spacer 12
VJP title
Utamaro print showing


spacer 16

Okumura Masanobu (奥村政信)


Okumura Masanobu bijin Moon at MusashiOkumura Masanobu (奥村政信 1686–1764) was a print designer, book illustrator, painter, book publisher, and fiction writer. An artist of great versatility, Masanobu worked at a time when new techniques and compositional trends appeared in quick succession. Very early on, he was involved in, if not the progenitor of, urushi-e ("lacquer prints": 漆絵), actually animal-collagen burnished-glue prints, and uki-e ("floating pictures": 浮絵 or 浮繪), single-vanishing-point perspective prints. He also produced early habahiro hashira-e (wide pillar-pictures: 幅広柱絵), ishizuri-e ("stone-printed" pictures: 石刷絵) in imitation of Chinese stone-rubbing prints, and benizuri-e ("red-printed pictures," red and green prints: 紅摺絵), the first widespread printing of colors in ukiyo-e that would supplant hand-coloring for about two decades and lead up to nishiki-e ("brocade" or full-color prints: 錦絵) in the mid-1760s.

His (art pseudonyms: 號) were Bunkaku (文角), Genroku (源六), Hôgetsudô (芳月堂), Shidôken (志道軒), and Tanchôsai (丹鳥齋). He operated a publishing firm/bookstore, begun in 1724 and located in Tôri Shio-chô, Edo, which he named the "Okumura-ya Genroku" (奥村屋源六).

Masanobu appears to have been largely self-taught, although he might have studied briefly with Torii Kiyonobu I (he was at least influenced by him). No doubt, the works of Nishikawa Sukenobu and of the various Kaigetsudô (壊月堂) artists were closely familiar to Masanobu as well. He set his own fashion for bijinga (pictures of beautiful women: 美人画), in a style distinct from Kiyonobu I and other early Torii artists. One such example, circa late 1720s-30s, is shown on the right. Titled Musashi no getsu (Moon in Musashi: 武蔵の月), this hand-colored print also has an inscription over a folded love-letter cartouche at the upper right reading sanpuku-tsui (三福対), meaning a sheet with three printed images; however, this sheet, measuring 318 x 156 mm, has been separated from the other two designs. Typical of such prints were those depicting three courtesans from the main pleasure districts of Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo, or bijin standing in for the time-honored theme of setsugekka (Snow, moon, flowers: 雪月花). In this example, which would have been the middle sheet (chû, 中), Masanobu depicted a bijin for the theme of the moon. The signature on the lower left and seal at the lower right are of some interest, as they read, respectively, Nihon gakô Okumura Masanobu shô-hitsu (From the genuine brush of the Japanese artist Okumura Masanobu: 日本畵工奥村政信正筆) and Tôri Shio-chô kongen Okumura han. Kono hô no e nise-han sôrô aida hyôtan shirushi itashi sôrô (Published originally by Okumura in Tôri Shio-chô. Since my prints are being published spuriously, I put on the mark of the gourd). The gourd, at the lower left, contains the characters "Okumura" in seal script. Masanobu's bijin possesses all the hallmarks of his mature figure-design style. There is a firmness of line, fairly even in thickness and well-balanced throughout the figural form. The gesture, facial expression, and fashionable robes evoke a certain charm and perhaps coquetish personality.

Masanobu's first works appear to be two untitled albums, published in 1701 and 1702, respectively, when he was 15 and 16 years of age. His designs were somewhat derivative of Torii Kiyonobu's Keisei ehon (Picture-book of castle-topplers: 傾城絵本) of 1700, but nevertheless were not slavish copies and revealed a precocious talent that would ultimately produce one of the most important oeuvres ever seen in ukiyo-e printmaking. An example from Masanobu's 1701 album is shown below, a portrayal of the courtesans Mandayû 万た夫 (who is reading) and Komurasaki 小むらさき (brushing a verse on a poem slip). The large characters on the byôbu (floor screen: 屏風) read Kachôfûgetsu (Flowers, birds, wind, and moon: 花鳥風月), a popular theme or grouping for Japanese paintings and prints.

Masanobu courtesans 1701

Okumura Masanobu: (1R) The courtesans Mandayû (万た夫) and (2R) Komurasaki (小むらさき)
Sheet from an untitled album, 1701 (ôban, 270 x 374 mm)

A few years after the courtesan albums, Masanobu produced a lively and skillful series of twelve prints in horizontal ôban format titled Yamato irotake (translated loosely as "Famous scenes from Japanese puppet plays": 大和色竹), circa 1705-08. The conceit underpinning the series was the portrayal of leading kabuki actors performing in jôruri (puppet plays: 淨瑠璃). Many early yakusha-e were strongly influenced by the puppet theater and its jôruri narrative-chanting accompaniment. In this instance, the scenes were inspired by the gidayû (義太夫) jôruri style of the chanter Tosa no Shôjô Tachibana Masakatsu (土佐尐掾橘正勝 active circa 1670s to 1708). Tosa no Shôjô issued collections of his most celebrated scenes with a generic title of Irotake (色竹), whose illustrations had some influence on the early Torii artist Kiyonobu I, as well as Masanobu. There is a confidence and vitality to the figure drawing that announce Masanobu's maturity as a print designer. In the print below, Masanobu demonstrated a strength of line, verve, and bulging-muscle bombast that also characterized the works of Kiyonobu I. The scene portrays a celebrated and deadly confrontation in Act II of Shuten-dôji (The saké-drinking boy: 酒天童子) featuring a flesh-eating oni (demon: 鬼) from Ôeyama (Mount Ôe: 大江山). The oni was killed, so the legend goes, by the real-life hero Minamoto no Yorimitsu [Raikô] (源頼光, 948-1021). At the end of the dramatization, the demon's decapitated head still attempts to bite the Minamoto warrior, who escapes injury or death by wearing two additional helmets belonging to his men that he stacked on his head (or in another version, a magical helmet given to him by three shrine gods). The actor's crest on the armor belonged to Tomizawa Hanzaburô (富澤半三郎 active 1684-1730), who acted in Edo for nearly half a century. The signboard that has been knocked over reads kinsatsu (forbidden: 禁札).

Masanobu from Yamato irotake

Okumura Masanobu: Ôeyama Shuten-dôji (Shuten-dôji of Mount Ôe: 大江山酒天とうし), c. 1705-08
Series: Yamato irotake (Famous scenes from Japanese puppet plays: 大和色竹), ôban (262 x 369 mm)

As Masanobu's style developed, by the 1710s it became distinctive enough that certain unsigned works could be attributed to him with confidence. In the hand-colored, large (ô-ôban) print shown below left, a courtesan and her young female attendants are portrayed watching a mawari dôrô (revolving lantern: 回り灯篭). The device worked by inserting a spinning wheel attached to a stick into the middle of the lantern. A lighted candle also placed inside would provide illumination and induce a rising heated air current, causing the wheel to spin, which then rotated the inner frame while casting a shadow on the outer layer. In the scene below, the revolving lantern has a paper cylinder inside with cut-out shapes of a procession of a courtesan and her entourage. The candle-light inside the mawari dôrô projected the figures onto the outer layer of paper and as the interior wheel turned, the figures appeared to move around the perimeter of the lantern. Although the print is entitled Keisei nayose (Names of courtesans: けいせいなよせ [傾城名寄せ]), the libretto inscribed above is actually a playful song incorporating the names of brothel districts.

Alongside his fine bijinga, Masanobu's designs of aragoto ("rough business": 荒事) kabuki scenes were a vital aspect of his oeuvre. In the print below right, Bandô Hikosaburô I (坂東彦三郎 1693-1751) performs the role of Asahina Yoshihide (朝比奈義秀 also known as Asahina Saburô, 朝比奈三朗) in an unidentified play. Although very likely an historical figure, the dramaturgic and literary Yoshihide appears often as a near-superhuman legendary character. According to these tales, his mother was the renowned female samurai Tomoe Gozen (巴御前 c. 1157 - c. 1247) and his father the military commander Wada Yoshimori (和田義盛, 1147-1213). The scene shown here depicts Asahina, who was a retainer of Minamoto no Yoriie (源頼家 1182-1204), breaking down a castle door, possibly the Kenmon Gate at Kamakura during the unsuccessful Wada-clan (Wada-shi: 和田氏) rebellion against the Hôjô forces (Hôjô-shi: 北条氏). The print is signed Nihon gakô Okumura Masanobu shô-hitsu (The genuine signature of the Japanese artist Okumura Masanobu: 日本畵工奥村政信正筆). The script on the left side of the gourd is an advertisement for Masanobu's publishing firm, reading Tôri-shio-chô, etoi-ya beni-e ezôshi oroshi akaki hyôtan e-jirushi tatematsuri sôrô Okumura (Tôri-shio street, wholesale picture shop, red prints, wholesale illustrated books, to be offered at the sign of the red gourd, Okumura)

Masanobu shadow lantern Masanobu role of Asahina

Okumura Masanobu (attributed): Courtesan and attendants with shadow lantern, c. 1715-1720s
Hand-colored ô-ôban (597 x 298 mm)

Okumura Masanobu: Bandô Hikosaburô I as Asahina Saburô breaking down a castle door, c. 1730s
hosoban (311 x 152 mm)

Masanobu's shunga ("spring pictures," erotica: 春画) are among the best from the first half of the eighteenth century. The example shown below is the non-explicit frontispiece to a shunga album titled Someiro no yama neya no hinagata (Mountains of dyed colors, models for the bedroom: 染色のやま閨の雛形) from around 1739-44. The format is large (243 x 362 mm) and the designs are hand-colored as urushi-e. The three figures are enjoying themselves in an ageya (house of assignation: 揚屋); they are a high-ranking courtesan, an adult male patron, and a fashionable wakashû ("young man": 若衆) who is likely to be counted among the patron's lovers. Behind them is a panel with a landscape done in the Kanô-school manner, not a surprise given that most ukiyo-e artists had some tutoring in Kanô painting. The poem inscribed at the far left mentions "fragrant plum trees" and "two guardian kings," probably alluding to the courtesan and young man, respectively.

Masanobu courtesan with client and wakashu
Okumura Masanobu: Frontispiece to a shunga album titled Someiro no yama neya no hinagata
(Mountains of dyed colors, models for the bedroom: 染色のやま閨の雛形), 1739-44 (album sheet, 243 x 362 mm)

Early commentators credited Masanobu as the first to introduce Western single-vanishing-point perspective in ukiyo-e prints and paintings. However, while Masanobu was involved from the beginning of these so-called uki-e ("floating pictures": 浮絵), the earliest known printed example was designed by Torii Kiyotada (鳥居清忠 act. c. 1720–50) circa 1739-40. He was followed immediately thereafter by Masanobu, who was especially adept at uki-e interiors. In the image below, Masanobu depicted such a view, which he titled Suruga-chô Echigo-ya gofukuten ô-uki-e (Large perspective picture of the interior of the Echigo-ya in Suruga-chô: 駿河町越後屋呉服店大浮画), circa 1745 (a year of record sales for the Echigo-ya enterprise). The shop (established by Mitsui Takatoshi, 1622-94, at Hon-chô in Edo in 1673, and relocating to Suruga-chô in 1683) was part of the Mitsui wholesale and retail business operating in Edo, Osaka (1687), and Kyoto (1691). The family crest can be seen on the four large banners along the right-hand wall. The scene is brimming with information about the business practices of the period. Signs name the shop (Echigo-ya) and identify it as the main branch for drapery and haberdashery, and various small accessories. One sign announces that the store follows the rules of genkin kakene nashi (cash payments and set prices), thereby excluding buying on credit. Notices at the back direct customers to where cloth may be obtained by the piece and where evening garments may be found. Hoping to sell a calendar print, the monk (with shaved head) in the foreground is attempting to catch the attention of the clerk carrying bolts of fabric to show the courtesan seated at the front. The success of Mitsui's store is legendary. In 1689 the Echigo-ya was made purveyor of goods to the shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (徳川綱吉 1646-1709) and by 1700 it was Japan’s largest store. It eventually became the modern department store Mitsukoshi Gofukuten (三越し呉服店) in 1904, operating as one of the most important cultural institutions in early twentieth-century Japan, and remains in business to this day.

Masanobu perspective picture of the Echigoya
Okumura Masanobu: Suruga-chô Echigoya gofukuten ô-uki-e
(駿河町越後屋呉服店大浮画), c. 1745 (horizontal double-ôban, 477 x 668 mm)

Okumura Masanobu bijin with umbrellaThe strength of line and robustness of figural forms that were the hallmarks of Masanobu's earlier works gave way to more delicate lines (Hillier called them "less virile"; see ref. below) and somewhat slimmer forms in the later prints. An example of this more fragile figure style is shown on the right. This portrayal of a bijin holding an umbrella and a dog on a leash was published around 1744-48 on an extra-wide hashira-e (pillar print: 柱絵) sheet known as a habahiro hashira-e (幅広柱絵), in this instance 720 x 254 mm. The signature declares the veracity of authorship: Hôgetsudô shô-mei Okumura Bunkaku Masanobu shô-hitsu (From the "genuine brush" of Hôgetsudô "true name" Okumura Bunkaku Masanobu: 方月堂正名丹鳥齋奥村文角政信正筆).

The fashionable beauty wears a long-sleeved, high-collar, full-length raincoat called a sode-gappa (袖合羽), popular with young women and wakashû (elegant male youths: 若衆). She appears to be fastening a clip at the right shoulder as she prepares to set off on a walk or, just as likely, a romantic assignation. The suggestive poem at the top right seems to support this idea: Nureru nara / kasa o tanomade / shigurekeri (Even if dripping wet / don't use the umbrella / in late autumn showers); see Clark ref. below, p. 190. Her hair comb has the crest of the kabuki heartthrob Segawa Kikunojô I (瀬川菊之丞 1693-1749), thus marking her as a devoted fan of the actor. If we compare the thin modulated lines in this hand-colored habahiro hashira-e with those of Masanobu's earlier works, the change in the quality of line-work is clearly evident.

A double-full-length yakusha-e from around the late 1740s, or as late as 1750, portrays Nakamura Kiyozô (中村喜代蔵) as Yaoya Oshichi (八百屋お七 c. 1667-1683) and Onoe Kikugorô I (尾上菊五郎) as Kichisaburô (吉三郎). They are dressed as itinerant minstrels in a play dramatizing the real-life Oshichi, daughter of the greengrocer Tarobei in Hongô, Edo. In December 1682, she fell in love with Ikuta Shônosuke (or Saemon), a temple page, during a fire at Shôsen-in, the family temple. The next year she attempted arson, thinking she could meet him again if another fire occurred. She was caught by police, brought to trial, and burnt at the stake. The story was adapted in popular fiction, puppet theater, and kabuki, usually turning Oshichi into a heroine who, rather than start a fire, climbs a fire tower to ring an alarm bell to open the city gates in order to save the life of her lover, whom she cannot otherwise reach because of a nightly curfew. The penalty, however, for sounding a false fire alarm was death.

Masanobu signed his print Hôgetsudô Tanchôsai Okumura Bunkaku Masanobu shôhitsu (From the genuine brush of Hôgetsudô Tanchôsai Okumura Bunkaku Masanobu: 方月堂丹鳥齋奥村文角政信正筆). This benizuri-e uses only two pigments, beni (紅 safflower, carthamus tinctorious) and green from a colorant mixture, probably aibana (藍花 dayflower blue, Commelina communis) + ukon (うこん tumeric, Curcuma domestica). The more vibrant green in post-1765 nishiki-e (full-color prints: 錦絵) was often ai (藍 indigo, Polygonum tinctorium Ait.) + yûô (雄黄 or sekiô 石黄, orpiment; mineral pigment arsenic sulfide As2S3). It should be noted that other combinations of blue and yellow pigments to make green were also used, although apparently less frequently. The excellent preservation of colors in this impression of Masanobu's design indicates how expressive and lovely the benizuri palette could be when applied by the finest artisan printers. The poem printed in red at the upper right reads Koko mo Ise fudan-zakura ni ai no yama ("Here again in Ise where the cherry trees bloom, we meet with the mountain of happiness"; see Vergez ref. below, p. 46)

Okumura Masanobu: Nakamura Kiyozô (中村喜代蔵) as Yaoya Oshichi (八百屋お七) and
Onoe Kikugorô I (尾上菊五郎) as Kichisaburô (吉三郎), benizuri-e, c. 1750, (447 x 308 mm)

Over the course of his career, Masanobu's body of work was consistently high in quality and, at key moments, innovative, earning him the admiration of many scholars who consider him the most influential ukiyo-e artist of the first half of the eighteenth century. Some of his prints were copied or forged even during his lifetime, so he urged potential print customers to look for his red gourd seal, while to his signature he sometimes added shô-hitsu ("genuine brush": 正筆) or shô-mei ("genuine name": 正名), or both.

Masanobu possessed some literary skill (his poetry teacher was Shôgetsudô Fûkaku Senô), publishing under the nom de plume Baiô (梅翁 "Old-Man Plum"). He produced, among other things, a simplified and entertaining version (some of it mitate or recasting within contemporary contexts) of various chapters of the Genji monogatari (Tale of Genji: 源氏物語), issued in four parts: (1) Wakakusa Genji monogatari (A young shoot's tale of Genji: 若草源氏物語), 1707; Hinazuru Genji monogatari (A fledgling’s tale of Genji: 雛鶴源氏物語), 1708; Kôhaku Genji monogatari (Red and white tale of Genji [alternately, "Autumn leaf and cherry blossom tale of Genji": 紅白源氏物語), 1709, and Zokuge Genji monogatari (A vernacular tale of Genji: 俗解源氏物語) 1710. To these Masanobu added his own adaptations of Tosa-style illustrations that effectively enhanced his retelling. It was, as Hillier wrote, "Genji for the masses." © 2020-2021 by John Fiorillo


  • Clark, Tim; Hockley, Allan; Morse, Anne Nishimura; and Virgin, Louise: The Dawn of the Floating World 1650-1765. Early Ukiyo-e Treasures from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2001, pp. 147-155, 172-175, nos. 53, 65 (texts by Tim Clark and Louise Virgin, respectively).
  • Clements, Rebekah and Kornicki, Peter: "The Latter Days of the Genji," in: Monumenta Nipponica, Autumn 2009, 64:2, pp. 363-72 (review article of Haruo Shirane (ed.), Envisioning The Tale of Genji: Media, Gender, and Cultural Production. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).
  • Derrick, M., Wright, J., and Newman, R.: "Characterization of Yellow and Red Natural Organic Colorants on Japanese Woodblock Prints by EEM Fluorescence Spectroscopy," in: Journal American Institute for Conservation, 2017, 56:3-4, 171-193.
  • Derrick, M., Wright, J., and Newman, R.: Plant Dye Identification in Japanese Woodblock Prints," in: Arnoldia vol. 74, no. 3, February 2017, pp. 12-28.
  • Gunsaulus, Helen: The Clarence Buckingham Collection of Japanese Prints: The Primitives. (Vol. 1). Art Institute of Chicago, 1955, pp. 116-174.
  • Hillier, Jack: The Art of the Japanese Book (vol. 1). London: Sotheby's Publications, 1987, pp. 139, 144-157.
  • Lane, Richard: Images from the Floating World: The Japanese Print. New York, 1978, pp. 65-68 and 78-79.
  • Newland, A.R. (editor): The Hotei Encyclopedia of Japanese Woodblock Prints (Vol. 2). Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2005, p. 478.
  • Roberts, Laurance: A Dictionary of Japanese Artists: Painting, Sculpture, Ceramics, Prints, Lacquer. Tokyo/New York: Weatherhill, 1976. p. 103.
  • Vergez, Robert: Early Ukiyo-e Master: Okumura Masanobu. Tokyo & New York: Kodansha, 1983.
spacer 16
Viewing Japanese Prints
Designed & Written by John Fiorillo
Site launched 1999
All texts and pictures are copyright © (All Rights Reserved)
and may not be reproduced without permission.