Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川国芳)

Kuniyoshi UTAGAWA (January 1, 1798 - April 14, 1861) was an Ukiyo-e artist who lived during the end of the Edo Period. His second name or alias was Ichiyusai.

He was one of the leading Ukiyo-e artists during the end of the Edo Period.

However, unlike popular contemporaries among Ukiyo-e artists such as Hokusai KATSUSHIKA and Hiroshige UTAGAWA, Kuniyoshi was not well known or highly appreciated in Japan.

It was not until late 20th century that he started to be featured and re-evaluated as 'a unique painter in the Bakumatsu period (end of the Edo Period, last days of the Tokugawa shogunate)'.

In 2008, 368 printing woodblocks of the UTAGAWA school including Kuniyoshi's were found in the storehouse of a farmer in Toyama Prefecture, and the National Museum of Japanese History which bought these woodblocks exhibited them to the public in 2009. This prompted the analysis of the creation process of Kuniyoshi's works and restoration of the colors which were faded away from Kuniyoshi's original Ukiyo-e prints. The discovery of the printing woodblocks was featured on the TV programs under the title, 'hi-vision special: Maboroshi no Iro Yomigaeru Ukiyo-e (Reviving colors, Restoration of Ukiyo-e)' broadcast on April 12, 2009, and another TV program titled 'wonder x wonder Ukiyo-e Yomigaeru Maboroshi no Iro (Restoring faded colors)' on May 16, the same year.


Kuniyoshi was born in 1797 as a son of the owner of a somemono shop (a silk dyer) in Nihonbashi, Edo (Chuo Ward, Tokyo).

His real name was 井草芳三郎. Both Kuniyoshi and Hiroshige UTAGAWA, who has enjoyed an international reputation for his landscape woodblock prints, were born in the same year and were active as painters during the same period.

In 1811, Kuniyoshi became a disciple of Toyokuni UTAGAWA (1769 - 1825) at the age of 15. Toyokuni was a star painter who swept the Ukiyo-e art world with his gorgeous Ukiyo-e prints of Kabuki actors, and his disciples included Kunisada UTAGAWA (1786 - 1864).

Kuniyoshi started releasing his works around 1814, a few years after he became a pupil of Toyokuni.

His older disciple, Kunisada, who was already a leading painter of the UTAGAWA school, supported Kuniyoshi to improve his skills.

One of his Musha-e (Ukiyo-e prints of warriors) series, "Suikoden" (The Water Margin), was released around 1827 after his master Toyokuni died, and the work was well received among people. He was nicknamed "Kuniyoshi of Musha-e" and joined popular painters.

Kuniyoshi had many disciples, including Yoshitoshi TSUKIOKA who was called 'The last Ukiyo-e painter', and Kyosai KAWANABE, a unique painter who was active from the end of Edo Period through to the early Meiji Period.

Kuniyoshi died at the age of 65 (the age counted based on the traditional Japanese system) in 1861, just before the Meiji Restoration.


His works cover various genres from prints of Kabuki actors (Yakusha-e), warriors (Musha-e), beautiful women (Bijin-ga) and landscapes (Fukei-ga), to caricature and erotic arts (Shun-ga), but especially, his skills are most reflected on three dynamic large-sized pieces which depict histories, legends and stories through powerful subjects, such as massive whales, skeletons and monsters.

Also known as an incomparable cat lover, Kuniyoshi kept several cats all the time, and it is even said that he painted with his cats in his arm and there are a plenty of his works in which cats are personified.

Not only cats but also many other animals around him such as raccoons, sparrows and octopuses were also personified to satirize the world or to depict the everyday life of ordinary people in Edo (Tokyo). These works show one of the origins of the increasingly popular Manga (cartoons) and Gekiga (graphic novels) in modern Japan.

Types of pictures that Kuniyoshi were good at include 'Yose-e' (literally, an assembled picture) and 'Jigazo' (a self-portrait) and they contain lots of his playful spirits; one of his self-portraits shows that he is drawing himself but his face is unidentifiable because an animal or a human is cutting across in front of him.

After the Tenpo Reforms (1841 -) which prevented people from enjoying luxury items, Bakufu (Japanese feudal government) banned a stand-alone full color Nishiki-e (colored woodblock print) featuring Kabuki actors or Yujo (prostitute). However, amid such difficulties, Kuniyoshi kept his spirits high and exerted his own Edokko nature (a typical personality of someone living in the Edo area) to overcome challenges facing him.

He used various methods to slip through the ban to release portraits of Kabuki actors; for example, one of his Ukiyo-e portrays a fish with the face of a Kabuki actor.


Kuniyoshi also built a good relationship with various cultural figures, including Zeshin SHIBATA (a maki-e painter [Japanese lacquer sprinkled with gold or silver powder] and a traditional painter) and Kazan WATANABE (the chief retainer of the TAHARA clan, a scholar and a painter), and his paintings show that he acquired new knowledge from them and used it in his own way.

It is said that the massive skeleton drawn in "Soma no Furudairi " (for details, refer to the following 'Kuniyoshi Gallery' section), represents the knowledge he acquired through books on western anatomy.

Also, perspective which Kuniyoshi learned from Western painting is used in his another piece, "Chushingura Juichi-danme Youchi no Zu"; although he used perspective immaturely in this work, he succeeded in giving a depth and a sense of tension to the piece.

Kuniyoshi Gallery


"Soma no Furudairi " (Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Specter)

"Mikake ha Kowai ga Tonda Ii Hito Da" (At first glance he looks very fierce, but he is actually a kind person)

"Chushingura Juichi-danme Youchi no Zu" (Night battle of 47 loyal retainers)

"Taiheki Hyogo Gassen" (The Record of the Great Peace; Battle in Hyogo): Hikoshichiro SHIRAFUJI looking for Takauji ASHIKAGA in Fukukai-ji Temple.

Picture-1 "Soma no Furudairi ": OYA no Taro Mitsukuni fighting against the specter, Soma no Furudairi, which is maneuvered by Princess Takiyasha-hime. This is Kuniyoshi's specialty, a large-sized Ukiyo-e triptych, consisting of three pieces.

Picture-2 "Uji-gawa River no Tatakai no Zu" (The battle of vanguard at Uji-gawa River): Kagesue KAJIWARA is drawn on the left and Takatsuna SASAKI in the center.
Musha-e (Ukiyo-e prints of warriors)

Picture-3 "?? SAWAYAMA Ozumo": a bout between Sukeyasu KAWAZUSABURO and Kagehisa MATANOGORO.
Sumo-e (Ukiyo-e prints of Sumo wrestlers)

Picture-4 "Oyama Sekison Ryoben no Taki": people paying a visit to the fall of Oyama Sekison (Sekison daigongen [Great Avatar]. Current Oyama Afuri-jinja Shrine).
Meisho-e (Ukiyo-e prints of landscapes)

Picture-5 "Ushiwaka-maru Sojobo Zuibujutsu Oboe no Zu": Sojobo of Mt. Kurama, a Dai-Tengu (a long-nosed great goblin) (in the center), teaching MINAMOTO no Yoshitsune (Ushiwaka-maru, on the right) martial arts at Mt. Kurama.

Picture-6 "Yoshitsune Ichidai-Ki Gojo no Hashi no Zu": a fight between Ushiwaka-maru and Musashibo Benkei on the Gojo-ohashi Bridge.

Picture-7: A battle under water between the ghost of TAIRA no Tomonori and Yoshitsune and his retainers in Daimotsu no Ura.

Picture-8: The ghosts of the TAIRA family attacking Yoshitsune and his retainers.

Picture-9: "Shichifukujin" (Seven Deities of Good Luck)
Picture-10 "Sonomama Jiguchi Miyaukaikou Gojusan-biki" (Cats suggested as The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido): a picture on which the names of inn towns from 'Tokaido Gojusan-tsugi' are transformed into cats' behavior. In this play-on-word picture, Nihonbashi Bridge (chuo Ward, Tokyo) is changed into 'Nihon bushi' (two dried bonitos), Oiso-juku into 'Omoi zo' (it's too heavy), Mistuke-juku into 'Netsuki' (to fall asleep), Goyu-shuku into 'Koi' (romance), Kuwana-juku into 'Kuwanu' (not to eat), Ishiyakushi-juku into 'Ichatsuki' (to flirt), Tsuchiyama-juku into 'Buchi Jama' (very bothersome), Kusatsu-juku into 'Kotatsu' (table with heater) and a squeak of a mouse Gyau is changed into Kyo (Kyoto).

Picture-11 "Yamashiro no kuni Ide no Tamagawa": Bijinga (a type of ukiyo-e portraying beautiful women)

Picture-12: Bake-neko (monster cat)

Picture-13 "Mikake ha Kowai ga Tonda Ii Hito Da": Many people are assembled to create one good person. It is impossible for any other creatures to create a good human.

Picture-14 "Koetsu Yusho no Den HONJO Echizen no Kami Shigenaga": Musha-e which draws Shigenaga HONJO, a senior vassal of Kenshin UESUGI.

Picture-15: A Bijin-ga

Picture-16: "Kinju Zue Taiho Ebi"
Picture-17 'HORIBEYAHE Kanamaru' from "Seichu Gishi Shozo": Yahe HORIBE, one of 47 samurais of Ako.

Picture-18 "Neko no Keiko": caricature
Uchiwa-e (fan painting)

Picture-19 "Nitakara Kurakabe no Mudagaki" (Scribbling on the storehouse wall)

Picture-20 "Hito katamatte Hito ni Naru" '人おほき人の中にも人ぞなき 人になれ人 人になせ人 (人多き人の中にも人ぞ無き 人に成れ人 人に為せ人)'
Picture-21 "Hyakunin-Isshu no Uchi YAMABE no Akihito"
Picture-22 No title (Octopus and Carp, Rock and Fish)

Picture-23 "Neko no Ateji Namazu": Pictures using phonetic equivalent.

Picture-24 "??? Nanatsu Iroha URAHASHI Yasonosuke": Yakusha-e

Picture-25 "Kaiun Shusse Gattai Shichifukujin"

[Original Japanese]