Katsushika Hokusai and Richness of Japanese Art

Katsushika Hokusai and Richness of Japanese Art

Modern Tokyo Times

Lee Jay Walker


Japanese art in all its elegance and richness can be viewed in abundance by the lifework of Katsushika Hokusai.  Hokusai was born in 1760 and he died in 1849 during a period in Japan that was known for stratification. However, despite living during the Edo period Hokusai was a free spirit from a very young age.

Hokusai was a sublime Japanese artist, printmaker and ukiyo-e artist. Famous works by this artist, for example the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji represent a visual richness based on mass creativity. This series of artwork includes The Great Wave off Kanagawa that still takes amazes people internationally.

Indeed, it was this print-series that made Hokusai an international figure because The Great Wave off Kanagawa and Fuji in Clear Weather showed the stunning natural beauty of Mount Fuji. On top of this, the natural landscapes are imbued with enormous potency based on the beauty of nature.


Hokusai often changed his name. However, while this was common for artists during this period of Japanese history, it is equally true that Hokusai took this to a different realm.

At the age of 18 he joined the Katsukawa Shunsho studio after being a wood-carver apprentice between 14 and 18 years of age.  Shunsho practiced ukiyo-e whereby the central themes were images of kabuki actors and courtesans. These themes were common in this period of Japanese history.

Sadly, in the personal arena his first wife died very young and the same fate awaited his second wife. This obviously impacted on Hokusai who had 5 children from both marriages.

Ironically, Hokusai developed after he was expelled from the Katsukawa School. Also, during the same period Hokusai’s interest in western art began to increase.


Hokusai stated: “What really motivated the development of my artistic style was the embarrassment I suffered at Shunkō’s hands.”

Indeed, in hindsight this artistic embarrassment was a blessing in disguise for Hokusai. This applies to Hokusai focusing enormous energy on landscapes alongside themes related to daily life in Japan. At the same time, Hokusai focused on art that negated the usual class barriers of Europe in this period.

After joining the Tawaraya School it dawned on Hokusai that he needed freedom from structures. After all, structures were holding Hokusai back. Therefore, he used this period of self-doubt in order to blossom to the maximum.

After Hokusai published two collections based on landscapes called Famous Sights of the Eastern Capital and Eight Views of Edo, he began to attract growing attention in Japan. Therefore, art students began joining him in order to enhance their respective careers and to learn from such a high quality artist. This reality must have pleased Hokusai greatly because now he was being acknowledged in his own right.


The early 19th century saw Hokusai in increasing demand and for a short period he collaborated with the novelist Takizawa Bakin. This period notably began in 1807 and once more this enabled Hokusai to develop further.  However, the illustrated books that they both worked on came to an end because of a clash of personality. Despite this, it is notable that the publisher remained loyal to Hokusai.

In 1814 Hokusai, now named Taito (changed his name in 1811), published his manga sketches and for an artist like Hokusai this was a good way to earn money quickly. At the same time, this element of Hokusai’s art also enabled him to reach out to the younger generation.

By 1820 Hokusai had published 12 volumes of manga and added another three. These consisted of thousands of drawings and many had wit within the drawings he produced.  This form of manga was very popular because many drawings focused on ordinary people, religious figures and animals. The natural charm within the simplicity of these drawings also highlighted the complexity of Hokusai.

The 1820s would become a period of growth and in time this enabled Hokusai to obtain an international legacy. However, this legacy would grow in strength after his death because of certain limitations linked to the Edo period. Hokusai was now over 60 years of age but like the most delicious wine he matured magnificently. At the same time, Hokusai changed his name once more to Iitsu.


During this period he completed the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and the unforgettable and powerful Great Wave off Kanagawa that became celebrated for being a masterpiece.  Hokusai also published other quality prints in the same period and this applies to Unusual Views of Celebrated Bridges in the Provinces and A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces.

In 1834 he now changed his name to Gakyo Rojin Manji and in this period Hokusai also did major pieces of art in the area of landscapes.  This applies to the One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji that added to his stature. Also, the longevity of Hokusai also witnessed a greater spiritual dimension because nature and delightful landscapes became embedded within the soul of Hokusai.

During the last few years of his life other artists like Ando Hiroshige were emerging. Sadly, in this period Hokusai’s studio was destroyed by fire. This reality meant that fire ravaged much of his lifelong work.

One year prior to his death Hokusai had completed the Ducks in a Stream at the ripe old age of 87. Not surprisingly on his deathbed he uttered the words: “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years…Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.”


Hokusai died in 1849 whereby his soul departed within Nichiren Buddhism, Mount Fuji and the mountains that had served him throughout his life. These powerful forces all combined to make Hokusai what he became in the field of art.

The opening up of Japan during the Meiji Restoration of 1868 would enable Hokusai to influence many European artists long after his death. Internally, other notable Japanese artists like Ando Hiroshige fully understood and admired the richness of Hokusai.

Hokusai, just like the mountains and nature surrounding Mount Fuji, is timeless. Therefore, today people from all over the world get great pleasure from his art. This especially applies to the 1820s and mid 1830s period whereby Hokusai created many stunning landscapes.

http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/online/hokusai/launch.htm  (Hokusai)



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