Art of Japan and Keisai Eisen: Tenaciousness in Adversity

Art of Japan and Keisai Eisen: Tenaciousness in Adversity

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times


The artist Keisai Eisen (1790-1848) matured quickly based on many deaths within his family. This reality meant that Eisen was extremely brave to focus on art because of the enormous uncertainty of making a living in this field. Eisen also provides a glimpse into the old world because death, poverty, and uncertainty all abound. However, despite the short straw of his early life, it is refreshing to know that gifted individuals could emerge despite all the obstacles being put in the way.

It is difficult for people in the modern world to connect with the reality of the old world. After all, infant mortality throughout the old world was a serious issue. Therefore, Eisen knew that he had no time to waste despite the many obstacles that he had to bypass in order to make a living.


Of course, in all societies you always had “a small minority” who enjoyed the material comforts of this world. However, for individuals like Eisen, then the real world was about death, hardship, and seeing the world for what it is. Yet this didn’t mean “weakness” or “pity.” On the contrary, this led to him being more independent because he refused economic help from family relatives when he was a young man.

Eisen was born in the district of Hoshigaoka in Tokyo and today this applies to the Nagatacho area. His father, Ikeda Masabe Shigeharu, was also a very interesting character. He was a low ranking warrior who enjoyed the finer parts of culture. This applies to enjoying poetry, tea ceremonies, reading, poetry, and writing. Therefore, this must have rubbed off on Eisen. Indeed, it was through his father’s friend that he apprenticed under Namiki Gohei.


Gohei was a kabuki/kyogen writer and when Eisen was a young adult he had hoped to become a professional kyogen writer. Kyogen applies to a form of traditional theatre in Japan. However, once more death within his family would impact on his dream. Given this reality, he focused on becoming independent and turned to the world of ukiyo-e and other means to survive.

Turning the clock back to when Eisen was a child, then at the age of six he was adopted by his stepmother following the death of his mother. Sadly, when he was thinking of becoming a kyogen writer events turned against him because of death once more. This applies to the death of his father and stepmother in the same year when he had turned twenty years of age.


Given the circumstances of his reality and with having three sisters, then Eisen abandoned his dream of becoming a kyogen writer. Also, he bravely refused financial support from relatives who had wanted to help him. This indicates strongly that he was tenacious, independent, extremely determined and pragmatic. After all, he had been dealt a difficult “deck of cards.” However, despite this, he refused “any financial aces” that may have helped him in order that he could support himself.

Eisen in time distinguished himself in the field of ukiyo-e and his literature is also highly regarded. Indeed, some individuals believe that he was a ghostwriter for Tamenaga Shunsui and Yoshimi. These two writers of ninjou-bon (stories focused on ordinary people) were popular during their time. Yet this theory is still openly debated. Despite this, it highlights the quality of his writing to be linked with these two individuals irrespective of 100 per cent certainty.


Irrespective of what happened in the later years of his life it is clear that events during his young adulthood impacted greatly on Eisen. Also, the choices he picked when he was twenty years old, despite enormous adversity, were very admirable, focused and extremely brave.


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