Japanese Otsu-e (大津絵): Traditional Folk Art of Otsu

Japanese Otsu-e (大津絵): Traditional Folk Art of Otsu

Otsu-e is a traditional form of Japanese folk art that originated in the town of Otsu in Shiga prefecture. This unique art form involves the painting of simple and colorful images on paper, wood, or other materials, and it has a long and fascinating history. It was known as a souvenir or talisman among travelers on the Tokaido Highway. In this blog post, we will explore the origins, features, and significance of Otsu-e.

The name "Otsu-e" is also attached to the moto-song, onkyoku, and mokyoku (Otsu-e-bushi), which are based on Otsu-e paintings, and to a type of Japanese dance based on Otsu-e-bushi (Otsu-e odori).


Origins of Otsu-e

Otsu-e has its roots in the Edo period (1603-1868), a time of great artistic and cultural flourishing in Japan. During this time, Otsu became an important stopping point on the Tokaido, a major road connecting Tokyo and Kyoto. As a result, many traveling artists and merchants passed through Otsu, and they brought with them a variety of artistic styles and techniques.

Otsu-e originated in Oiwake, Omi-no-kuni (Bearded Tea House Oiwake), located on the west side of the Osaka Pass on the Tokaido Highway. They began to be painted as Buddhist paintings around the Kan'ei period (1624-1644). Initially painted as a part of religious beliefs, they eventually turned into secular paintings, and from around the 18th century, they began to be accompanied by didactic and satirical dokas.

Matsuo Basho's haiku, "What a Buddha at the beginning of the brush of Otsu-e" expresses the characteristics of early Otsu-e, which were mostly Buddhist paintings. It is said that Otsu-e also served as a cover for the suppression of Christianity in the early Edo period (1603-1868), when many Buddhist paintings were produced.

Features of Otsu-e

The paintings depict gods and Buddha, people, and animals with a humorous touch, and are accompanied by douga. Many of the paintings and dōka express satirical lessons about human relationships and society.

Otsu-e is known for its charming and whimsical style, which features simple and bold lines, bright colors, and humorous characters. Here are some of the key features of Otsu-e:

  1. Simple images: Otsu-e often depicts everyday scenes and ordinary people, such as farmers, merchants, and fishermen.
  2. Bold lines: Otsu-e is characterized by thick, bold lines that give the images a strong and dynamic appearance.
  3. Humorous characters: Otsu-e often includes humorous and exaggerated characters, such as animals with human-like expressions or people with comical features.
  4. Bright colors: Otsu-e is known for its vibrant and eye-catching colors, which are often applied in bold, flat blocks.


    Significance of Otsu-e

    Otsu-e has a rich cultural and historical significance in Japan. Here are some of the ways that Otsu-e is significant:

    1. Folk art tradition: Otsu-e is a prime example of Japanese folk art, which celebrates ordinary people and everyday life.
    2. Cultural heritage: Otsu-e is considered an important part of Japan's cultural heritage and is celebrated in festivals and exhibitions throughout the country.
    3. Tourism: Otsu-e is a popular attraction for tourists visiting Otsu and the surrounding region.
    4. Artistic inspiration: Otsu-e has influenced many contemporary artists and designers, who draw inspiration from its simple and charming style.


      Utagawa Kuniyoshi, "Ryu-ryu-ai-toe kyudai rarimonotsu

      This painting was a specialty of Otsujuku on the Tokaido Highway throughout the Edo period (1603-1867). Zatou" (a man who cannot fall down), "Hyoutananma" (a catfish with a gourd), "Yari-mochi-no-yakko" (a man with a spear), "Benkei" (a fireman), "Arrowroot Man" (a demon exterminator), etc.). The number of painting themes continued to increase and reached its peak at the end of the Edo period, but the number decreased as the themes were simplified, and today there are more than 100 types of paintings.

      In the Meiji period (1868-1912), a number of painters and collectors began collecting Otsu-e, and collectors of Otsu-e began to appear and exhibitions were held.



      Otsu-e is a unique and charming form of Japanese folk art that has a long and fascinating history. Its simple and colorful images have captured the imaginations of people for centuries and continue to inspire artists and designers today. If you ever have the chance to visit Otsu or see an exhibition of Otsu-e, be sure to take a moment to appreciate the artistry and creativity of this beloved tradition.

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