The art of Japanese woodblock printing (mokuhanga) originated in the 9th century as a method of spreading Buddhist teachings, similar to the Western illuminated manuscripts. The simplicity of the technique facilitated its use across Asia, although it did require an artist, carver, and printer. Traditionally used for bookmaking, the practice expanded its horizons and became an art form. The method flourished in the Edo period, a newly unified Japan emerging from isolation to thrive in the globalizing world.
Coinciding with the modernization that occurred in Japan after the Edo-period, the new prints produced were called ‘sosaku-hanga’ (creative printmaking), where artists strayed from traditional methods and made use of their own creative license. Since, the art flourished, and Japan is considered home to water-based woodblock printing.
Up against lithography, etching, and silkscreen printing, this classic technique is regarded as the simplest printing medium. First, the terrain of the wood block must be altered; areas where it is carved will result in negative space in the composition. Then, ink is painted onto the block for color. The last step is transferring the ink to the paper by rubbing the paper with a special tool called a baren.
The age-old technique has modern applications as well. The Singapore rapid transit authority has recently rolled out a collection of train-courtesy advertisements, featuring common unpleasant train encounters done in the style of Edo-period woodblock prints. Due to the Western alienation of Eastern culture through the 19th century, many collections are just now coming to light, and exhibitions are being premiered all the way from Oklahoma to London.