Featured Projects

ukiyo-e and Kabuki Research

Akama Ryo


Professor Akama Ryo, of the College of Letters, is an expert in the study of Japanese traditional theater arts, such as kabuki and noh. Professor Akama became an enthusiast of the classical arts after seeing his first kabuki play as a university student in Tokyo. He then began studying at the Tsubouchi Memorial Theater Museum at Waseda University, where one of his responsibilities was to organize the museum’s collection of 47,000 ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints. He feels that because he was not exposed to traditional arts until university, he looks at Japanese traditional arts from the same perspective as a foreigner.

After completing his graduate studies in Tokyo and coming to Kyoto, he became even more enthusiastic about the traditional arts and made connections within the famous Katayama House of the Kanze School of Noh. When beginning his current role as the deputy director of RU’s Art Research Center, Professor Akama’s focus changed from looking at Japan’s traditional arts from an inward perspective to an outward perspective of sharing the cultural treasures of Kyoto with the rest of the county and the world. He felt that the most effective way to promote international exchange in this area was through ukiyo-e prints and he expanded his research in this field, building a collection of approximately 3,000 ukiyo-e.


Of the overseas scholars studying Japanese traditional culture, ukiyo-e is the most prominent field of research. Despite the isolationist period of the Edo era (1603-1867), many Japanese artifacts were exported to Europe and spread around the world in the 1700s. The most popular among all of these items was ukiyo-e. In the 1800s, a book of Hokusai’s paintings was discovered in France among other imported items, sparking Europe’s interest in ukiyo-e. France was the first European country to use ukiyo-e for artistic purposes, but it was Britain that bought large volumes of ukiyo-e prints. The British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London have had substantial collections of ukiyo-e for many years. These collections supported ukiyo-e research in Britain as early as the 1870s and by 1920 there were approximately 250 books on ukiyo-e published in the West. Currently, the largest collection of ukiyo-e prints is found at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and today, ukiyo-e research in Britain and the United State is considerably more advanced than in Japan.

Professor Akama doubles as a visiting researcher at the Victoria and Albert Museum and assists in cataloguing ukiyo-e prints for the museum’s digital archive. Japanese scholars are essential to the project because they are able to read the Japanese characters on the ukiyo-e and have the cultural background to explain the context of the print, as well as correct past mistakes in identifying or cataloguing ukiyo-e. This kind of collaboration leads to better quality research.


Professor Akama wants to be a bridge between domestic Japan Studies scholars and the overseas researchers who study ukiyo-e. He is especially enthusiastic about sending his students overseas to participate in research projects with foreign scholars. In late December 2005, he accompanied two of his PhD students to the Honolulu Academy of Arts to organize a high quality private collection of ukiyo-e belonging to the author James Michener. The trip combined student exchange with collaborative research. Professor Akama hopes to continue to create these chances for international exchange, using ukiyo-e as a means to unite scholars and build knowledge.

Within the Kyoto Art and Entertainment Innovation Research COE Program, the goal of Professor Akama’s research is not only to archive and preserve the ukiyo-e, but also to use the prints to further research into Japanese traditional arts. His main challenge is to use the strengths of the COE Program to create an innovative model of study for Japanese researchers of ukiyo-e, who are working in a field that has been so well-covered by foreign scholars. Professor Akama feels that the next step of his project is to study the prints in depth and thinks that many prints have enough material within them to be studied exclusively for one full semester. He hopes to study the prints’ background and historical context in a way that has not been done overseas and then use this new research to further promote international academic exchange.

Keywords: Japanese Literature