In 1853, Commander Perry arrived in Edo Bay to negotiate with the government of Japan on behalf of the USA. After some fifty years of unsuccessful effort by western powers, this effort appeared foolish at the time. Ultimately, it however led to the end of the policy of Sakoku - the "secluded or closed country" - which had continued since 1633.
At Perry's arrival in Japan, western knowledge of Japan's rich and varied material cultures was largely restricted to export porcelains and lacquers, made in a style largely Japanese, partly Chinese and partly European. These pieces were exported from Nagasaki, where the Dutch East Indis Company maintained a small trading station.
As Perry arrived in Edo Bay, Japanese woodblock prints, an old and common art form in Japan, such as those of Hiroshige's landscapes and towscapes and the more varied forms of the Utagawa School were on sale in the streets of Edo, which would later be called Tokyo. These Japanese contemporary prints of this time were carried back to the western world by westerners.
Following Perry's expedition and the opening of Japan, educated Europeans began to visit in large numbers. Books about Japan, such as Sir Rutherford Alcock's The Capital of the Tycoon (1863) appeared. This was the first western book to discuss Japanese art. Sir Rutherford's collection of prints formed part of the Japanese section of the International Exhibition in London in 1862. Similar books and articles in France contemporaneous with Sir Rutherford's work started the west's love affair with Japanese prints that carried on to this day.
The first Japanese woodblock prints were made at temples and given free to believers. These prints were generally images of dieties or sections of sacred sutras. In the home or shop, these prints took the place of paintings and calligraphy which were too expensive for the common people. These early prints have been largely ignored by collectors and are historians who have instead focus on the secular prints of the Edo period (1600-1870). The primery subject matter of these Edo prints were either lovers or famous courtesans or kabuki actors.
The school of art best known in the west is the Ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints. The Japanese concept of Ukiyo (or the "floating world" came from Buddhism. Buddhism thaught that world joys are transient and that detachment from desire and craving would lead to understanding and enlightenment). In Edo Japan, this concept was twisted to be that if material joys were fleeting why not enjoy them to the fullest. The pictures(e) of these joys became Ukiyo-e, scenes of the floating world. These were first created in paintings but soon were also printed as single-sheet woodblock prints. Masters of this period starting with early artists are Hishikawa Moronoby (1615-1694), Suzuki Harunobu(1725-1770) who was the first to use full color printing, Kitagawa Utamaro(1753-1806), Toshusai Sharaku, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Ando Hiroshige(1797-1858).
The production of these prints virtually ended by the year 1912. Two different schools of print makers emerged to dominate the first half of the 20th century. They are Sosaku Hanga and Shin Hanga. The sosaku hanga movemnt was influenced by European ideas that the artist was central to all aspects of the printing process. The shin hanga movement was more traditional following the Ukiyo-e tradition. In the Shin Hanga movement, the publisher was most central which means the design, block making and printing were given to different artists.
After World War II many young Japanese artists were strongly influenced by Europe and the United States in style and technique. These contemporary prints are unique and separate from the earlier print making styles. Masters of this later period include Munakata Shiko (1903-1995) and Toda Shinoda who was born in 1913.