The umbrella or wagasa, made of oiled paper and bamboo, was a common article of everyday life in
early 20th century Japan. Umbrellas were used not only to ward off the rain and snow, but also for
decorative and ceremonial purposes. Although rarely utilized as a functional object today, the paper
umbrella is still a powerfully evocative symbol of traditional Japan.
Figures with umbrellas are frequently seen in shin hanga, probably because they appealed to Western
collectors with their romantic notions of pre-industrial Japan. Woodblock artists used the umbrella in various ways to add visual interest to their prints. As a graphic device, the umbrella could provide a
splash of bright color to a snow scene or enliven a rainy landscape. (In the case of Kawase Hasui's woodblock prints, the vivid umbrella colors may have actually been dictated by Watanabe, Hasui's publisher. Many of the umbrellas in
Hasui's watercolors are not as brightly colored.)
In portrait prints, the umbrella was often used to frame and set off the subject of a print. There are
numerous examples, including Natori Shunsen's actor print Sawamura Sojuro as
Narihira Reizo and Ito Shinsui's print Snowstorm. In other
prints, umbrellas served to conceal or partially conceal figures from view. Examples of this include Snow at Yanagibashi by Ohara Shoson, and Rain Blossoms, Japan by Lilian Miller. In Miller's print, the people
are only shadowy outlines, barely noticeable under the bold graphic presence of the umbrellas. In the
print, Returning Home, Fritz Capelari utilizes the overlapping shapes
of multiple umbrellas to create a design that verges on abstraction. The people holding the umbrellas are
only mysterious shapes, while the umbrellas are the focal point of the design.