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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

Andreas Marks

History of East Asian Art
(PhD Students, March 1, 2005 - February 28, 2006)

The Tōkaidō Woodblock Print Series of Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1865)

The Tōkaidō 東海道 was the key highway of Japan in the Edo-period (1603–1868). Being part of a nationwide network of highways, it connected the two politically most important cities, Edo and Kyōto. No other highway has reached this level of attention and the status of a national symbol like the Tōkaidō. With the opening of Japan in the second half of the nineteenth century a modernization and industrialization began that changed the old life style completely. The Tōkaidō and all other highways lost their main function and with the building of railway- and telegraph-lines there was no need for traveling by foot or a courier system with horses.

In the seventeenth century an artistic examination of the Tōkaidō theme started. The Tōkaidō meishoki 東海道名所記 of Asai Ryōi 浅井了意 (1612–91) from 1659 describes the journey of the monk Raku-Amidabutsu. From 1797 is the compendium Tōkaidō meisho zue 東海道名所図会 of Akisato Ritō 秋里籬島 (1780–1814). Between 1802 and 1822 was the Tōkaidō chū hizakurige 東海道中膝栗毛 of Jippensha Ikku 十返舎一九 (1766–1831) about the funny bones Kitahachi and Yajirōbei published.

From 1804 to around 1890 about eighty woodblock print (ukiyo-e 浮世絵) series were designed either by one artist or in collaboration of various artists. Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760–1849) was the first artist who worked extensively on the Tōkaidō theme. The most famous of all is of course Utagawa Hiroshige and above all his so called “Hōeidō-series” Tōkaidō gojūsan tsugi no uchi 東海道五拾三次之内 from the years 1832 to 1833, with countless publications about it.

Without any doubt Utagawa Kunisada 歌川国貞 (1786–1865) was in his lifetime the most admired and most famous of all woodblock print artists in Japan. He was very well known throughout the whole country and even small children knew his name. Unlike today he was much more popular and respected than Hiroshige. Characteristic of his life is his enormous creative urge. His works are highly important especially for research in the field of the Kabuki theatre. He immortalized and documented all great plays and actors of his life time.

In the eighty years of his life several ten thousand prints were produced by Kunisada and his studio. The great popularity of Kunisada can be seen in the high number of copies of some prints. Especially noticeable is one print of the series Yakusha mitate Tōkaidō gojūsan tsugi no uchi 役者見立東海道五十三次之内 (“Imaginary Actors: Of the 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō”) with the title Okazaki-eki 岡崎駅, showing the actor Nakamura Utaemon IV 四代目中村歌右衛門 in the role of Masaemon政右衛門. 3,000 to 4,000 copies were already a success, but of this print the unbelievable number of 7,000 copies was produced.

The aim of my research is to show the position and importance of Kunisadas Tōkaidō-series both in the history of ukiyo-e and in his oeuvre. These series can be categorized into the following types: a) all prints are signed by Kunisada, b) all prints were made as a joint work of two artists and are therefore signed by Kunisada and a fellow artist, and c) only some prints of a series are signed by Kunisada and the others are from various artists. I have found the following series with a connection to the Tōkaidō: Tōkaidō gojūsan tsugi no uchi 東海道五十三次之内 (c. 1833), Gojūsan tsugi no uchi 五十三次ノ内 (1835), Mitate yakusha gojūsantsui no uchi 見立役者五十三對ノ内 (c. 1835), Tōkaidō gojūsan tsui 東海道五十三對 (c. 1845–46), Yakusha mitate Tōkaidō gojūsan tsugi no uchi 役者見立東海道五十三次之内 (1852–53), Tōkaidō gojūsan tsugi 東海道五十三次 (1852–53), Sōhitsu gojūsan-tsugi 雙筆五十三次 (1854–57), Tōkaidō gojūsan tsugi 東海道五十三次 (1857), Tōkaidō iroha nikki 東驛いろは日記 (1861), Tōkaidō meisho fūkei 東海道名所風景 (1863), Tōkaidō gojūsan tsugi meiga no kakiwake 東海道五十三駅名画之書分 (1864).

Based on this analysis and the emphasis of the influence of Kunisada during his lifetime and to his successors his important and today unfortunately forgotten status for the history of ukiyo-e should be underlined.

The following questions will be asked when examining the eleven Tōkaidō-series:

  • How does Kunisadas Tōkaidō-series fit into the history and development of the Tōkaidō-series in general. Has Kunisada introduced a new viewpoint and a new way of visualising the Tōkaidō?
  • Has he influenced other artists in any way?
  • Which inspirations and co-operations can be found?
  • How does the Tōkaidō-series interact with Kunisadas oeuvre?
  • What is the role of the landscape in his prints?
  • How are the separate parts of a print put together?
  • Intertextuality and symbolism (famous poems, legends, parts of novels etc.)—Are these symbols appearing in all series and are they always connected to a specific post station?
  • Is the primary function not contrary to the title, or is the title misleading and the emphasis of a series is different (e.g. actors)?
  • How is Kunisada dependent on the wishes of his audience, and what is the genesis of the different series?


Association of Asian Studies, Inc.
Society for Japanese Arts
国際浮世絵学会 (International Ukiyo-e Society)
Ukiyo-e Society of America, Inc.