor seals.

Kiwame: Literally, "approved"; a character found in many censor seals.

Nanushi: Literally, "mayor" (of a village or town); the name for a group of censors who examined woodblock prints in the period 1842-1853.

Toshidama: Literally, "New Year's jewel"; the seal of the Utagawa school, usually a circle, with a zig-zag in the upper right-hand corner. Sometimes it is enlongated into a vertical oval, and used to contain the artist's signature.

Theatre Terms

Aragoto: Literally, "rough stuff"; a vigorous but stylized form of acting in the Kabuki theatre, often associated with brightly-painted geometric designs on the faces of the actors; a common style of of yakusha-e.

Bunraku: The Japanese puppet theatre, a very popular form of entertainment for the chōnin, and the source of many plays for the Kabuki theatre, as puppet plays were adapted for the stage. Puppet performances have a long history in Japan, but the puppet theatre, which included recited or chanted dramas called jōruri, developed in the Kamigata region in the early Seventeenth Century. Unlike Western puppets, the bunraku puppets are quite large, one-half to two-thirds life-size, and operators are visible on stage, clothed entirely in black robes and hoods.

Kabuki: The popular theatre (as opposed to the more aristrocratic Noh theatre), which uses elements of dance and music as well as acting. Hence kabuki-ga, theatre images, also a classic original woodblock form. Kabuki was started around the time of the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate. After brief spells using female and boy actors, both banned by the Shogunate because of morality issues, the Kabuki theatre switched to using male actors. They appear in painted faces, unlike the masks of the Noh theatre.

Kaomise: Literally, "face showing"; the opening performace of the Kabuki season, usually in the 10th or 11th month of the year.

Kata: Originally, the basic forms in a martial art; it later came to mean an accepted way to present a particular well-known Kabuki theatre role. These were adopted by print artists, often with liberties which would interest and amuse the viewers.

Mie: A tense pose struck by a Kabuki actor at a specific point in the action, often standardized as part of the kata of a given role.

Noh: The classical theatre (as opposed to the more popular Kabuki theatre) of the pre-Edo period, using masks (which have since become a famous art form in their own right).

Onnagata: After women were forbidden from acting in the Kabuki theatre, there appeared a class of actors who specialized in women's roles, the onnagata.

Wagoto: Literally, "gentle style"; a form of acting in the Kabuki theatre which used much more realistic (and refined) speech and gesture than the opposing aragoto style. The typical wagoto hero is a refined, romantic and soft young man, the heir of a rich family (usually of merchants), who is deeply in love with the most beautiful courtesan of the pleasure quarter; at the end of the play, he often has to run away with her, with the two forced to commit shinjū (dual love suicide) in order to be together in the afterlife.

Poetry Terms

Haiku: A short poem in seventeen syllables, usually arranged in three 5-7-5 syllable phrases; they often attempt to capture a mood or a feeling. They are a relatively late form of tanka form became overly formalized.

Kyoka: Literally, "crazy verse", a playful poem in the 31-syllable tanka form. They were playful in the sense of light-heartedly breaking the formal classical rules used in conventional tanka, and most were actually somewhat serious in tone. The humor, if any, was more in puns and other kinds of word play, or in oblique parodies of classical poetry. They especially popular during the late eighteenth century, and among the artistic set. Kyoka verses are often included in prints, especially in surimono.

Tanka: Literally, "short poem"; a waka poem in thirty-one syllables, arranged in five 5-7-5-7-7 syllable phrases. It was developed in the late eighth century, and soon took its place as one of the important regularized poetic forms; the creation of tanka became an essential skill for any aristocrat. Over time, the tanka became the premier poetic form, and the subject of competitions, while critics formulated elaborate theories and definitions around them.

Waka: Literally "Japanese poem"; so named because it referred to the original indigenous poetic form of Japan, as distinguished from the Chinese imports so common in Japan. The first great age of written waka was in the seventh and eighth centuries, with nagauta ("long poems") consisting of alternating 'lines' of five and seven syllables.

Religious Terms

Ji-gō: Literally, 'temple name', the second of the two names which Asian Buddhist temples usually have, along with a sangō. The jigō may be drawn from sacred personages in the Buddhist pantheon, the names of important religious works, significant doctrinal terms, and also sources like local legends and traditions, and the names of historical people who were their founders or benefactors, or to whose memory they are dedicated.

Kami: Spirits; the central objects of worship in the indigenous Shinto; religion. A wide range of entities can be or have kami: major independent personified entities (similar to Graeco-Roman gods); natural objects such as trees, rivers, rocks, etc; ancestral spirits; natural forces, such as weather, but also growth, fertility, etc. This probably reflects the develoment of Shinto, which seems to have first evolved in regional folk religions, before being unified later.

San-gō: Literally, 'mountain name', the first of the two names which Asian Buddhist temples usually have, along with a jigō. This seems to have originated as the name of the mountain in which the temple was located; it has since been extended, and since the Nara Period is now an honorific name which all temples are given. It may be the name of a mountain with which the temple is associated, or its location (even if not a mountain), or even some other location, e.g. the location of the residence of a benefactor. It always ends with the character san (), meaning 'mountain', even if the place so named is not a mountain.

Shintō: Literally, "way of the spirits"; the indigenous religion of Japan, once the state religion. It is animistic, and involves the worship of kami; prior to the Meiji Restoration, most Japanese believed in an amalgamation of Shinto and Bhuddist beliefs, but the two were separated at that point, to allow Shinto to be used for nationalistic purposes, as the Japanese struggled to catch up with the outside world.


Kanji: Literally, "Chinese character" (from "Han" for Chinese); the original characters used to write Japanese, they are derived from Chinese originals, and usually very similar (if not identical) to them.

Radical: Radicals are multi-stroke elements which appear in numerous characters; any given kanji character is usually composed of a base radical, and additional strokes and/or radicals. Kanji dictionaries are indexed by base radical.

Reading: Any given kanji character usually has a number of different ways to 'read' it (i.e. sound it, and also possibly meaning). A typical character can be read in multiple ways, in part because of their original use to write Chinese before they were adapted to write Japanese (much as the symbol '3' can be read to produce different words, depending on the language used - e.g. 'three' in English and 'trois' in French). Readings are usually divided into ondoku and kundoku, and there may be more than one of each. Thus, determining how a particular group of kanji are to be pronounced may be decidedly tricky.

Ondoku: Literally, "reading aloud"; on, for short. A reading which is the Japanese interpretation of the original Chinese sound of the character.

Kundoku: Literally, "reading as Japanese"; kun, for short. A reading which is the Japanese word which has the original meaning of that character in Chinese.

Tensho: A specialized stylized form of kanji characters, used mainly in seals.

Kaisho: Literally, "correct writing"; the standard form of kanji characters. Also, the form used in printed materials, etc.

Gyōsho: Literally, "running writing"; a slightly 'free' form of kanji characters, found in hand-written material. Individual strokes may be connected (to avoid lifting the brush from the paper), simplified forms of component radicals may be used, etc, etc.

Sōsho: Literally, "grass writing"; an extremely stylized and fluid form of kanji characters, found in hand-written material. It is almost a short-hand form, and it is often impossible to relate sōsho characters back to their kanji originals.

Hiragana: Characters of the Japanese syllabary (i.e. consonant/vowel pairs) used to write Japanese; derived from sōsho forms of selected kanji, and used for writing quickly.

Katakana: Characters of a secondary Japanese syllabary (i.e. consonant/vowel pairs) used for a variety of secondary uses (e.g. writing foreign words); derived from selected kanji by extensive simplification, and made more compact.

Man'yōgana: Selected kanji historically used for phonetic representation of Japanese, when Japanese was first recorded in written form. Particular sounds can be represented by one of several kanji; the choice of which one to use was often made for stylistic or symbolic reasons.

Hentaigana: Literally, "variant kana"; kana other than those used in hiragana and katakana. Hiragana and katakana were only fully standardized in 1900; before that, a large number of kana, simplified forms derived from man'yōgana kanji, were extant. Those not selected for use in the standard hiragana and katakana are now called hentaigana. They include both kana which derive from alternative man'yōgana characters for particular sounds, and others which are merely written in different styles of cursive writing.

Furigana: Hiragana characters written next to a kanji character to indicate the correct reading for that character.

Rōmaji: Literally, "Roman character"; the name for a number of systems used to write Japanese using the Latin alphabet generally used in the West. Currently, the generally-accepted choice world-wide is the Revised Hepburn system, which allows Anglophones to closely approximate the pronunciation of a word in Japanese. See here for more details.

Kakihan: Literally, "hand-written seal"; a pseudo-character used by an artist or crafstman as a signature; often highly cursive, as opposed to normal Japanese characters, which are made up of a number of strokes.


Edo: The old name (literally, "bay door", or "entrance of the bay") for Tōkyō. Originally a small, obscure fishing village, it was put on the path to fame when Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, chose it as his headquarters in 1590, after he was given control of the Kantō. It rapidly grew, in part because of Ieyasu's policy of requiring all his vassal daimyō to spend half their time in Edo, away from their fiefs. By 1721 it had over 1,000,000 inhabitants, making it the largest city in the world at that point. It was also the incubator of a vibrant urban culture, that of the chōnin.

Kamigata: The region encompassing Kyōto and the nearby Ōsaka; this area was the heart of Japan, both culturally and economically, until the Tokugawa Shoguns chose Edo as their ruling center. Many of the chōnin cultural components, such as kabuki theatre and ukiyo-e actually originated in the Kamigata area, before being transmitted to Edo.

Kansai: A larger area around the Kamigata; it also includes the port city of Kobe (still a prominent port), and the Kii peninsula, containing the ancient capital of Nara, and Japan's most important Shinto shrine, the Ise Grand Shrine.

Kantō: The largest flat area in Japan, it contains eight provinces centered on the city of Edo; it is rich alluvial lowland formed by the outfall of a number of rivers, and was the 'rice-basket' of Japan during the Edo period. The Kantō was somewhat isolated from the main center of Japan at the start of that period, the Kansai region, but quickly became Japan's center, a status it retains today.

Kyōto: Kyōto (literally, "capital city") was for almost eleven centuries the Imperial capital of Japan, where the Emperor of Japan resided. It was founded in 794, when the capital was moved from the original location of Nara, via Nagaoka, in order to escape the influence of militant Buddhist sects. Originally named Heian-kyō (literally, "tranquility and peace capital"), from which is derived the name of the Heian period, it was renamed Kyōto in the 11th century. Largely untouched during World War II, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with many beautiful original temples and palaces.

Ōsaka: Ōsaka was the main commercial city of Japan until the Tokugawa chose Edo as their ruling center; it is still Japan's second-largest city, and (as then) a major port. During the Momoyama Period, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (died 1598), the unifier of Japan, had his capital there.

Tōkaidō: The Tōkaidō (literally, the "Eastern Sea Road") was the main road of feudal Japan. It ran for roughly five hundred kilometers between the old imperial capital, Kyōto, where the Emperor still lived, and the effective capital, Edo where the Shogun lived. It ran more or less along the coast, from Edo to Nagoya, and then across the mountains and around the southern end of Lake Biwa to Kyōto.

Fifty-three stations (not counting the two termini), consisting of horse and porter stations, along with a range of lodging, food, etc, establishments for ordinary travellers, were established along the between the two ends, which most travelers covered on foot, usually travelling several stages per day.

Tōkyō: 'Tōkyō' (literally, "Eastern capital") is the new name for Edo after the Meiji Restoration. That removed the Tokugawa Shogunate (whose capital it was) from power, and the Emperor then moved to Tōkyō, from his previous residence in Kyōto, and took over Edo castle, the seat of power of the old Shogunate. The city's name was changed in 1868, to underline and commemorate the move from Kyōto.

Tōto: An alternative old name (literally, "Eastern metropolis") for Edo.

Calendar and Dates

Nengō: Literally, "year name", the name associated with the rule of a particular Emperor of Japan. Shortly after a new Emperor assumes the throne, an official name is chosen for his reign, one with auspicious overtones. These reign names are nengō, are also used to name eras in Japanese history (but see the next entry). When an Emperor dies, his nengō becomes his official posthumous name. Thus, the Emperor Hirohito (reigned 1926-1989) is now known as the Emperor Showa (literally, "Enlightenment and Harmony"). Previously, the nengō were selected by the Imperial court; starting with the reign name of Hirohito's son Akihito, Heisei (literally, "Achieving Peace"), they are selected by the government.

Nenkan: Literally, "year period"; an alternative term used for eras within a given reign. Prior to the Meiji Restoration, Emperors would sometimes assume a different nengō during their reign to commemorate some notable event; while technically they are nengō, they are often referred to as nenkan (roughly "era", but they refer to a fixed period). A new era name was often designated on certain astrologically auspicious years, but they might also be adopted due to felicitous events, or natural disasters. After the Meiji Restoration, a "one reign, one era name" system was adopted, and era names now only change on an Imperial succession.

Intercalary Month: Prior to the Meiji Restoration, Japan used a lunar-solar calendar, which was not well aligned to the solar year, and tended to quickly drift out of synchronization with it. To fix this, periodically (approximately every three years or so) an extra month was interpolated to bring it back into phase. Such months are designated as intercalary months (uruu), and are given the same number as the previous lunar month. So, when there are two 'fifth months', the first one is just 'fifth month', but the following intercalary month is called 'uruu fifth month'.

General Terms

Chōnin: Literally, a "town person"; whilst theoretically the lowest social class under the Tokugawa Shogunate, they soon became economically the most powerful class, causing severe strains to the social system set up by the Tokugawa. Their inability to rise in status caused much of their spare energy and wealth to be spent in diversions, including the Kabuki theatre, and ukiyo-e prints.

Daimyō: Literally, "great name", a major feudal private land holder, of whom there were several hundred in Japan during the Edo period. They held fiefs of widely varying sizes, measured in terms of the income they produced, in koku of rice per year, down to 10,000 koku per year. Those who held smaller fiefs were known as shōmyō, literally "small name".

Geisha: Literally, "art person"; female performers who specialize in entertaining and providing companionship to men at dinner parties and similar venues. They are skilled in classic Japanese arts such as music (especially the playing of the stringed samisen), poetry and calligraphy. They first appeared at the start of the Edo period, as an off-shoot of the group of highest-class courtesans.

: The 'art name'; a pseudonym, similar to a pen-name in the West, used by an artist. An artist will often have several different over the course of a career. They are often passed down in a school, from the old head to the new head.

Jisei: The 'death poem', also called zeppitsu (literally, "final brushstrokes") was a common part of death in Japan. They were usually the dying person's own words, not a quotation, and usually tried to encapsulate his thoughts at the moment of death; they often attempt to sum up the writer's life, or give his insight into the meaning of life, as the writer departs it. Written as they were with all of someone's remaining energy, the ones we still have sometimes show astonishing calligraphy and insights.

Kago: A palanquin for an individual, much used in Japan during the Edo period for travel by high-status people. It had a single crossbeam, and was carried by two porters; the sides could be left open, or closed for privacy.

Mon: The Japanese equivalent of family crests or coats-of-arms; almost always a circle with a design (which may be either purely geometric, or inspired by nature) inside.

Otokodate: Originally, they were gangs of tough and fearless commoners, formed to protect ordinary townspeople against the abuses of some lawless low-ranking samurai; they soon came to have more in common with protection rackets than anything else. These Robin Hood-like figures, who made a living with gambling, were the ancestors of today's yakuza (Japanese mafia). In Kabuki plays, they usually appear as chivalrous figures protecting common people against oppressive samurai.

Rōnin: Literally, "wave man"; a samurai; who had been left masterless by the death, or disgrace, of his master. Ordinarily, a samurai left in this state was expected to commit seppuku; one who did not was left in a state of shame (although some attempted to avenge their masters - the most famous of these being the 47 Rōnin). During the Edo Period, there were large numbers of rōnin, and although some found legitimate employment, many drifted into criminal activity, giving the group an especially unsavory reputation at that time.

Samurai: Literally, "one who serves"; a member of the warrior class, which was the highest ranking social class during most period of Japanese history. The samurai lived by elaborate social and military codes, part of which was called bushi-do, literally "road of the warrior".

Seki: A control barrier of the Tokugawa government, to control and maintain traffic throughout the land. A total of 55 of these stations were set up by the Tokugawa government along the Tokaido.

Seppuku: Also "harakiri" (with the two kanji reversed), although this form is sometimes considered crude. Literally, "stomach-cutting". Ritual suicide for a samurai who had been defeated in battle, or as a punishment for a lesser crime (for more foul offenses, a degrading public execution, rather than the honourable seppuku, was the usual response).

Shōgun: The Shōgun was the military ruler of Japan during various periods (see below), who whilst theoretically 'appointed' by the Emperor, actually seized power via a military revolt, and used the Emperor as a figurehead. The Shogunate was also known as the Bakufu, literally "tent government", emphasizing the military base.

Japanese Historical Periods

Shōwa (1926-1989): This lengthy reign covered a period of almost un-imaginable change in Japan. At the start of it, while urban Japan had absorbed some Western influences, the country-side had changed little from centuries before; at the end of it, after the calamity of World War II, and the re-building of Japan, Japan was a fully integrated part of the modern world, and its people had a very different outlook on life.

Taisho (1912-1926): During this period, while the modernization and industrialization of Japan proceeded, the Japanese became convinced that Japanese culture could be preserved, while incorporating the best of Western ideas and technology.

Meiji (1868-1912): After the arrival of U.S. ships demanding the opening of Japan, in 1854, the power of the Shoguns, hollowed out over the centuries, fell in the Meiji Restoration of November, 1867. The Imperial system was restored, in league with a massive effort to modernize the country, during which the old feudal Japan all but disappeared almost overnight.

Edo (1615-1867): The Tokugawa family of Shoguns kept an iron grip on the country, and tried to keep out foreign influences, and freeze the feudal social structure, but under the surface slow change occurred, with the declining influence of the samurai and the rise of chonin. In the peace, a thriving popular culture grew up, with theatre, woodblock prints, and other popular art forms.

Momoyama (1568-1615): Three successive warlords, Odo Nobunaga (assasinated 1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (died 1598) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (died 1616) re-unified the country, ending with the Tokugawa victory over the forces of Hideyoshi's successors at Osaka in 1615. Zen arts such as the tea ceremony, sumi-e (ink-painting) and garden design became popular.

Muromachi (1333-1568): The Kamakura Shogunate, weakened by the invasion of the Mongols, fell to a restored Imperial rule; eventually, the Ashikaga family, a branch of the Minamoto, took over and established another Shogunate, although it was never as powerful as the preceding one. Feuding led to the creation of two competing Imperial courts (1336-1392), and later the internecine Onin Wars (1467-1477); these were followed by the even more devastating wars of the Sengoku Period (1477-1573). Toward the end of this period, the first Europeans arrived, and introduced Christianity.

Kamakura (1185-1333): A struggle for power between the two chief clans, the Taira and the Minamoto, ended with the victory of the Minamoto. They made their capital at Kamakura (on the coast of Sagami Bay, immediately to the south-west of Tōkyō Bay), and introduced the office of Shogun. However, power soon fell into the hands of the Hōjō clan, a branch of the Taira who had allied themselves with the Minamoto. Two attempted invasions by the Mongols were driven off; Zen Buddhism appeared in Japan, as well as tea-drinking.

Heian (794-1185): The indigenous Japanese culture reappeared, whilst on the political scene, the Emperors, now living in Heian-Kyō (now known as Kyōto) became cloistered figureheads, and the court turned to refinement and sophistication; the aristocratic Fujiwara clan ran the country.

Nara (710-794): Veneration of the Guatama Buddha was the lodestar of Japanese culture, and imitation of the Chinese was rampant, including the capital city of Japan at Nara, south of Kyōto, modeled after the Chinese capital of T'ang China, Sian.

Asuka (552-710): During this period, Chinese influences appeared in Japan, a written language based heavily on Chinese started to appear, and the first organized states appeared in Japan, with their capital in the Asuka valley.

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Last updated: 15/February/2017