Of all forms of artistic expression, ukiyo-e woodblock prints depicting life in the “floating world” of Edo Japan (1603-1868) have probably done the most to popularize Japanese art beyond its borders.

Ever since they were discovered by western travelers when Japan opened its doors to trade and diplomatic relations after more than two centuries of an isolationist policy, Japanese woodblock prints, with their stylized, unapologetically two dimensional portrayals of a pleasure-seeking lifestyle, have been valued and beloved worldwide for their distinctively Japanese aesthetic.

While ukiyo-e are no longer the social phenomenon they were in the floating world days of Edo Japan, print-making continues to thrive as a vibrant form of expression, as evidenced by the sheer volume and variety of prints on display at the annual Print Show organized by the College Women’s Association of Japan.

The CWAJ Print Show displays and sells the work of a broad range of contemporary artists, from those who are already household names, such as Tadanori Yokoo and Toko Shinoda, to first time participants who are just beginning their artistic careers.

CWAJ lithograph

“Quietude” by Toko Shinoda, 2007, lithograph, 70 x 100 cm ed 28

This year, the work of 213 artists will be shown from October 23rd until the 27th at the Hillside Forum in Daikanyama, central Tokyo. The pieces have been selected by a jury from about 800 submissions by artists currently residing in Japan, with the exception of a few works by guest artists.

Already in its 63rd year, the Print Show has evolved considerably since its inception and the prints on display this year reflect the wide variety of printing techniques available today, from woodblock to engraving and mezzotint to intaglio, as well as a cacophony of styles. The first show in 1956 featured 91 works all of which were woodblock prints.

There are few print shows with the history and breadth of the CWAJ annual exhibition, which has undoubtedly done much to ensure that print-making in Japan has continued to evolve and thrive as a form of artistic expression.

With a history spanning more than six decades, and with more than 200 prints on display, the show offers a unique opportunity to witness the evolution of print-making in Japan, discover the work of talented artists and support a worthy cause all in one go.

As in past shows, there are a significant number of works, whether done in woodblock or silkscreen, that stand out for their recognizably “Japanese” look of decorative and stylized forms.

For example, neither “Chrysanthemum in Autumn,” a woodcut in hues of yellow and green by Masahiko Honjo nor “Poppy No.13,” a silkscreen by Kazutoshi Sugiura, would look out of place on a folding screen from the 18th century.

“Poppy No. 13” by Kazutoshi Sugiura, 2018, silkscreen, 39 x 28 cm ed 25

Scenery and subject matter that are widely associated with Japanese art abound.

“Birthday,” by Kunio Kaneko is a woodblock of a time-honored theme – carp – while “TEA SERVING DOLL,” a linocut by Raifu Hirota, depicts a traditional subject with a contemporary twist – the doll in question is, in fact, a robot.

“Birthday” by Kunio Kaneko, 2019, woodcut, 39 x 58 cm, ed 150

“TEA SERVING DOLL” by Raifu Hirota, 2019, linocut, 77 x 58 cm, ed 22

Prints with traditional Japanese themes have always been a major draw of the Print Show, which has a long history of support from foreign buyers.

The CWAJ, which began life in 1949, is a nonprofit organization providing scholarships to Japanese women studying abroad, non-Japanese women studying in Japan and to visually impaired men and women studying either in Japan or abroad. Recently, it has added a scholarship program for nursing students in Fukushima.

The Print Show was conceived as a way for the CWAJ to raise funds for its scholarship programs and many of its early buyers were foreign residents and visitors to Japan who could afford to indulge in artistic appreciation at a time when most ordinary Japanese were focussed on trying to improve their living standards.

Henry Kissinger, top assistant to then President Richard Nixon, acquired four prints from the 1972 show. The author, James Michener, who was an avid collector of Japanese prints, amassing a collection of thousands of prints, was on the selection committee in 1971. 

While Japanese themes and artistic touches remain popular even today, there are plenty of works on display that can hardly be categorized as Japanese, but reflect a broad range of stylistic influences and subject matter.

“Praise the Darkness (from J.L. Borges),” by Michiko Hoshino, is a dark and somewhat unsettling lithograph, which references Francisco Goya’s nightmarish etchings.

At the other extreme are colorful, dizzying works that harken back to the poster art of the 1960s, beginning with Yokoo’s silkscreen, “[Dream Arabesque].”

[Dream Arabesque] by Tadanori Yokoo, 2017, silkscreen, 105 x 76 cm, ed 30

I could not help thinking I must have seen “Smokes 18-4,” a lithograph by Takeshi Hara, somewhere, sometime in the Age of Aquarius.

Yoshikatsu Tamekane’s woodcut, “Time Axis,” juxtaposes dark vertical and horizontal panels with blurred gradations of blue and feather-like objects that seem to be fluttering down into a deep void. It is a visual representation of his belief that “we are like ships that carry life as it travels through time and space,” he notes.

“Time Axis” by Yoshikatsu Tamekane, 2017, woodcut, 67 x 49 cm, ed 20

Keiko Nakamura’s “in between 17,” has shades of blue, gray and black swirling like a raging tornado.

“in between 17” by Keiko Nakamura, 2019 silkscreen/woodcut/collage, 39 x 48 cm, ed 15

Keisuke Yamamoto’s “Light Time Silence #29,” is a lithograph in black and white depicting an empty room with a lone empty chair facing three open windows. At first glance it looks like a photograph, with the sheer curtains billowing in the wind enhancing the sense of loneliness.

“Light Time Silence #29” by Keisuke Yamamoto, 2017, lithograph, 70 x 95 cm ed 28

“The empty space is a reflection of my view of the world as a lonely place and the chair placed there is the object on which I project myself,” Yamamoto explains.

The CWAJ Print Show Award went to “Blue and Purple,” an abstract lithograph by Tomoko Ogoshi, which teases the viewer into peering beyond the  brush-like strokes of white ink that cover the canvas to decipher what lies beneath.

“Blue & Purple” by Tomoko Ogoshi, 2018, lithograph, 55 x 50 cm, ed 20

The diverse range of styles means that there are prints to cater to a broad range of tastes and therein lies one of the key features of the CWAJ Print Show.

Unlike museum exhibitions, this show is not aimed at showcasing groundbreaking work or exploring an artistic trend or social theme, but is primarily a commercial and charitable enterprise. 

For CWAJ, it is a major source of funds for its scholarship programs and for participating artists, the show provides a much-needed venue for promoting and selling their work.

“A major motivation for participating in the show is that the prints sell well,” says Yamamoto, who has shown work at the Print Show for 11 years .

The commercial success of the show has also played an invaluable role in nurturing budding print artists in Japan by providing them with publicity, an opportunity to display their work alongside more established artists and the moral support of an enthusiastic audience.

“When I was young, I was so grateful to the CWAJ for selling my work,” said Tamekane, a 26-year veteran of the show. 

Tamekane is already well established with pieces in the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and is no longer likely to need the extra publicity. 

But he continues to provide pieces for the Print Show in support of its charitable objectives. Participating artists, many of whom offer their work at a fraction of the price they would normally attract, donate 50 per cent of their sales to CWAJ.

Yokoo, one of Japan’s best-known contemporary artists whose work has been shown at prestigious museums around the world, has been a participant for 40 years. Shinoda, who is among the most widely collected Japanese artists today, is a 50-year veteran of the show.

Print art does not usually command the eye-popping prices associated with today’s top-selling works of art in the west. And for many emerging print artists it can be a struggle to win recognition and financial stability through their art.

Yet print-making continues to attract artists for reasons that are partly cultural and partly emotional.

Tamekane says the tradition of making prints for New Year’s cards nurtured his interest in the medium.  He also cites features particular to print-making – the uncertainty of the process, the distinctive color gradations of woodblock printing, the ability to create original art in multiple numbers and the irregularities peculiar to print-making, or what he calls the “magic of print-making” – as compelling factors.

Yamamoto agrees that the emotional rollercoaster ride that comes with print-making is a major attraction of the medium. 

“The excitement and suspense I feel when what I have drawn is printed on paper, the joy I experience when I feel I was able to create something exceeding my skills, or the sadness I feel when the opposite happens, are feelings that I believe…everyone who makes prints has experienced,” he notes.