Sesshu (雪舟)

Known as Sesshu (1420 - 1506), he was an ink painter and Zen monk active in the Muromachi period in the latter half of the 15th century, and was called a master painter. He revolutionized the Japanese ink painting.

He was given the posthumous name "Toyo" or "Sesshu (拙宗)." Born in Bicchu Province, he moved to Suo Province after entering SShokoku-ji Temple in Kyoto. Later he accompanied a mission to Ming Dynasty China and learned Chinese ink painting.

His works were many, including not only Chinese-style landscape paintings, but also portraits and pictures of flowers and birds. His bold compositions and strong brush strokes constituted an extremely distinctive style.

6 of his extant works are designated national treasures. Indeed, he is considered to be extraordinary among Japanese painters. For this reason, there are a great many artworks that are attributed to him, such as folding screens with pictures of flowers and that birds are painted on them.

There are many works that even experts cannot agree if they are really his work or not. Representative works include: Long Landscape Scroll, Summer and Winter Landscape, View of Amanohashidate, Broken Ink Landscape, Portrait of Ekadanpi, Fall and Winter Landscape, and Folding Screen of Birds and Flowers of the 4 Seasons. His disciples include Shugetsu, Soen, and Toshun.

The Artist's Life

He was born in Akahama, Bicchu Province (present-day Soja City, Okayama Prefecture), in 1420. He was born to a Samurai family called ODA. He entered nearby Hofuku-ji Temple (Soja City) while young. He moved to Kyoto's Shokoku-ji Temple at the age of around 10, and while studying and having Zen training under Shuto SHUNRIN, learned painting from Shubun TENSHO.

In around 1454, he moved to Suo Province, and built his studio, Unkokuan (Yamaguchi City, Yamaguchi Prefecture), with the patronage of the feudal lord, Ouchi. In around 1465, he acquired a calligraphy work by Bonki SOSEKI on which the characters of Sesshu were written, and requested Shinkei RYUKO to write a certificate about the origin of the name, Sesshu. It is believed that after that, he came to be known as Sesshuu. It is thought that until this time he was known as Touyou SESSHU, but there is not a firm source to indicate that SESSHU and Sesshu were the same person.

In 1468, he sailed to Ming Dynasty China with a mission. He familiarized himself with authentic Chinese ink painting and studied it for about 2 years. In the fall of 1481, he traveled to Mino Province. There is no reliable record of the date of his death, but most put it at 1506. Other records write that he died in 1502. In addition to the date of his death, there are many other aspects of Sesshu's life that remain unknown.

A Rat Drawn In Tears

There is an interesting episode about Sesshu.

A young Sesshu who entered Hofuku-ji Temple only liked pictures and did not want to read sutras; so the monks of the temple tied him to a pillar in the building enshrining a Buddhist statue. However, when the monks saw that he drew a rat with his tears that fell on the floor by using his big toe, they were impressed so they allowed him to draw pictures.

This is thought to be the most well known story about Sesshu. The story first appeared in "Honcho Gashi" compiled by Eino KANO (published in 1693, the Edo period).


Sesshu started to be deified in the Edo period. It is thought to be because the Kano School that ruled painting circles at the time venerated him as a master, and feudal lords wanted to have Sesshu's artwork. It is said that this is why the number of artworks attributed to Sesshu increased. Reflecting Sesshu's popularity, a Japanese puppet drama/Kabuki work entitled "The Gion Religious Festival" was created. The drama was first performed in January 1758. The scene of Kinkaku-ji Temple, where Sesshu's granddaughter, Yukihime, takes an active role, is famous) and similar works were performed. Today, Sesshu who gave birth to one of Japanese cultures is a leading historical figure of this country.

National Treasures

View of Amanohashidate (Kyoto National Museum)
4 Seasons Landscape Scroll (Long Landscape Scroll) (Mohri Museum, painted in 1486)
Fall and Winter Landscape (Tokyo National Museum)
Broken Ink Landscape (Tokyo National Museum, painted in 1495)
Portrait of Ekadanpi (Seinen-ji Temple in Aichi Prefecture, painted in 1496)
Landscape (Private Collection)

Major Important Cultural Properties

4 Seasons Landscape (Tokyo National Museum)
4 Seasons Landscape (Ishibashi Museum of Art)
4 Seasons Landscape Scroll (Small Landscape Scroll) (Kyoto National Museum)
Landscape Scroll after Kegong GAO (Yamaguchi Prefectural Museum of Art)
Landscape after Gui XIA (Private Collection)
Oxherd after Tang LI (Yamaguchi Prefectural Museum of Art)
Huang Chuping after Kai LIANG (Kyoto National Museum)
Landscape after Yujian (Okayama Prefectural Museum of Art)
Landscape (Kosetsu Museum of Art)
Folding Screen of Birds and Flowers of the 4 Seasons (Kyoto National Museum)
Portrait of Kanetaka MASUDA (Masuda Municipal Sesshu-no-Sato Memorial Hall)
Bishamonten (Private Collection)
Landscape (Kyoto National Museum)
Splashed Ink Landscape (Masaki Museum of Art)
*The works considered to be authentic are listed.


Special Exhibition in Commemoration of 500th Anniversary of Death: Sesshu (Illustrated Collection, Tokyo National Museum, Kyoto National Museum, 2002)
Master Painter Sesshu (Raisuke NUMATA, "Ronso Series" 1, Ronsosha, March 2002, ISBN 4-8460-0241-1)
Fans of Sesshu (Yuji YAMASHITA, Genpei AKASEGAWA)

[Original Japanese]