“Do we not feel in Yoshitoshi the atmosphere of the city those days, no longer old Edo, not yet the new Tokyo?”
–Novelist Akutagawa Ryunosuke
Toshikage, Portrait of Yoshitoshi, 1892. Ronin Gallery.
A World Between - The Life of Yoshitoshi
Commodore Perry’s arrival in Yokohama bay signaled a pivotal shift in Japan. An anxiety seeped into the soil, seeding and blooming over the next century. As Japan ended over 250 years of isolation, society abandoned the old, feudal system to become part of the new, modern world. Woodblock prints were overshadowed by lithography and photography, while kimonos were traded for western-style dress. Regarded as the last of the great masters of ukiyo-e, Yoshitoshi worked during this era of dramatic cultural and economic transformation. Through his stunning woodblock prints, he made sense of a transitioning world with a familiar medium. His work expresses the pervasive atmosphere of uncertainty that plagued his country and exorcises the demons of social and political upheaval. These eerie and imaginative prints delve into the myriad facets of human nature and explore the spectrum of human emotion. Yoshitoshi’s considerable imagination and originality imbued his prints with a creativity, honesty and sensitivity rarely seen in ukiyo-e of this time period.
Yoshitoshi was born a true edokko, or “child of Edo,” on April 30th, 1839. His given name was Yonejiro. Though his father originally belonged to the merchant class, he elevated his family rank by buying his way into the family of the samurai Yoshioka Hyobu. Little is known about Yoshitoshi’s mother, though it seems she divorced his father. Some scholars suggest that Yoshitoshi was the lovechild of his father’s mistress. When his father took a new mistress, Yoshitoshi left his family home to live with his uncle, a pharmacist who had recently lost his own son. As a young boy, Yoshitoshi showed remarkable artistic talent and fierce interest in classical Japanese literature and history. He began to study under the renowned Kuniyoshi at the age of 11. Kuniyoshi, a leading woodblock artist of the day, developed a close relationship with his pupil and gave him the go, or artist’s name, Yoshitoshi. In Kuniyoshi’s studio, Yoshitoshi studied by copying his master’s designs, but also practiced life drawing, an uncommon practice in the mid-19th century. Yoshitoshi published his first print to modest success in 1853, a triptych of a famous clash between the Taira and Minamoto clans. That same year, Commodore Perry’s “black ships” docked in Edo Bay.
Bearing President Millard Fillmore’s invitation to establish trade and diplomatic relations with the U.S., Perry left with his demands unmet and a promise to return in a year’s time. Wary of the Western world’s propensity for gunboat diplomacy, the waning Tokugawa Shogunate decided to engage in foreign trade upon Perry’s return in 1854. This decision was widely resented by the aristocratic and samurai classes, and incited several violent clashes with the incoming westerners. In the early 1860’s, Yoshitoshi’s work focused on kabuki subjects and historical scenes, as well as prints of foreigners. As the 19th century progressed, ukiyo-e felt the influence of the modern era. Synthetic dyes replaced natural dyes and artists worked in a whole new system of color, rich in striking reds and vibrant purples. Although many scholars cite the opening of Japan for a perceived decline in ukiyo-e, an incredible creativity rose from this tumult of transition. Yoshitoshi learned to use these colors with subtlety and skill, holding his works to the highest printing standards throughout his career.
In 1861, Kuniyoshi passed away, leaving the 22-year-old Yoshitoshi without his mentor, his teacher, or connections to a publisher. The death of his master dealt a heavy blow to the young artist, but as he struggled to make ends meet, he began to develop his personal style. During this period, he became friends with Ichikawa Danjuro IX and Onoe Kikugoro V, two of the most popular kabuki actor of the day. His friendship with the actors influenced his prints, resulting in unmatched, powerful portraits of these kabuki stars. The year 1863 was significant for Yoshitoshi. He contributed to a set of Tokaido prints, received a commission to paint a thirty-foot long curtain in Kofu, and attracted his first student, Toshikage. The works completed during this period concern violent historical subjects and battle prints. While his career soared, his personal life proved more tumultuous. His father passed away, followed by his first daughter, born of an anonymous mistress. He began signing his works “Tsukioka Yoshitoshi,” taking his uncle’s surname. Though his reputation was growing, he remained poor.
As political instability grew, Yoshitoshi entered his “bloody period,” an era marked by graphic violence and extravagant brutality. Rice shortages plagued Japan and Yoshitoshi participated in the riots that ensued. The country became divided between the rule of the shogun and that of the emperor. The conflict culminated in 1868 with the abdication of the shogun and restoration of the young Emperor Meiji. Though the shogun cooperated in this power shift, two thousand samurai gathered in Ueno, known as the Shogitai, or “The Clear and Righteous Brigade.” When the peace talk concluded, they felt betrayed by the shogun and incited a vicious battle with the imperial troops. Yoshitoshi witnessed the merciless defeat of the old order first hand. The horror of this clash permeated his work for years to come.
Yoshitoshi produced his most shocking prints between 1866 and 1868, depicting horrifying, even sadistic images of chilling deaths and brutality. Glue was mixed with red ink to evoke congealed blood and many of the works were explicitly violent. Yoshitoshi became notorious for these terrifying designs both in Japan and abroad. These subjects reveal a contradictory horror and fascination in violence. They provided a form of catharsis, an effort to exorcise the real-life terror and cruelty of turn-of-the century Japan through the atrocities of the past.
Social, economic and political change progressed at a stunning speed. In the words of the 20th century novelist Natsume Soseki, “this rapid course of development constituted a nervous breakdown in the Japanese national character.” As modernization pushed ahead, Yoshitoshi suffered a nervous breakdown in 1872. He sunk into poverty, ceasing all artistic production. He suffered frequent illness from malnutrition and his mistress Otoko sold all of her belongings in an effort to support him. Though he experienced bouts of lucidity, his depressive episodes prevented him from working, but not from teaching. He managed to retain a dark sense of humor with his students, who often brought him food from their family homes. A year later, he returned to his work with a newfound maturity. He adopted the name Taiso, meaning “Great Resurrection” and embarked on the most creative period of his career.
While Yoshitoshi continued to present battle scenes, he turned his attention to more recent incidents and slowly shifted from overt violence to the psychological struggles of individuals. As his career progressed, his prints gained increasing sense of profound serenity. The popularity of newspapers grew during the Meiji period and Yoshitoshi began to work for Postal News, the first of many newspapers that he would illustrate in the coming years. Yet, his financial woes continued and his mistress Otoko sold herself to a brothel to support him. His fortunes shifted once again with his prints of the Satsuma Rebellion, an attempted uprising of the samurai class. These works won him enormous popularity and a great deal of money, though could not secure him a stable income. In 1884, he married Sakamaki Taiko, a former geisha, who appeared to help him remain mentally and financially stable. He adopted her two children and the family lived comfortably. His prints continued to mature and humor began to appear in his work.
Yoshitoshi met the publisher Akiyama Buemon while exhibiting a painting of Fujiwara no Yasumasa playing the Flute. The publisher was so taken by the image that he convinced Yoshitoshi to adapt the painting as a triptych. The two became close friends and together embarked on Yoshitoshi’s renowned series 100 Views of the Moon in 1885. Culled from ancient Chinese and Japanese folklore and history, 19th century Japanese culture, and classical poetry, 100 Views of the Moon preserves the rich cultural legacy of Japan. The first five prints were released in October and met with extreme popularity. Over the next six years, Yoshitoshi completed 95 more designs, each eagerly awaited by the Meiji audience. The series captures Yoshitoshi’s nostalgia for traditional Japan, yet he achieves this through a hybrid of old and new techniques. The subjects and medium recall the golden age of ukiyo-e, while Yoshitoshi integrates western compositional technique and aniline dyes. Quiet and reflective, this series marks a maturity of his work.
In the last decade of his life, Yoshitoshi designed numerous illustrated books and several other popular series: New Selection of Eastern Brocade Pictures (late 1880s) provided an ode to the urban folklore of Edo, while Thirty-Two Aspects of Women(1888) offered a nod to Utamaro, the great 18th century master of ukiyo-e. Following a major robbery of his home in 1888, Yoshitoshi slipped into mental illness once again. Despite his deteriorating mental state, he began the series Thirty-six Ghosts (1889). The series covered a range of haunting and ghoulish tales with the same refinement and sensitivity of 100 Views of the Moon. In 1891 Yoshitoshi was again overcome by his illness. He moved in and out of asylums, working intermittently. In the spring of 1892, he suffered a severe mental breakdown and was committed to the Sugamo Asylum. He was released in May and rented a house in Honjo rather than returning home. On the 9th of June 1892, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 53. His death poem reads: “Holding back the night/ with its increasing brilliance/ the summer moon.” 
1. Stevenson, John. Yoshitoshi’s One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. San Francisco Graphic Society, 1992. Print, 69.
2. Excerpt from the preface to Akiyama Buemon’s album of 100 Views of the Moon, published in 1892. As translated in Stevenson.
3. Ibid, 25. 5. Ibid, 51.