Japanese art and ukiyo-e: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi caught in two worlds

24 Nov

Japanese art and ukiyo-e: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi caught in two worlds

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi literally lived in two worlds and this applies to not only the Edo Period and Meiji Period but also to a chaotic lifestyle. However, despite this, Yoshitoshi produced stunning art and he was extremely productive.

Yoshitoshi was born in 1839 and his early life belonged to the feudal ways of the Edo Period but gradually Japan witnessed internal political and cultural convulsions. These internal convulsions culminated with the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the onset of modernity was a major challenge for all ukiyo-e artists.

Yoshitoshi, like many ukiyo-e artists, was extremely productive during his lifetime because he produced approximately 10,000 prints. However, the technological change in Japan and outside influence of art was making rapid inroads. Therefore, all ukiyo-e artists of this period had to adapt to this new reality.

Yoshitoshi fully understood that times were changing and it is clear that many aspects of his art were innovative. John Stevenson speaks kindly about his art because he stated that “Yoshitoshi’s courage, vision and force of character gave ukiyo-e another generation of life, and illuminated it with one last burst of glory.”


Many other individuals also speak with fondness towards Yoshitoshi because he took the challenge head on and simply responded by utilizing his fantastic talent. Therefore, when individuals view his rich legacy it is clear that the ukiyo-e world of Ando Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai was very different.

However, despite the innovation of Yoshitoshi in the art world and adapting to modernity, his biggest demons were internal because he suffered many dark periods. Indeed, in 1871 he was shackled by severe poverty and until his death in 1892 he struggled with severe bouts of depression.

At one point, these internal problems nearly tipped Yoshitoshi over the edge because he had a mental breakdown in the early 1870s. Therefore, you had an artist facing mental problems, deep scars from the past, severe poverty and a rapidly changing world which would impact greatly on ukiyo-e in a detrimental way.

Also, the two ladies who cared deeply about Yoshitoshi would be dragged down by him because both would enter the brothel world in order to help him. This was not unusual in Japan during times of severe poverty but the passion that these ladies had for Yoshitoshi wasn’t fully met the other way.

In 1884 major changes occurred for Yoshitoshi because he got married and from this period until 1891 he produced some amazing ukiyo-e. Yet the early life of Yoshitoshi remained firmly within his soul and in 1891 he had a major bout of depression and mental breakdown. However, this time he would not recover because on June 9, 1892, he passed away at the age of 53.

Yoshitoshi did manage to go home for the last few months of his life but clearly he was nothing more than a shell by this time. Therefore, the ukiyo-e world lost a great innovator and his rare talents which still had so much to give the world were lost because of the ravages of mental depression and terrible health.

Like stated earlier, the years after his marriage in 1884 was extremely fruitful and this notably applies to One Hundred Aspects of the Moon (1885-1892) and New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts. Also, in the same period he created other notable work of importance, therefore, Yoshitoshi was reaching fresh heights prior to 1891 and one can only wonder about what he would have produced in the future. 

In an earlier article I stated that The reputation of Yoshitoshi continues to grow in the modern world and in all truth it is not based on hype because Yoshitoshi was an amazing artist and he fully deserves to be remembered for this…”

However, “Yoshitoshi was working against the onset of modernity because with the mass production of Western standards, for example in lithography and photography; he was fighting a losing battle.  However, he did keep the bursting dam at bay but the spark of passion could not keep the onrushing water out.  Therefore, Japanese woodblock print, which had been a beacon for Japanese art, succumbed to the onset of modernity and he, and countless others, must have felt the pain deeply.”

The life of Yoshitoshi is one of great highs and severe lows and in many ways he represented the chaotic period that he belonged to. After all, you had many winners but also many losers who could not adapt to the changing world. However, this wasn’t the issue for Yoshitoshi because he was a great innovator.

Therefore, the real problems for Yoshitoshi were mental issues and severe poverty and clearly the later made the former even more dangerous. Yet, despite all the odds, Yoshitoshi left a lasting legacy and today his talent is rightly being reviewed and seen in a fresh light.

After all, Yoshitoshi was “a bridge” into two worlds and his ukiyo-e highlights the intense struggle to survive this new world. It also shows the power of ukiyo-e and Meiji ukiyo-e artists need to be acknowledged more because they brought a new freshness to this amazing art form.

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Posted by on November 24, 2011 in Japan


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