Edo Iconography: Reading Popular Prints in Early Modern Japan

Woodblock print - Shokujo,the heavenly weaver riding on one of her husband's bulls. Artist: Suzuki Harunobu (鈴木春信) © The Trustees of the British Museum
Third Thursday lecture - Sainsbury Institute

Thursday 21 January, 2021
6:00pm GMT


Dr Matsuba Ryoko (Sainsbury Institute)

We are pleased to announce that this month’s Third Thursday Lecture will be presented online via Zoom. You can enjoy the lecture live from the comfort of your own home, complete with slides and an audience Q&A. We look forward to seeing you there virtually, and we particularly welcome new attendees.

About the Talk

A vigorous commercial publishing industry emerged in Japan in the mid 17th century and flourished until around the 1880s, during the early years of the Meiji period. The publishing industry made it possible for relatively inexpensive prints and illustrated books to be disseminated more widely. The more popular side of the industry was able to thrive because both artists and their audience shared an established iconography that allowed for the immediate recognition of themes and the appreciation of playful parodies.

Images such as that of a woman riding a bull along a river, which can be seen in prints for example by the pioneering ukiyo-e artist Suzuki Harunobu (1724-1770), have been suggested by scholars to have different readings, though we cannot be sure of exactly what the artist originally implied. In order to fully understand printed images such as these from the Edo period in the present day, requires us to recognise and decipher the visual codes utilised in them.

This lecture will discuss how early modern print production responded to and interacted with images from other genres and cultures. It also explores the importance of copying for the wide dissemination of iconographies, allowing us to gain an understanding of cultural diversity in early modern Japan. By following the borrowing and adaptation of imagery we will also come to understand how woodblock print iconography was established in Japan.

About the Speaker

Matsuba Ryoko (PhD, Ritsumeikan University) is a Senior Digital Humanities Officer at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures. She helped with the curation and co-edited the catalogue for the major recent Manga exhibition (2019) at the British Museum. She was part of the team that produced the exhibition and catalogue Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave (2017) at the British Museum and was a project member of the Late Hokusai project at SOAS, University of London. She is currently coordinating a joint project between the Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University and the Sainsbury Institute to create a comprehensive digital archive of the collections of Japanese paintings, prints, illustrated books and decorative arts at the British Museum and other UK institutions.

How to book

Booking is essential. Use our booking form or email us.

We will send you an email prior to the event containing a Zoom link and instructions for joining us. To view the lecture or participate in the Q&A, please click on the link provided and enter your details when prompted.


If after booking you can no longer attend join the event, please let us know via email at the address linked above and we will remove you from the booking list.

If you have any questions or concerns about this event, please contact us.

This event is part of the Japan-UK Season of Culture 2019-2020

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The Third Thursday Lecture series is funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation and Yakult UK.