The 61th feature exhibition

Ukiyo-e from various aspects: The Color Blue
Sep 6 (Tue), 2016 – Dec 4 (Sun), 2016

This museum exhibits ukiyo-e prints and paintings produced in Osaka in the Edo period. One of ukiyo-e’s attractions is that though it has limited variation of colors there are rich colorfulness on a single sheet of paper.

To print ukiyo-e, in addition to sumi-ink which is basic, botanical and mineral pigments and foreign-made pigments are also used. Prussian blue, in particular, is the color that made ukiyo-e known to the world.

In this feature exhibition we focus on the color “blue”. Along with introducing pigment like “prussian blue”, we’ll show you variety of traditional blue colors used in ukiyo-e. Please enjoy the delicate nuance of “blue”s in ukiyo-e.
info61Drawn by Kunihiro
A scene in “Kokusen-ya Kassen”
Portrait of Watonai, the leading character, played by Arashi Rikan II


There are two kinds of pigments used in ukiyo-e paintings. One is botanical pigment produced from plants such as dayflower and Japanese indigo plant, and the other is chemical pigment such as prussian blue or berlin blue.

The color blue that is produced from dayflower had been used from the early stage of producing colored woodblock, but it easily fades into brown when exposed to light and oxygen, so we cannot find almost any dayflower-blue in extant ukiyo-e.

Instead of using dayflower-blue, Japanese indigo plants came to be used to make the color blue for ukiyo-e. Quality of the color blue abstracted from Japanese indigo plants were improved in the Bunsei period but it was unsuitable for shading.

Prussian blue or berlin blue is an inorganic synthetic compound pigment which includes iron. It was discovered in Berlin in 1704 and began to be used in ukiyo-e in the Tempo period (1830-45). As it was water-soluble and was fit for shading, it was used a lot in Hokusai’s landscape paintings and brought about the golden age of landscape paintings in ukiyo-e.

It is difficult to distinguish these “blue”s with naked eyes but you can see the brighter blue increasingly became dominant in ukiyo-e as time went by.


Japanese traditional sensibility has grown in nature such as flowers and trees, and four seasons. This sensibility exists not only in the field of art and literature but also in the way of coordidating colors and patterns of kimono and obi.

These colors have specific Japanese name. Rich sensibility gives similar colors different names. The most famous example is layering of garments such as juni hitoe, layered kimono.

In the Edo period when ukiyo-e were mainly produced, the new “blue”s were invented through innovation of dyeing industry and in addition to the traditional “blue”s, a variety of “blue”s were popularized as cool.


The colors used in kumadori (unique make-up for kabuki actors) have meanings. While red kumadori means the character has a strong sense of justice, blue kumadori shows that the character plays the villain’s part such as kuge-aku, the evil aristocrat.


Kabuki actors invented the pattern and the color specific to them relating to their names to get popularity. In the Edo period austere colors such as brown and dark gray were regarded as cool, and kabuki actors used their favorite colors in their costume to emphasize their individuality. Ukiyo-e helped to popularize “the color of actors”.

The color that Segawa Kikunojo II liked. Segawa Kikunojo III and V also liked the color.

Also known as the color of persimmon. The Ichikawa family used this color for generations from the Ichikawa Danjuro I.

The color that Nakamura Utaemon III liked. His pen name of a haiku poet was Shikan.

Unlike indigo blue which is a blend of indigo blue and bright yellow, hanada is pure blue produced from indigo plant. Very dark indigo blue was called Kachi-iro (victory color) therefore the color was often used in armor.

Hanada was also called “the color of flower (here the flower means dayflower)” in the Edo period. As Ichikawa Danjuro used this austere blue, masuhana, which was a blend of hanada and asagi colors, this color was named after the family cresta of the Ichikawa family (mi-masu).

In the process of indigo dyeing, textile are repeatedly put into dyeing liquid, more you put, darker it becomes. Asagi is the lighter indigo blue. Samurais who wore a haori, a short coat, with asagi-colored cotton lining were made fun of because the cotton lining was regarded as unrefined, but asagi is also the color of the shinsengumi samurais’ haori at the end of the Edo period.

Onando is darker indigo blue than asagi and represents “blue” in the Edo period. Dark greyish onando is called sabinando, reddish-black (like iron) onando is called tetsunando, purplish onando is called murasakinando. Matsumoto Koshiro IV used korainando, which is dark greenish onando.

Wakamurasaki is the name of a chapter in The Tale of Genji, It is not until the Edo period when the word wakamurasaki appears as the name of color. After all-adult-male kabuki was established, wakamurasaki-color hat became often used to hide sakayaki (shaved part of the forehead of a man) of a male actor who plays female role.

In a kabuki play “Sukeroku yukarino Edozakura”, there is a line that says “wearing an edomurasaki-color headband”. The color describes “coolness” of people living in Edo. Edomurasaki is produced from the root of murasaki, the plant (also used as a medicine). People with illness put the edomurasaki-color (dyed with murasaki) headband with a knot on his/her left forehead but Sukeroku ties the knot on his right forehead to show his high spirits.

While edomurasaki is blueish purple, kyomurasaki is reddish purple. Both colors are produced from the plant murasaki’s root, but depending on the blending ratio of lye or vinegar, either colors come out. Yugiri, Isaemon’s lover, who is recovering from illness, wears headband as a trademark.

Although its name includes the word “murasaki”, this color is not produced from the expensive murasaki’s root. Nisemurasaki means “false murasaki” and is produced by blending indigo blue and suo (red). “Nisemurasaki Inaka Genji” is a parody of The Tale of Genji which connects Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji, to the title.