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Utamaro print showing


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Aniline Dyes in Meiji Nishiki-e
Toyohara Kunichika (豊原國周)


Kunichika In 1980, a noted Japanese scholar maintained that Meiji-period Japanese understood certain vivid colorants, especially aniline dyes, as Kakushin no iro (革新の色) or "colors of progress" (see Newland reference at bottom of this page). These intense new colors were widely used in woodblock prints (ukiyo-e or nishiki-e) and were commonly associated with a nation intent on modernizing and assimilating the most progressive aspects of western culture during the Meiji period (1868-1912).

It has long been believed that aniline dyes, first synthesized in England during the 1850s and assumed to be imported into Japan during the 1860s, were responsible for the "acid" colors found in nishiki-e. Despite whatever "progress" these colors might have represented, most collectors and scholars in the West could see only a rather garish and distasteful parade of harsh reds, purples, yellows, and greens, which they believed degraded the art of ukiyo-e. Even today, many find the Meiji palette strident and an affront to their sensibilities.

An illustration with the sort of color palette under discussion is shown in the image on the immediate right portraying the actor Bandô Hikosaburô V (坂東彦三郎). In 1877 (the year of Hikosaburô's death), the artist Toyohara Kunichika designed a series titled Kaika nijûshikô: (Twenty-four paragons of enlightenment: 開化廿四孝) published by Takekawa Seikichi. On full display in this print are the vibrant red, purple and yellow colorants emblematic of Meiji-period nishiki-e.

With the preceding in mind, readers will discover that the standard narrative on aniline dyes has been roundly destabilized by a recent technical analysis that debunks the early assumptions regarding the aniline revolution. To be sure, vivid colors were de rigueur for a vast number of nishiki-e during Meiji, and those who have condemned the tectonic shifts in colors from pre-Meiji practice need not relinquish their dismissive judgments. Yet until 2018 (see Cesaratto et al. reference below), definitive research on the chemical nature of these colorants has been elusive. Now, however, new conclusions have been reached with the aid of surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) coupled with micro-Raman, X-ray fluorescence (XRF), and fiber optic reflectance spectroscopies (FORS) performed on 57 nishiki-e assembled for analysis by Professor Henry D. Smith II. To minimize damage in SERS analysis, samples were obtained by removing fragments of single paper fibers (~ 100 µm in length) already raised or partially detached from the paper surface. The remaining complementary spectroscopy techniques were non-destructive.

The authors of the 2018 study presented the following summary:

  1. In 1864, the purple dye rosaniline [magenta] became the first synthetic dye to be used in nishiki-e, at first in combination with Prussian blue for a more bluish color. From 1875, it was usually mixed or replaced with methyl violet [an aniline dye] for a stronger purple.
  2. In early 1869, a dramatic and until recently unrecognized transition took place, from the longstanding use of safflower [benibana] as the dominant red [in pre-Meiji nishiki-e] to its total replacement by imported cochineal carmine [a red insect dye]. Carmine remained the primary red for the next two decades, often combined with vermillion.
  3. In 1877, eosine [acid red 87/solvent red 43, also called bromeosin, a red crystalline derivative of fluorescein] appeared as the first synthetic red dye in nishiki-e, used alone for pink, and in mixture with carmine for red.
  4. From 1889, a succession of red synthetic naphthol dyes [fluorescent organic compounds] of more striking color appeared. However, a tendency toward more restrained use of color and more painterly effects also began to emerge in nishiki-e and, with the exception of a burst of dynamic color in prints depicting the Sino–Japanese War (1894–95), the uses of strong colors in Meiji prints receded.

A final key finding is that colorants were often combined, either through preparatory mixing or by direct mixing on the printing block, or by two-step overprinting.

The authors of the 2018 study also provided the following graph to encapsulate the timeline for Meiji colorants:


The story is more complex than outlined here, so readers are encouraged to review the articles cited below. Simply put, a wholly "aniline revolution" in Meiji nishiki-e production never took place, although a color revolution did indeed occur, resulting in a vivid palette overall. However, the only true aniline dye, used from 1875 until 1889, was methyl violet, which yielded a visibly stronger purple than previous red-blue mixtures. Moreover, the new nishiki-e red appearing in 1869 and long accused by many as one of the aniline culprits was actually an organic colorant, the insect dye chochineal carmine.

Incidentally, a complementary study of 31 nishiki-e (issued from 1864 to 1895) was published in 2016 (ref. #3 below) confirming the work of Yamato (ref #4 below) that arsenic sulfides of synthetic origin were used widely for yellow (orpiment, in Japanese, sekiô, 石黄) and green colored areas (the latter obtained by mixing Prussian blue with yellow arsenic sulfides). The authors also concluded that the manufacture of synthetic arsenic sulfide pigments might have started in Iwashiro province in 1846. Their work provides the first conclusive evidence for the use of synthetic arsenic sulfides in woodblock prints in Japan.

References for Meiji-period colorant research

  1. Anna Cesaratto, Yan-Bing Luo, Henry D. Smith II, and Marco Leona: "A timeline for the introduction of synthetic dyestuffs in Japan during the late Edo and Meiji periods," in: Heritage Science, 2018, 6:22.
  2. Henry D. Smith II: "Making Meiji Red," in: Impressions, 2020, forthcoming.
  3. Takamatsu, Toyokichi: On Japanese Pigments. Tokyo Daigaku (University of Tokyo, 東京大学), Department of Science, 1878, p. 31-32 (for an account of the synthesis of orpiment in Aizu). The entire work is an important source regarding Japanese painting pigments as understood in early Meiji.
  4. Yan-Bing Luo, Elena Basso, Henry D. Smith II, and Marco Leona: "Synthetic arsenic sulfides in Japanese prints of the Meiji period," in: Heritage Science, 2016, 4:17.
  5. Yamato A. Kôki ukiyo-e hanga ni shiyô sareta shikizai no hensen ni kansuru kenkyû (Studies on changes in the colorants used in later ukiyo-e prints). Japan: MA thesis, Tohoku University of Art and Design; 2013.

Toyohara Kunichika

KunichikaWhen applied by less astute artists, printers, and publishers, the effect of Meiji-period dyes can indeed be rather harsh, and there are many examples in which their indiscriminate use produced a riot of clashing colors. Yet when these colorants were used judiciously, the results were lively examples of the Japanese quest for expressions of enlightenment and sophistication. In fact, some critics have begun to reassess how Meiji-period printmakers and their patrons understood and used these once-fashionable dyes.

Toyohara Kunichika (豊原國周 1835-1900) is one of the artists whose works have been closely associated with aniline dyes (to a degree that is somewhat undeserved). His first teacher was [Ichiôsai] Toyohara Chikanobu (dates unknown; personal name Toriyama Shinji), a minor artist of the Hasegawa school working in the Kanô style of painting. (This first Chikanobu should not be confused with the later and better known Chikanobu who was Kunichika's own pupil — [Yôshû] Toyohara Chikanobu, 1838-1912.) Kunichika probably joined the studio of Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) around 1848 when he was 13 years of age, and he ultimately achieved a high ranking within the Utagawa studio.

After the death of Kunisada, Kunichika went on to become the most important designer of actor prints during the Meiji period, while also producing many bijin-ga ("pictures of beautiful women"). He was a prolific artist, one of the last masters of ukiyo-e printmaking. The print shown immediately to the right is a good example of Meiji-period colorants used in a restrained manner. The design was published by Takegawa Seikichi for the series Junshoku sanjûroku kasen (Thirty-six charming colors of selected beautiful women: 潤色三十六花撰). Dated 1881, the print also names the block carver ("Gin"). The saturated purples and reds in this design might startle us with their saturated bright intensity, but, on the whole, the colors have been used sparingly and to positive advantage, serving the purpose of signifying elegance and fashionable modernity. ©2000-2020 by John Fiorillo


  • Newland, Amy Reigle: Time Present and Time Past: Images of a Forgotten Master. Toyohara Kunichika, 1835-1900. Leiden, 1999, p. 19, quoting Ôhe Naokichi, "Ukiyo-e shi Toyohara Kunichika ni tsuite," in: Uryu 3: geijutsu to bunka (Kyoto geijutsu tanki daigaku, 1980, p. 40) for the idea that Meiji-period Japanese understood the new reds and purples as Kakushin no iro (colors of progress).
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