For printing Japanese woodblock prints, there was a simple method to determinate the paper sizes: Standardized sheets got divided into two, three or four parts. A paper size bigger than the full-sized paper got glued together. Even though it seems simple, it is not so easy to name the actual size. Although the full-sized sheets have been standardized, the actual sizes can vary quite a lot. That could have different reasons:
- The full-size paper could be different in any location it was produced.
- During time, some sizes got more popular than others and some publishers favored specific full-size sheet sizes, because they were sold easily.
- The woodblock prints got cut in different sizes after printing.
Early 18th century, the bigger sizes lost their importance and the size hosoban and chūban were the most popular. One reason was the publisher’s decision for the faster and easier sale.
The sizes generate from the standard paper shōhōshō:
- daiaiban (full-size paper): 47 x 33 cm
- chūban (medium size): 16 x 23 cm
- hosoban (small vertical print): 33 x 15 cm, often used for single actor portraits of the Katsukawa School. Originally, they were cut three on one block and divided after printing. It is very rare to find three hosoban prints in an undivided state.
From about 1780 the size ōban was the most common size. It originates from the standard paper daihōsho with the full-size daiōban (see picture). Some sizes, like ōban, have been used vertically (yoko-e) and horizontally (tata-e).
See in the picture how sizes like Oban, Chuban and Koban (from the standard paper daihōsho) measure (in cm). Please remember, that original Japanese woodblock prints are handmade antiques and these sizes are average.
Single ōban size sheets have been put side by side: Diptych (a composition complete in two sheets), Triptych (a composition of three oblong prints), Pentaptych (a composition consisting of five sheets)
Hashira-e or Kakemono-e
It’s not easy to differ between harshira-e and kakemono-e. Both are long narrow sizes, intended to hang from pillars (hashira) of a Japanese house to decorate the living rooms. These sheets used most for hanging scrolls, differ in size dramatically. Heights between 68 and 73 cm and width from 12 to16 cm where most common from 1670.
Not too many have survived to our day and are often discolored by smoke. Some were printed completely on one sheet, but late examples, such as those of the early nineteenth century by Shunsen, Eizan and Eisen are often on two joined sheets. Kakemono is in general considered to be wider than hashira-e and generates mainly from two ōban sized sheets, which makes the width between 25 and 30 cm.
Tanzaku (tan short, saku a piece): narrow slips, like miniature kakemono-e, on which poems were inscribed. Used by Hiroshige for thumbnail sketches of birds and flowers, slight figure-studies, ect. Can vary in size:
- ōtanzaku: 39 x 18 cm
- chūtanzaku: 39 x 13 cm, 36 x 16 cm
- shōtanzaku: 39 x 8 cm, 33 x 11 cm, 24 x 12 cm
The sizes of surimono can be different, because they have been ordered to special occasions.