A timeline for the introduction of synthetic dyestuffs in Japan during the late Edo and Meiji periods

Cesaratto, Anna; Luo, Yan-Bing; Smith II, Henry D.; Leona, Marco

A widespread belief among scholars and connoisseurs of the Japanese color woodblock print (nishiki-e) holds that synthetic dyes were imported from the West in the 1860s, and soon came to be used for all nishiki-e colorants during the Meiji period. These “cheap imported aniline dyes” are widely described as “gaudy”, “garish”, and “strident”, and thought to stand in sharp contrast to more muted “natural” colorants that preceded them. This study calls this narrative into question through an analysis of the colorants of nishiki-e from 1860 until 1900, using surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy coupled with micro-Raman, XRF and fiber optic reflectance spectroscopies. The results show that the introduction of synthetic dyes was gradual and selective, and that most of the customary colorants of the late Edo period continued in use. The results revealed a series of key turning points after 1860: (1) In 1864, the purple dye rosaniline became the first synthetic dye to be used in nishiki-e, at first in combination with Prussian blue for a more bluish color. From 1875, it was usually mixed or replaced with methyl violet for a stronger purple. (2) In early 1869, a dramatic and until recently unrecognized transition took place, from the longstanding use of safflower as the dominant red, to its total replacement by imported cochineal carmine. Carmine remained the primary red for the next two decades, often combined with vermillion. (3) In 1877, eosine appeared as the first synthetic red dye in nishiki-e, used alone for pink, and in mixture with carmine for red. (4) Finally, from 1889, a succession of red naphthol dyes of more striking color appeared. Just about this time, however, a tendency to more restrained use of color and more painterly effects began to emerge in nishiki-e, and with the exception of a burst of dynamic color in prints depicting the Sino–Japanese War (1894–95), the uses of strong colors in Meiji prints receded. A final key finding is that colorants were often combined, either through mixture in a bowl or on the printing block, or by two-step overprinting.

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Also Published In

Heritage Science

More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Published Here
April 24, 2018


Japanese woodblock prints, nishiki-e, ukiyo-e, Synthetic colorants, Aniline dyes, Eosin, Naphthol reds, Inks for chromolithography, Micro-Raman spectroscopy, SERS