Tokyo nichinichi shinbun nishiki-e masthead

Nishiki-e shinbun and Newspapers in Meiji Japan

The Rise of Daily Newspapers  

With the end of the Tokugawa shogun government in 1868 and the beginning of the Meiji reformation, which sought to modernize and Westernize Japan, the Meiji government sought to create an informed citizenry.  Along with the establishment of compulsory education in 1872 the government encouraged the fledgling Japanese press to "write for commoners… and to speed the people along the path of 'civilization and enlightenment' (bunmei kaika)."1  Many early Meiji officials saw newspapers as “tools to be used … [and] bureaus and bureaucrats alike ‘financed and established’ newspapers quite generously, and the early 1870s saw the emergence of a press that was, essentially, an arm of the government."2

Broadening Readership

The first daily newspaper to develop a sizable readership (5.5M copies annually by 1877)3 was Tokyo’s Yomiuri Shinbun, first published on November 2, 1874.  In order to reach a less educated readership, it augmented its kanji writing (which could only be read by the better educated) with furigana, the phonetic aids intended to make kanji characters easier to understand.4  Competing for readership with the Yomuri shinbun were a number of daily papers including the Tokyo mainichi shinbun, the Tokyo nichinichi shinbun and the Yubin hochi shinbun. 

In addition to reporting on political and social/moral issues to enlighten the population, the dailies covered more sensational events such as spectacular fires, mad-dog attacks, ghost reports, miraculous recoveries, and crime [e.g. "poison women" (dokufu) stories about women who gained notoriety for crimes ranging from fraud and extortion to murder.]  These stories, of course, increased readership and built circulation.  

Woodblock Prints and the Press

At the same time that the daily newspapers were trying to increase circulation, the woodblock industry, consisting of publishers, book/print stores, artists and craftsmen, were looking for ways to revive their flagging sales.  One way that served both industries was to take the juiciest stories from the dailies and illustrate them with colorful single sheet woodblock prints published under the auspices of the newspapers.  These woodblock prints called nishiki-e shinbun (“brocade picture newspapers”) included both text and pictures and sold for between 1.6 to 2 sen (a sen is 1/100 of a yen), making them affordable to ordinary working people.5  The text was mostly written, using furigana and katahana to enhance readability,6 by popular writers of light novels7 and the pictures were drawn by woodblock print artists of the day, such as Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), who mainly drew for the Yubin hochi shinbun and Utagawa Yoshiiku (1833-1904), who mainly drew for the Tokyo nichinichi shinbun, which he co-founded in 1872. 

While the Tokyo nichinichi shinbun was the first paper to publish news nishiki-e, many other print publishers in Tokyo and Osaka jumped into the news nishiki-e market adopting a similar masthead design, featuring the name of their news nishikie on an unfurled banner held in the air by a pair of fat cherubs.

Osaka Kankyo, Nishiki-e Hyakuji Shinbun masthead

At their brief height, around 40 nishiki-e shinbun were in publication.8 While nishiki-e shinbun were largely gone by the late 1870s, challenged by the rise of faster and cheaper letterpress newspapers, they played an important role during their short life in spurring the growth of the Japanese press during its formative years.

For a comprehensive look at nishiki-e shinbun go to William Wetherall’s web site For a scholarly analysis of nishiki-e shinbun see "The Art of Reframing the News: Early Meiji Shinbun Nishiki-e in Context," Chelsea Foxwell, appearing in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Volume 78, Number 1, June 2018, p. 47-90. For an extensive display of nishiki-e shinbun go to

1 Creating a Public: People and Press in Meiji Japan, James L. Huffman, University of Hawai’i Press, 2006, p. 8.

2 ibid. p. 51.

3 ibid. p. 60.

4 ibid. p. 89.

5 “When News Became an Art Form,” unattributed, 2003.10.29 online newspaper of Mitsubishi Electric Company Taste of Japan [not active 1-17-24] 

6 “News Nishikie: An Arranged Marriage That Didn't Last,”  William Wetherall and Mark Schreiber, [accessed 1-17-24]

7 Japanese Popular Prints: From Votive Slips to Playing Cards, Rebecca Salter, University of Hawai’i Press, 2006, p. 61.

8 Okayama City website [accessed 1-17-24]

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Prints in Collection


Reports on the Satsuma Rebellion