Less than Chuban: Japanese Miniature Woodblock
Japanese homemade paper, although varying among
different paper makers, was generally made in a size referred to as o-obosho. The most common size for Japanese woodblock
prints is referred to as oban, which is approximately 10.7 x 15 .6 inches, or half the size of an o-obosho sheet. Other formats
derive from divisions of the o-ohosho sheet, as well as a several other large standards. However, paper sizes varied from
era to era, and even within the same time period. Presently, paper makers may use the same terms in reference to slightly
different sized paper.
Although some authors have used the term miniature in reference to surimono, small prints
(frequently kaku-surimono or shikishiban in size) privately published for exchange within poetry circles, no tradition exists
that definitively demarcates a size at which point a print is considered miniature. For the purpose of this discussion, miniature
prints are defined as those that are smaller than chuban, a print size approximately half that of oban. This designation
seems appropriate since chuban and the larger oban format are the most prevalent sizes in print production. Table one includes
examples of some smaller print dimensions.
Table 1. Small Prints Sizes
7 x 8
Kaku-Surimono 7 x 8.5
Koban 6.75 x 9
Shikishiban 8 x 9
Yatsugiri-ban 3.75 x 5
Kokonotsugiri-ban 5.1 x 6.7 inches
Oban prints were generally
printed directly from oban-sized paper. Smaller prints, including chuban prints and miniatures were generally printed as more
than one print to an oban, or other larger sized sheet of paper, and then cut apart. In most cases, different designs were
printed together. However, for some very small designs, examples exist of multiple identical images printed on the same sheet.
In these cases, minor differences can be noted from image to image since the designs were carved more than once.
The production of a Japanese woodblock print in the ukiyo-e tradition was a collaborative process involving at least
1. A publisher commissioned an artist for a print design, often suggesting the theme based on
his perception of the market at the time.
2. The artist drew a design with black ink onto thin paper and indicated the
colors intended for different areas of the design.
3. Carvers pasted the artist’s image onto cherry wood. Excess
wood was then carved out between the lines of the drawing. Multiple black on white prints from the resulting image were produced
and pasted onto additional blocks of cherry wood. One block was then carved for each intended color, removing the wood for
all but the region for the specific color.
4. Expert printers inked the blocks, and in a sequential process built up
the final image by passing a sheet of paper from block to block and rubbing each color into the paper with a circular tool
called a baren. Often the printers experimented with different color combinations which may, or may not, have been under the
direction of the publisher or artist.
As the ukiyo-e tradition faded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
century, the print making collaborative also changed. Although some prints were still commissioned and produced in the traditional
manner, the publishers of shin hanga, or “new prints”, established new approaches to the production of prints.
These prints were mostly marketed for foreign tourists who had shown interest in the older woodblock prints following the
opening of the historically secluded Japan. This new marketing strategy often accounts for the idealistic depictions of old
Japan despite a country now yearning for industrial and westernized development.
Shin hanga artists more typically
produced a painting from which the publisher then had reproduced in the woodblock medium. This break with tradition would
cause little concern for most Japanese, since prints were, in contrast to the Western view, generally considered reproductions
rather than original works of art. Later, with the development of the sosaka hanga (creative prints) movement, many artists
chose to carve their own blocks, which they then had printed or printed themselves. These differences in print production
are not merely technical points, but important to any discussion of how to consider the originality of a miniature print along
a spectrum of different types of production.
With the advent of shin hanga, publishers often produced miniature
images of artist’s larger print designs. It is likely that the artist was no longer involved with print production when
a larger design was miniaturized. Smaller formats necessitated some simplification of the original images. In the case of
many shin hanga prints, simplification had already occurred, as an original painting had been adapted to the print medium.
With further miniaturization, the print moved a step further from the artist’s brush. Yet the carving and printing were
not compromised. Indeed, one could argue that an additional level of skill was required for a miniature print to favorably
impact the viewer. The delicacy of carving, and the use of such advanced printed techniques as karazuri (embossing), bokashi
(gradation of color), and the addition of metallic powders, are testament to the care and skill applied to miniature print
production, and argues against the view of miniatures as merely reproductions. However, it is inevitable that miniaturization
at times changed the essence of a print design. For example, the rendering of a larger shin hanga print into a miniature often
changes the feel of the print to be somewhat more reminiscent of ukiyo-e with a greater emphasis on simple lines and a more
Many miniature prints were produced as gift-card inserts. These were usually in yatsuguri-ban
size but some artist, most notably Hiroaki Shotei, designed even smaller prints for enclosures. Shotei’s prints stand
out in that most of the small images were created specifically for the amazing 2 1/8” by 3 1/16” size and, for
the most part, do not represent miniaturization of larger images. The only woodblock prints that appear to have been regularly
produced in smaller formats than these were those meant for matchbox covers. These latter prints are only 1 3/8” by
2 1/8” and often depict simple designs more reminiscent of comics than fine art. However, occasionally even these are
quite finely produced with such deluxe printing techniques as the addition of metal pigments and mica.
prints do not appear to have been delegated to a different standard of print production or importance, particularly in the
eyes of the savvy publishers of shin hanga. To emphasize the important role that miniature Japanese woodblock prints played,
it should be noted that it was an emphasis on the production of “postcard” sized prints by such famous artist’s
as Kawase Hasui (1883-1957) that helped the great publisher Watanabe revitalize his business after it burned to the ground,
woodblocks and all, in the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Although the descriptor ‘postcard” is applied to these
yatsugiri-ban sized prints, these were usually intended as card inserts rather than postcards. However, postcards were also
frequently printed by woodblock technique.
The Japanese postcard made it’s debue in December 1873, one year
and nine months after the establishment of the Japanese postal service. The first postcards were government issued and very
plain in appearance. In 1900, a change in the law allowed for the private production of postcards with the resultant opportunity
to explore this medium in artistic ways. Hand painted and woodblock printed postcards appeared on the scene but by 1910 other
printing techniques took dominance. Still some artists and publishers continued to print with the traditional woodblock techniques.
Many were purchased as souveniers and mailed of carried back home by foreign visitors. These prints covered a variety of topics.
Some reproduced in miniature established ukiyo-e classics such as prints of Utemaro, Shunco, and Hiroshige. Others were designed
by contemporary Meiji artists and share stylistic similarities with the Kuchi-e prints of the day.
sized prints leant themselves particularly well for book covers and page illustrations.
Koban and other miniature formats
were also a popular size for shunga, erotic images, which were produced either as single sheets or as pages of a “pillow
Another variety of prints, that were well suited for the miniature format, were senshafuda (or Senja
fuda),“thousand shrine cards”. Senshafuda are slips of paper bearing the names of people or businesses which are
pasted to the walls and pillars of shrines for the purpose of bringing good fortune to the person or group inscribed on the
card. More elaborate senshafuda were printed by woodblock with diverse graphic designs for the sole purpose of exchange and
collecting by members of senshafuda societies. Members of these societies engaged in two main activities. First they would
travel from shrine to shrine to affix simple senshafuda to the shrine walls and columns. They would also hold monthly meetings
(kokainkai) to exchange more elaborate senshafuda ,which were privately commissioned by the group and not for sale to the
general public. To indicate this designation, a convention of adding borders with indentations around the senshafuda was introduced.
The standard for the width of indentation size, “icchou fuda”, was established in 1887 and corresponded to one-sixteenth
of a double oban sheet of Japanese paper. Senshafuda that are double this width are referred to as "nicchou fuda".
In some cases the artist’s seal is found in the design and, occasionally, the carver is also identified. However, more
often the artist is not known.
Kuchi-e, literally “mouth pictures,” are named for their position of
insertion in the “mouth” (just after the cover) of literary magazines and novels. They were produced from about
1890 to 1914. Kuchi-e have recently become popular among collectors. They typically were printed using deluxe printing techniques
and are often found in well-preserved states owing to their protection under magazine covers over time. Kuchi-e are more typically
printed as 8 1/2” x 11 3/4” (plus an additional 3/4” “tail” for insertion) and demonstrate two
folds that were required for inclusion in the smaller magazines. This relatively large size would prohibit their inclusion
in a discussion of miniature prints. However, some Kuchi-e were produced in smaller formats, and appear without folds.
Other magazines also included woodblock prints. Some of these were specifically devoted to this purpose. For example the
short-lived magazine Shin Nagao-e (actor's new Portraits) was published in 1915 to promote images of Kabuki actors.
Small woodblock prints were also commissioned by galleries to promote artist’s exhibitions. These were at times miniaturizations
of larger prints offered for sale, but some also were designed specifically for the small format. In some cases these probably
represented small gifts to gallery patrons.
It might be easy to draw the conclusion from the above discussion
that miniature prints had a primarily commercial motive behind them, being produced as book and magazine illustrations, greeting
card inserts, inexpensive souvenirs, promotional items, and even matchbox covers. Indeed they did, but this could be equally
argued for oban or chuban sized prints produced in the ukiyo-e and shin hanga traditions, in that a publisher surveyed the
market and then commissioned artists to produce images that would be popular among print purchasers and, therefore, ensure
a profit. However, it is also true that artists appear to have been drawn to smaller formats purely for aesthetic reasons,
as well as the challenge of working within such a confined paper space.
Much is still to be discovered about the
history of miniature prints. Some of work has already been done. For example, books have been published on the topic of senshafuda,
although the information is inaccessible to those who do not read Japanese. Shunga have been studied extensively, although
miniature shunga, to the author’s knowledge, have not been treated as a separate subject. Digital images are also being
collected and documented in specialized web sites such as Shotei.com and Koitsu.com. Yet some basic knowledge, such as who
was directly involved in the creation of miniaturizations of larger images, remains unclear. Hopefully, a more focused interest
in miniature Japanese prints will lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of these small artistic treasures.
Special thanks to : Mathew Welch, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Toshi Doi, Tokyo, Japan
Ross Walker, Koitsu.com., Otsu, Japan
New York, New York
Marc Kahn, Shotei.com
Bronstein, Evanston, Illinois
Shingo, Ueda, Japan