Assessing the first three decades of the 18th century Well then, having a closer look at three decades of print publishing next to a just a little older tradition of picture books, what can we say. Looking at numbers, we might be looking at some 55 single prints in the period from the 1670s, 1680s, and 1690s – including quite a few that are probably plates detached from albums of some kind – whereas the 1700s, 1710s, and 1720s would, in Higuchi’s count, see some 270 single prints. Interestingly, in the seventeenth century, we only find just seven prints representing kabuki actors in role, whereas these would make out almost 125 of the 270 single prints datable to the early eighteenth century. Yet, the turning point, when we see prints of actors making up the majority of single prints, would only be from the 1740s. And the fact that the vast majority of these prints of actors are based on the new year’s (44% in the 1710s, 43% in the 1720s) and the kaomise performances of the eleventh month (24% in the 1710s, 35% in the 1720s), seem to suggest that there is not yet something like a real fanatic kabuki audience as we will see that much later in the century, from the Meiwa-Anei periods. Indeed, until the 1770s, prints after the performances in the 1st and 11th month would always amount to more than 60 percent of the annual production, Only in the 1750s do we see a percentage of 11 for prints in the 3rd month, and of 10 for the 7th month. It is also quite interesting to notice that the atmosphere in the Kansai area is quite different. Even though we saw the earliest critiques of courtesans and actors being published from the 1650s in Kyoto, there is nothing like some serious output of prints of actors in role in either Kyoto or Osaka, until really much later, in the early nineteenth century.

The circumstance that, indeed, single prints prove to be a marketable commodity, becomes clear from their rapid increase in numbers from the beginning of the eighteenth century. Moreover, whereas they are naturally printed in line only, sumizurie, they are before soon hand-coloured in a conspicuous vermillion red, the so-called tane that we see from 1678 to 1723. Then, developments come rapidly, first in the form of so-called ‘lacquer prints,’ urushie (漆繪), flowering from 1717 to 1752, that is partly overlapping with the final years of the tane. And then we shall see more innovations to come in the following decades.

Probably a most unmistakable indication that the popular printing business of both picture books and single prints is really taking off, is provided by the government issuing regulations, the so-called Kyōhō Reforms. Issued in VII/1721, there is some concern about books from Kyoto and Osaka being imported into Edo, and even about new books in general, that can only be printed with special permission. What this really means, we cannot know, but the Tokugawa bakufu just loves vague formulations that could be applied whenever they saw fit. More clear or less ambiguous is the decree banning reports of current events, or news, unless they announced misemono performances or exhibitions, such as touring acrobats, circus-like performances, or the display of artworks. A slightly later decree, of XI/1722, bans works on heterodox ideas, that is contrary to accepted Confucianist, Buddhist, Shintoist writings, or medical treatises or collections of poetry. They also consider that ‘Among the works that are being published, those belonging to the kind of books of sensuality and lust, kōshokubon, should, as they are not suitable for the morals, be gradually rectified and one should abstain from them.’ And from now on, all new publications must show the real names of author and publisher in the colophon, no pseudonym. As the publishing guild is made responsible for the inspection of all new publications, we can now have access to at least the records of the Kyōhō to the Meiji periods for Osaka, whereas for Edo, only the records for 1727 to 1815 have survived. [1] Even though, many titles are simply missing.

Quite interestingly, as already remarked above, we can see some print designers even venturing titled series of prints, such as Torii Kiyonobu, who designed two series titled Eight Views of Edo (Edo hakkei 江戸八景) in the 1720s, then there is a series of Eight Views of Kanazawa (Kanazawa hakkei 金沢八景) in the 1710s-20s by an anonymous designer, and still in the 1720s a series of Eight Views in the Province of Ōmi, that is of Lake Biwa(Ōmi hakkei 近江八景) by Okumura Masanobu, and in the 1730s there is a series on the Five Annual Festivals (Gosekku 五節句) also by Masanobu, as well as an anonymous series of Eight Views of the Yoshiwara (Yoshiwara hakkei 吉原八景).

On the one hand, these confirm that single prints were such a well-established commodity by the 1720s that even titled series were marketable, or maybe that a series title would incite people to go for it and buy a group of prints rather than just one. Preferably though, these would be small series of five or eight designs only, but eventually there would also be series of twelve designs. On the other hand, these help us reconstruct the larger picture. If we know, for example, of only one design from a series of eight, we are looking at a survival rate of 12.5%, whereas five out of eight designs point to a survival rate of 62%. Applying these figures and percentages more generally, the Higuchi inventory probably only covers 30% at the most. This not only helps us realize that Kiyonobu’s oeuvre in the format of single prints might well amount to 140 or more, or 160 when we decide to use an even larger margin and multiply by 3.5 (Mutō lists 65 Kiyonobu prints of actors). Kiyomasu’s oeuvre would then be something like 210 (Mutō has 80, just prints of actors), and for Okumura Masanobu, indeed, a figure of some 390 single prints seems more likely than the mere 111 that Higuchi lists (here Mutō lists 184 prints of actors). So, how should we see the Mutō inventory, something like 50% of the total production? – I will come back to this question later.

Applying the 3.5 multiplication to the totals of single prints for the 1700s (the figures for the seventeenth century are probably corrupted anyway), we get some 65 for the 1700s, 440 for the 1710s, and 450 for the 1720s. The increase we already see here, is just confirmed in the following decades, with, for example, 660 for the 1740s. But then, we shouldn’t forget that these 660 single prints just mean an annual average of 66 prints, or just 5.5 prints being issued each month. Most likely, it cannot be denied that single prints are merely a side-product for publishers of picture books and occasional illustrated novels, and that they only begin to make out an important market much later, in the 1770s.

[1] A rather practical guide to these records is Sakamoto Muneko, Kyōhō igo – Hanmotobetsu shoseki mokuroku. Osaka: Seibundō, 1982.