Toyohara Kunichika (豊原国周) (artist 1835 – 1900)

Arakawa (his mother's family name - 荒川)
Beiō (go - 米翁)
Hōshunrō (go - 豊春楼)
Ichiōsai (go - 一鶯斎)
Kachōrō (go - 華蝶楼)
Shima Sanjin (go - 志満山人)
Sōgenshi (go - 曹玄子)
Utagawa Kachōrō (early artist's name, 1853)
Ōshima Yasohachi (birth name - 大島八十八)



"Toyohara Kunichika was born Ōshima Yasohachi in the sixth year of the Tenpō ear (1835) in Kyōbashi in the capital Edo... The Kyōbashi was part of the capital's 'Low City', the merchant and artisan areas that comprised the heart of Edo culture. 'I was a true child of the Kyōbashi district that surrounded Edo castle', he states in [an] Yomiuri interview [from October 1898].

His father "...was the proprietor of a public bathhouse called Ōshūya... popularly known as the Daruma bath..." Its noren showed a "...bobbing toy in the shape of Daruma..." Kunichika said that his father, Ōshima Kyujū, was 'a dashing man' who had a tattoo of a kappa on his thigh, which earned him the nickname Kyujū the kappa.

"During his youth Yasohachi assumed the surname of Arakawa from his mother, Arakawa Oyae, the daughter of the teahouse proprietor Arakawa Sannojō." It seems that families of a certain class could apply to change their surname. That process is referred to as myōji gomen (名字御免). Kunichika's older brother, Chōkichi, the titular head of the family, was the one who wanted this change to his mother's family's name. This meant that after 1875 Kunichika's name appeared as Arakawa Yasohachi on his prints.

At the age of 11 Kunichika was apprenticed to a thread and yarn store (itoya), but was more interested in doing drawings than he was in learning that trade. So in 1846 he began to work for his brother who opened a 'raised picture' (oshi-e) shop and Yasoharchi began drawing designs for him. "It is also believed that around this time he became a student of the undistinguished artist... Toyohara Chikanobu and designed actor portraits for battledores."

"Nothing is known about the relationship between Yasohachi and his teacher Chikanobu." However, he may have facilitated Yashohachi entering the workshop of Toyokuni III in 1848 when he was 13 years old. "Yasohachi's entry into Kunisada's Kameido studio was instrumental in determining his future artistic course. Throughout his career Kunichika's art remained grounded in the Utagawa style that he absorbed in Kunisada's studio. Kunichika's significance as a print designer during the twilight years of the full-colour woodblock print lay in part continuing to work in a more conventional ukiyo-e vein."

Kunichika's artistic maturation came along at a time of great changes in Japanese culture in general. In the arts it was affected by the influx of Western ideas and techniques. Nevertheless, Kunichika remained a popular figure in the area of woodblock prints.

" [is] difficult to pinpoint precisely when Kunichika made his artistic debut as an Utagawa pupil. However, previously documented and extant examples suggest that his first works as a Kunisada apprentice were issued in the early 1850s. They also make the frequently cited date of 1848 for Kunichika joining Kunisada's studio plausible as apprenticeships normally lasted six or seven years. It was customary for ukiyo-e students to work on book illustrations and what might be Kunichika's earliest documented work is the illustration of 1851 novel Revenge at Igagoe (Igagoe adauchi listed by scholar Yamazaki Akira. Sadly, its existence cannot be verified. Kunichika's first broadsheet designs were most probably released at this time, too..."

"It is today recognised that Kunichika's earliest extant work is the single-sheet print Woman after the bath of c. 1853." [Illustrated in Time Present and Time Past..., illustration #1, p. 9.] "The signature on this print, 'picture by Utagawa Kachōrō' (Utagawa Kachōrō ga), is now acknowledged as an early artist's name that perhaps preceded his reception of the name Kunichika... The signature 'picture by Kunichika'... on the triptych Springtime scene (Haru no kei hana asobi no zu) of 1854 might well intimate that Kunichika had already made his artistic debut by this time." Nevertheless, Kunichika's acceptance as an important artist was basically ignored at this time, while his teacher Kunisada was at the top of the field.

"It appears that Kunichika enjoyed a relatively high standing in the Kameido atelier in the last years of Kunisada's life in that he was commissioned to execute several portraits of his teacher. In 1863, two years before Kunisada's death, Kunichika designed a portrait of Kunisada, with shaven head as was customary of old men of the Edo period... Upon his teacher's death, Kunichika was commissioned to design two memorial portraits (shini-e)."

"The name 'Kunichika' is a combination of the artists' names of his two teachers, Toyohara Chikanobu and Utagawa Kunisada."

"A frequently recounted anecdote by Japanese art historians and one which Kunichika tells in the Yomiuri interview relates that in mid-1862 Kunisada revoked his use of the name Kunichika." Why did this happen? Well, it would seem that Kunichika created a fantastical, imaginary image of a fight between different prominent kabuki actors. As a result, the followers of one of these men attacked Kunichika's home and basically destroyed it. When they moved on to Kunisada's home the mob tried to force their way in. It took months of negotiations before Kunichika was allowed to use that name again along with the go Ichiōsai. According to accounts Kunichika was a bit humbled by this experience.

By 1865 Kunichika's star was rising. In a published list of the top woodblock print artists Kunichika was ranked number 4, behind Yoshiiku at 3 and Yoshitoshi at the top.

At some point after the Meiji restoration Kunichika changed his name to Toyohara, after his first teacher. He used this rather than the name of his more famous teacher Utagawa Kunisada. No one knows why he took this path. From ca. 1870 he signed his name 'Toyohara Kunichika hitsu'.


In an interview with Yomiura Kunichika said that he and his first wife Ohana set up their residence in the Yanagashima area where their daughter Hana was born. His first marriage did not last, but we do not know the reasons why. Kunichika was known to have a roving eye and was said to have more than 40 lovers in his adulthood. He even had two more children from these encounters, but did not play the dutiful father to either of them. On top of his sexual appetites was the fact that Kunichika never lived in one place very long. In fact, he claimed that he had moved, since birth, over a hundred times. "I do not want to brag, but during his lifetime... Hokusai moved over eighty times and in this regard I am his senior."

All of the above information was quoted or derived from Time Present and Time Past: Images of a Forgotten Master - Toyoharu Kunichika 1835-1900 by Amy Reigle Newland.


Hugo Munsterberg in his The Japanese Print: A Historical Guide noted on page 137 noted that by the middle of the 20th century artists like Kunichika, Yoshitoshi and Kiyochika had been all but forgotten and "...if mentioned at all in books on Japanese prints, were dismissed as late, minor figures of little consequence, are today much admired and once more, as they were in their own day, looked upon as significant and interesting artists who vividly the spirit of their age. Their work is eagerly collected and exhibited in both private and public galleries." This book was originally published in 1982.

In his biography of Kunichika Munsterberg wrote: "His output was vast but uneven. Earlier critics usually dismissed him as having little merit, reflecting in his work the cluttered design, cheap aniline dyes, and poor printing that characterized many of the prints of the second half of the nineteenth century. This may indeed be the case, but there is at least one group of prints by Kunichika that cannot be dismissed so easily. These are his close-ups, or okubi-e, of actors, which are among the most powerful prints produced during this age."