The Inspiration For Half Moon Cards

The mission at Half Moon Cards is – lovingly spreading Japanese art from the 18th and 19th centuries.

And the question arises, why bring to the world greeting cards inspired by traditional Japanese paintings and woodblock prints?

This is the story,.

My father fought in the Korean War and he caught meningitis. He was invalided out to Japan and spent the best part of a year there. When he came home in 1952, he brought a number of small souvenirs with him.

The souvenirs included a family of wooden Japanese dolls, 2 or 3 inches high, a sitting brass Buddha and an incense burner and a box of incense, a bamboo and brass pipe and a model of a boat with buckets in it and a man standing with a long -handled scoop. My father explained with a grin that the boat collected excrement from different houses – hence the long handle.

My father also brought back a roof tile from Hiroshima. One half of it was a smooth where it had been covered by another tile, and half of it was a crazed with the effect of the heat from the bomb.

I took it to school where we tested it with a Geiger counter for radioactivity, and it was ‘clean’. 

The incense my father brought back was very high quality and I can still smell it now. I kept the incense sticks for years and burned them a tiny piece at a time until they were all gone. Years later, when I went to Japan, I went to incense shops looking for that particular incense and I found one that was very near it but maybe not exactly that one.

When I was 19 or 20 at university, I bought the book, Masters of the Japanese Print, because that was when I was able to consciously express to myself what I liked about Japanese art in contrast to the life in my home and the homes of friends.

When I pictured, for example, an English mantelpiece, there would be a central ornament and then other ornaments of smaller size laid out in mirror image on either side.

The Japanese sensibility was quite different, it seemed to me. It was much more dynamic because – taking the example of the mantelpiece again – there would be an ornament near one end of the mantelpiece, and the offset gave me a feeling of movement and a way of looking at the world that appealed to me.

Years later I went to Japan and I had a good fortune to stay with 23 different families – from office workers, to farmers, to members of parliament, and all the time I had this thread of association that went back a long way.

Japanese art from the 18th and 19th centuries to me means Ukiyo-e or ‘pictures of the floating world’. The floating world is a way of looking at the world. It means seeing the ever-changing, transient nature of life. And it means enjoying its pleasures and fleeting moments.

Ukiyo-e artists pictured everyday life, working with complex multi-coloured woodblocks. Nothing was out of bounds, from a laborers at work, to travellers in the landscape, to artists, prostitutes, and lovers. Behind the beauty and pleasure, there was always the fact that life was ephemeral and impossible to grasp.


Ukiyo-e prints were characterised by bright colours, bold outlines, and more than anything else, by stylised flat shapes.

And as an art form it developed as Edo (Tokyo) developed as a major urban centre. A new merchant class was growing. With it came a demand for affordable art that buyers could relate to. So Ukiyo-e artists responded to this demand with woodblock prints. Their subjects were scenes from the everyday life – the city’s theatres, brothels, and tea houses.

The popularity of Ukiyo-e spread beyond Edo and became one of the most significant art forms in Japan’s history.

Eco and Ukiyo-e and Edo had a mutually influential relationshi., Ukiyo-e captured the essence of Edo’s unique culture and lifestyle. And Edo provided the context for the development and popularity of Ukiyo-e.

When Japan opened up to the West, art and crafts reached Europe. Impressionist and post-Impressionist artists were intrigued because Japanese artists approached their subjects with a flat perspective. And European artists incorporated these ideas in their art. 

It was a perspective on life that held as long as Japan held off the rest of the world.

Printing Methods

The process of creating Ukiyo-e prints involved a collaboration between the artist, the woodblock carver, and the printer. The artist would create a design, which would be transferred to a woodblock by the carver. The printer would then apply ink to the block and press it onto paper, creating the final print. This process allowed for mass production of prints, making them affordable and accessible to everyone.

The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists in France took to using the same technique of making prints directly from Ukiyo-e prints. They too used it as a way to bring their art to the attention of the public. Think Toulouse-Lautrec and his posters. And think of the advertisements for Parisian cafes and products that now decorate cafes in this country. This too was a legacy of Ukiyo-e in Japanese art.

Ukiyo-e And The Outside World

Ukiyo-e had meaning as long as Japan had only itself to examine. That changed with the role of the United States and Commodore Perry in opening Japan. It was a significant event in Japanese history that marked the end of the country’s isolationist policies.

Prior to the mid 19th century, Japan was largely isolated from the rest of the world. It has only limited trade with the Dutch and Chinese. However, the United States wanted to expand its influence in Asia. It believed that Japan would be an important trading partner. In 1853, President Fillmore sent Commodore Matthew Perry and a fleet of four steamships to Japan. Their missions was to negotiate the opening of Japanese ports to American trade. It was an uneven negotiation in that United States technology far outclassed Japanese military technology at this time.

Historians and political scientists see President Fillmore as one of the worst presidents in American history. He sided with pro-slavery factions in his party in the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. His handling ushered in the breakdown that led to the American Civil War.

And yet Fillmore gave the order to Commodore Perry to open up Japan. And who can properly understand the consequences of that, even one hundred and fifty years later.

The Opening Up Of Japan

The opening up of Japan eventually brought Ukiyo-e in Japanese art to an end.

Perry arrived in Japan with a letter from President Fillmore addressed to the Emperor of Japan. The request was for the establishment of diplomatic and commercial relations. After several months of negotiations, the Japanese government agreed to sign the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854. That opened two ports to American ships and the establishment of a US consulate in Japan. But it was not an agreement between equals. Commodore Perry’s ships and guns tilted the balance.

This treaty marked the beginning of Japan’s engagement with the outside world. It led to the signing of similar treaties with other Western powers. The opening of Japan to foreign trade and influence had a significant impact on the country’s culture and society. Japan modernised and Westernised in technology, fashion, and education. The culture that underpinned Japanese art from the 18th and 19th centuries, was swept away. From there one can almost see the arc of history that led to the Second World War in the Pacific.

Public Domain Images

It was while I was browsing images of Japanese art that I realised I could create greeting cards using public domain images from the Japanese Ukiyo-e period to bring lesser-known Japanese art to people’s attention.

So now the trade-only site at Half Moon Cards is open for business and will have its first trade show in London in a few days time.