Reflecting the Spirit: Shiko Munakata (1903-1975)

On September 5th, 1903, Shiko Munakata was born to a blacksmith in Aomori, in Northern Honshu. As one of fifteen children, he received no more than an elementary school education before joining his father at the forge. Due to his severe nearsightedness, Munakata was not a natural blacksmith and mainly ran errands for his father. Nonetheless, he took over the family business with his older brother in 1920. Inspired by Japan’s growing auto industry, Munakata’s brother seized the opportunity to modernize their business and transformed the family forge into a garage. Disinclined from working as a mechanic, Munakata decided to seek a life outside this his ancestral trade. Through the aid of a family friend, he began to assist in the Aomori Prefectural Court. The job paid little, but he put his small earnings towards art supplies, nurturing his budding creative passion. He began to work in ink, using an accounting pad as his impromptu sketchbook. [1] In his free time, the young artist drew inspiration from the pages of Shirakaba (White Birch), a literary and art magazine that featured the work of Cezanne, Matisse, Gaugin, and Van Gogh. It is interesting to note that Munakata became especially enamored with the works of Vincent van Gogh. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he answered that he wanted to “be a van Gogh,” by which he meant a professional artist. And, in fact, Munakata would succeed in becoming a “van Gogh.” Choosing the block over oils, he would innovate Japanese printmaking just as van Gogh influenced European painting.

munakata teaching a class photo courtesy of Yoriko Ishii

Munakata sought formal art instruction from Kihachiro Shimozawa, a Western-style oil painter based in Tokyo. Stirred by a bold determination to devote his life to his art, Munakata followed his teacher back to Tokyo in 1924. The city greeted Munakata with a series of disappointments. Major exhibitions repeatedly rejected his works and he had to juggle odd jobs to support himself. However, within the year, his luck shifted. He participated in his first exhibition, presenting his oil paintings at the Hakujitsu Society, a prestigious art association. Munakata, a talented oil painter, quickly rose to success in the Tokyo art scene, but he found himself dissatisfied with the saturating Westernization of Japanese art. He began to search for a true Japanese style and experimented with wooden sculpture and printmaking. In 1928, Munakata met members of the Sosaku Hanga, or “Creative Print,” movement and adopted the woodblock print as his primary medium. In his words “I was fumbling with color prints…until one day I saw a woodcut by Sumio Kawakami…It was black and white, a small print showing a woman walking in the wind, with a poem about the wind of early summer Suddenly I knew I had found what I was looking for…I threw myself into prints.” [2]

Unlike many woodblock artists, Munakata rarely composed preliminary sketches. His compositions were spontaneous, flowing from mind to board in a single sitting. Sori Yangai recalls the sight of Munakata at work, doubled over to accommodate his nearsightedness: “He had to bring his face so close to the block that his nose nearly touched the block.” [3] The artist strayed further from convention in his choice of carving tools. While most artists worked with professional grade knives, Munakata favored children’s tools. [4] Inexpensive, these simple knives would come pre-sharpened and ready to use. As they became dull, he would replace them with a new set, refusing to waste a moment of inspiration sharpening knives. Based on his choice of wood, tool replacement was frequent. Munakata largely worked with katsura blocks, a hard wood that provided the necessary resistance for his sharp, graphic forms. [5] He often printed in monochrome, focusing on the rich contrast of india ink against the paper. When he worked in color, he applied bright washes with a brush, or rich pigments for back coloring.

Munakata emerged as a printmaker at the forefront of modern printmaking, caught in between the two major movements of his time: Sosaku Hanga and Mingei. Though he participated in both movements, he refused allegiance to single movement. The Sosaku Hanga, or “Creative Print,” movement arose from a central tenant: the artist must participate in every aspect of production. Artists shed the traditional delegation of artist, engraver, and printer, and explored each role themselves. Originally excluded from Japan’s formal art world, Sosaku Hanga nurtured its aesthetic and artists on the pages of magazines. Members adopted a more spontaneous, expressive attitude, heavily influenced by the artistic explorations of the European avant-garde movement. As the movement garnered new enthusiasm and foreign interest, tendencies shifted from the figural to the abstract.

Cutting the block photo courtesy of Yoriko Ishii

Founded by Soetsu Yanagi in the 1920s, the Mingei, or the “Folk Art” movement championed the beauty of Japanese craft and traditional arts. The movement distanced itself from the realm of fine art, celebrating the beauty inherent in handcrafted, everyday objects. Turning to traditional materials and techniques, Mingei valued works of a personal nature. From baskets to kimono, wooden sculptures to prints, the movement spanned various mediums and styles. The movement attracted many outspoken artists, establishing itself as a significant force in the development of modern art. Symbiotic yet, at times, antagonistic, Mingei and Sosaku Hanga defined the vanguard of modern Japanese printmaking. Despite plentiful overlap between their values and goals, the movements remained divided. As Munakata’s reputation grew, both movements vied for his loyalty. Though the rivalry flared throughout his career, Munakata persistently drew from both ideologies, bridging this schism with his fierce independence.

Munakata’s introduction to these two movements not only deeply affected his creative process, but also welcomed him into the international art scene. In 1935, Munakata joined the Sosaku Hanga print association, Kokugakai, as a junior member. During his first exhibition with the association, his work drew the interest of Yanagi, founder of the Mingei movement. [6] Yanagi recognized Munakata’s talent in the series Yamato shi Uruwashi and purchased the entire set for the Folk Craft Museum in Tokyo. Even today, the museum holds the most comprehensive collection of Munakata’s pre-war work. This event marked the beginning of a period of stylistic and spiritual development for the artist. Reflecting on his career, Munakata recognized his introduction to the movement as the true beginning of his printmaking career, in his words, “Mingei gave birth to me.” [7]

While visits to the Folk Craft Museum in Tokyo and workshops with various Mingei artists influenced his creative experience, his friendships with members of the movement revolutionized his personal philosophy. Yanagi became an inspiration, a trusted counselor, and a dear friend. In May of 1936, Munakata spent forty days in Kyoto at the home of his close friend and famous Mingei potter, Kanjiro Kawai. During his visit, Munakata explored Buddhist texts with his host and toured the city’s many temples, filled with awe at the sight of Buddhist sculpture. [8] Struck by the dignity of the looming statues, Munakata felt humbled by their passionate presence.

Munakata at work photo courtesy of Yoriko Ishii

World War II and the following occupation did not slow Munakata’s vigorous pace. Despite the increasingly grim political climate, he sustained his exploration of the woodblock medium and furthered his Zen ideology through his calligraphy and writings. In response to early firebombing attacks, Munakata used the large, sturdy blocks of his Ten Great Disciples series to fortify a makeshift bomb shelter. On May 25th, 1945, all of his woodblocks perished in the Tokyo Air Raid except for the ten disciples. These woodblocks remained partially buried in his garden shelter until the end of the war. Upon his return to Tokyo in 1951, he interpreted the survival of the woodblocks as good luck. He re-carved two lost Bodhisattva blocks and reunited the series in full.

As his career progressed, Munakata developed and reflected on his artistic philosophy, enriched his spiritual education, and persistently pushed the limits of the woodblock print. He took to writing about his work, the woodblock, and the power of prints. In 1959, Munakata traveled to New York City for a yearlong fellowship sponsored by the Japan Society and the Rockefeller Foundation. He took this opportunity to explore the United States, creating new work and delivering lectures throughout the country. This same year, Munakata visited Europe, where he toured Van Gogh’s grave and home, paying homage to a persistent source of inspiration. As Munakata explored his medium abroad, his prestige continued to grow in Japan. That that same year, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo opened a one-man Munakata exhibition, marking the first of many solo exhibitions to sweep the globe in following decades.

Munakata elevated the printmaking community throughout his career, achieving merits previously unreached by Japanese printmakers, while remaining true to his ideology. The Horinji Temple in Tokyo honored him with the rank of Hokkyo, a true artistic and spiritual honor. In 1970, he became the first printmaker to receive the high honor of the Order of Cultural Merit from the Japanese Government. Munakata traveled extensively, drawing inspiration from Dehli to New York. All the while, he remained true to his craftsman lineage and his Zen beliefs. By the time of his death, Munakata had received countless international honors and never ceased striving for a beauty beyond himself. He continued to challenge his artistic philosophy and further his Buddhist learning until his last day. On September 13th, 1975, Shiko Munakata passed away at the age of 72 from liver cancer.

The woodblock medium is inextricable from its Buddhist roots. While religious significance and traditional technique evolved over the centuries, the medium is indebted to the ephemeral inbutsu (stamped Buddha) of the past. In the works of Shiko Munakata, one can see both a modern evolution of an ancient medium and a sacred process reborn. Though Buddhism is never far from the woodblock, Munakata heartens the spiritual tie linking ancient sutras to the bold printmaking movements of the 20th century. Each print is an act of devotion, one that invites viewers to elevate their act of looking to an act of prayer. In Munakata’s words, “the prints comes to us inevitably if we are sincere, we must devote to it our entire mind, heart and life.” 9


1. Oliver Statler, “Shiko Munakata,” in The Woodblock and the Artist, 12.
2. Statler, 13.
3. Sori Yanagi, “The Divine Printmaker,” in The Woodblock and the Artist, 10.
4. Statler, 11.
5. Pat Glimour “Munakata as Printmaker,” in The Woodblock and the Artist, 125.
6. Statler, 14
7. Ibid, 14.
8. Masatomo Kawai, “Munakata Shiko’s Path of Hanga,” in Munakata Shiko: Master of the Modern Print, 17.
9. Munakata, “Woodblock Printing,” in The Woodblock and the Artist, 137.

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