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Deciphering a Print (Kuniyoshi)


Some prints from the mid-nineteenth century carry inscriptions and seals from which we may obtain important information about their subject matter and date of publication. Refer to the labels superimposed on the illustrated print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) and then match them (top to bottom) with the identifications listed below the picture:

Kuniyoshi Itami Sake

Print (Subject) Title: Settsu shû Itami-zake ("Itami Rice-Wine, Settsu Province")
Series Title: Sankai medetai zue ("Affectionate Feelings for Mountains and Seas")
Subtitle: Ukaga hitai ("Wanting to visit")
Censor Seal (right): Kinugasa (Kinugasa Fusajirô)
Censor Seal (left): Murata (Murata Heiemon)
Print Number: Jûnishichi (27, the number of the design within the series)
Date Seal: Ne hachi ("Rat 8," or eight month, Year of the Rat, corresponding to 1852)
Artist's Signature: Ichiyûsai Kuniyoshi ga
Artist's Seal: A stylized kiri (the flower "Paulownia imperialis")
Publisher's Seal: Cipher mark plus Yamaguchi ("Yamaguchiya Tôbei")

The beautiful young woman is dressed in finely made robes. Her hair is set in a sophisticated manner and accentuated with elaborate hair pins and chrysanthemum decorations. She also holds a brocade purse or carrying pouch. She clearly represented for Kuniyoshi and his audience a model of late Edo-period fashion in feminine dress and deportment. The inset illustration shows workers preparing Itami saké, which was a famous product of Settsu Province.

So as the beauty eagerly anticipates fulfilling her desire to visit the factory, we can view the actual site as if we could see it, as she does, in her mind's eye. If we take into account the other known designs from the series (there are at least 70 in all, making it a large and significant series among Kuniyoshi's body of work), we can confirm that each print celebrates a different famous product from a specific locale, and that each depicts a beautiful young woman who expresses a wish in relation to that product.

The block cutting and printing of this series was of a high enough standard to include the names of the artisans on many of the designs, although in the Itami design no such seal appears. In addition, many of the inset pictures in this series were designed by Kuniyoshi's daughter (Yoshi, 1842-1885), who signed herself as Yoshijo ("the daughter Yoshi"). ©2000-2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Gobbi, Pietro: Hon: Signatures, Seals, Crests, Philology of the Ukiyo-e Prints. (Firme, Sigilli, Stemmi, Filologia dell'Ukiyo-e). Torino: L'Angolo Manzoni Editrice, 1989 (bilingual edition).
  • Illing, Richard: The Art of Japanese Prints. London: Calmann & Cooper, 1980, p. 168.
  • Schaap, Robert: Heroes & Ghosts: Japanese Prints by Kuniyoshi, 1797-1861. Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 1998, pp. 144-146.
  • Self, James and Hirose, Nobuko: Japanese Art Signatures. Rutland: Tuttle, 1989.
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Viewing Japanese Prints
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