EP41 Hokusai


Show Notes for episode 41 of our Podcast – Hokusai.

Story Notes

EP41 Hokusai

Hokusai, is the name he is most well known by, but his given name when he was born in 1760 was Tokitaro. Born some believe in the Warigesui section of the Honjo District in Edo. 

People believe his father was a mirror maker known as Nakajima Ise, a man who produced mirrors for the shōgun. And due to the fact that Hokusai was never made an heir, it is possible that his mother was a concubine. 

Hokusai began painting around the age of six, and at the age of 12, his father sent him to work in a bookshop and lending library, a popular institution in Japanese cities, where reading books made from wood-cut blocks was a popular entertainment of the middle and upper classes. 

And finally at the age of sixteen, he was apprenticed as an engraver and spent three years learning the trade. At during this time he began to produce his own illustrations. 

 I don’t know much about his early life, but by the age of 18 he had been enrolled in the studio of a Katsukawa Shunshou and it was while he was apprenticed here that he initially  wished to make his reputation as a designer of actor prints. 


Perhaps we can say he was a little eccentric over his lifetime, moved 93 times in his life. Made a giant Daruma painting. 200 meters squared. 

Changes his artist names many times. in fact there are over 30 names he used, and they have become used to established different periods in his life time.  

His earliest pieces or work that we still have do come from the time he was apprenticed here, however it is said that he didn’t have any success initially for over a decade and so in the early 1790’s at the age of 35 he left the school he was at to go and learn various other painting techniques and it was in 1796 that he finally began to use the name Hokusai for his art. This was also when he wanted to try and begin to define his own style of art. 

These names included Hokusai for prints and paintings, Tatsumasa for certain private collections, Tokitaro for illustrations and commercial fiction, as well as Kako or Sorobeku for other commercial prints and books.  

And with his interest in poetry, especially senryu, which is a comical form of Haiku, he created for these poetry circles noncommercial prints and plates for poetry albums, known as kyoka ehon.  

It is even said, that during his lifetime he gave public demonstrations of his work, but that was a little later on in his lifetime once his reputation had been firmly established.  

By 1804 we see his success, as he had become the foremost illustrator of popular novels, but some of his work wasn’t always easy. One of his jobs, led to a major dispute with a writer who was then replaced. So I suppose Hokusai wasn’t scared to stand his ground. 

From the early 1810’s, so he is in his mid-fifties now and still working, we see his style becoming more defined, and more his own with the first of the a series of books he said was ‘for those who wanted to learn drawing in the Hokusai style.’ This book in question was what is known as the Hokusai manga (or Sketches by Hokusai) and was actually helped to be inspired by Bokusen, a man Hokusai would make a lifelong friendship with. 

Now Japan, a little like China has a belief in a 60 years cycle, relating to the zodiac. Due to this, Hokusai again changed his name, starting a new kanreki or beginning of a new cycle. And so in 1820 when he turned 61 he changed his name to Iitsu. 

And from what I was reading it appear he then had a little break from his career until 1828, after the death of his second wife. Now from what I can tell this was his second wife. During his lifetime he has two sons and three daughters with these women.  

One of his daughters, called Katsushika O-e was skillful in bijinga, or beautiful woman art pieces. These pieces had dramatic contrasts between light and dark, sadly we only have a few pieces of her work, and we don’t really know all too much about her. 

After the death of his wife it is said that in 1829 his grandson started giving him problems, and to remedy this, in the following year of 1830 he sends him off to Michinoku Province, asking his son in law to take him.  

Perhaps that had been an omen of bad news for Hokusai, with 1830 becoming a bad year for him, he wrote at the time “this new year not a penny to spend, no clothes to put on nor anything to eat.” And this year he found himself having to ask for what to complete including a silk painting and a second volume to something called the Shinpen Suikogaden, a Japanese translation of a Chinese Classic. This volume would not be published for another 4 and a half years so overall a bad year for the artist. 

So lets look at following year. Had anything become better for Hokusai? 

1831 we see an announcement made. Now aged 72, Hokusai’s publisher, Nishinuraya Yohachi, announced the commencement of the 36 Views of Mount Fuji, likely the most well-known collection of art we known of Hokusai. 

The advert stated these prints would be ‘designed by old Iitsu, formerly known as Hokusai,’ and the adverts were placed in the backs of popular novels over the coming years to get the word out about them. 

Furthermore they were advertised as ‘views of mount Fuji from various locations, printed in shades of blue and possibly numbering a total of one hundred or more designs.’ This announcement of having a series of artwork would ensure that avid collectors would buy all of them to ensure they had a complete set, which would have been good not just for Hokusai but also for his publisher to keep him in business. 

Now over a hundred designs is a rather large task to undertake, and as we know not that many were ever made, in the end they were known as the 36 Views of Mont Fuji, and ironically there were 46 in total by the time he had finished. 

The reason 36 was used, was that this number historically had always held a kind of cultural significance, and we find it used to group people together in the past. For instance, the 36 Poetic Geniuses or the 36 Women Poetic Geniuses.

Apparently as well the carp fish only has 36 scales which added to the importance of the number 36 to the Japanese.  

And it was this artwork where we get to see Hokusai trying to achieve a three dimensional image through the use of layered colors on a two dimensional medium. 

Of these designs we can see that 10 of the predate all of the others due to the name stamp upon them. These, including the famous Great Wave, were signed  aratame Iitsu, by Hokusai, changing his name to Iitsu, with the rest being signed zen Hokusai Iitsu. By Iitsu, formerly known as Hokusai. 

Always adapting and changing he then also began painting kachoga, pictures of birds and flowers, and he changed how it was done. People had often done this in upright designs, whereas Hokusai did it horizontally allowing unconventional close ups of what was being depicted if seen through a telescope. His renewed popularity meant in 1831 he was commissioned to paint a design of 2 carp amongst waterweeds on a series of fan prints.  

In 1832 we see another set of prints, though this one is smaller, consisting of only nine. Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are depicted with each city having three prints each. One in Snow, Cherry Blossom and Moon, to depict Winter, Spring and Autumn.  

Additionally in 1832, there was a visit to Edo from the King of Ryuku Islands, islands chain south of japan including Okinawa. 

This led to a surge in interest in the islands, and so Hokusai adapted art from a Chinese book on these islands, having them published in broadsheets, entitling them the Eight Views of the Ryuku Islands. 

All of this seems to have re-inspired and awoken Hokusai to the world of art and we see much more being created by him in the time to come. 

He went back to his Hokusai Manga by now there were 12 volumes, with his most recent one attempting to show the more humorous side to him. 

In 1834 we see adverts for ‘Remarkable Views of Bridges in All Provinces.’ this being a series of ten pieces. There was later an 11th made, but it is likely that was requested by someone.  

And in the same year we see the first polished volume of the 100 Views of Mount Fuji. This would be a much longer series than the 36 Views, but all would be monochromatic, unlike their colorful predecessors.  

Volume 2 came out the following year, and this included the first instance of Hokusais’ autobiography where he again announces another change of name, from Iitsu to Gakyorojin Manji, Manji the Old Man Mad with Painting.  

Sadly Volume 3 was delayed slightly due to the bankruptcy of his publisher. 

And still he did not stop. 1835, he began a three volume book centered around famous warriors. And soon after came his largest collection to date. 

This collection was known as One Hundred Poems explained by the wet nurse.  

I am particularly interested in these as the one hundred poem in question are those from our favorite poetry book, the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. 

Each poem was given its own print, ‘as interpreted by a wet nurse’ in which Hokusai creates the art by paraphrasing the poem and freely associating single words from them to make the final image. 

Only 27 of these were taken to print, but we are fortunate in that copies of his designs have survived meaning would we could recreate the remaining 73 which were never printed.  

And so after all of this his publication seemed to stop, no more prints were made or forthcoming.  

Some time in his mid 80’s we do know he was invited to the town of Obuse, close to Nagano by a Takai Kozan, during his time here he created works known as Dragon and Phoenix as well as Masculine Waves and Feminine Waves for the ceiling of two festival floats. And additionally he created a phoenix for the ceiling of the temple of Gansho-in.  

In 1836 Hokusai returned back to Tokyo after his many, many moves to find it ravaged by famine and so had to sell pictures for measures of rice.  

Sadly in 1848 his lodgings burnt down, taking all of the study sketches and painting material he still had with him. 

And in the following year, in 1849 Hokusai passed away. You can find his grave in Tokyo, at the temple of Seikyo-ji Temple a mere 10 minute walk from Ueno Station. 

If you are interested in seeing some of his artwork, there are many museums around the world which do house them. However, for a more Hokusai experience I would recommend the town of Obuse we just mentioned, a short train ride from Nagano station you can visit the Hokusai Museum, full of his works including one of the festival floats he painted.  

And they also have a very good video (with English subtitles) going even more in depth into Hokusai life.  

And so I will end with a quote from Hokusai, which I came across at this very museum when I visited with my parents.  

“From the age of 6 I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75 I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign myself ‘The Old Man Mad About Drawing.”  

Poem Notes

Mukai Kyorai

Born in Nagasaki in 1651, his given name was Mukai Kanetoki but later would use the name Mukai Kyorai.

He started to train as a samurai, but changed his profession when 23 to write poetry instead.  

He published haiku as well as edited haiku collections from Basho and his students. His published works include The Kyorai sho (translated as Conversations with Kyorai. 

More can be said about him, but let’s come back to him for a later date.  

I want to talk about a topic theme called “sabi” 

Sabi is a noun, taken from the word Sabishii. Based on this word, what do you think the theme is about? 

This topic is about loneliness, being forlorn, miserable, sad’ 

Now, I could have found a typical poem for this topic. However, since Mukai was student of Basho and as we have come to learn, Basho liked to turn some of the more conventional ideas into something else, the poem I have today has a bit lighter meaning. 


hana moriya
shiro kikashirao
tsuki awase

Blossom Guards
Put their white heads together
To talk

I also chose this poem because during my research, I encountered the fact that Hokusai really didn’t become popular until he was around 60. In my humble opinion, while the ideal of the beauty of youth is a universally loved and often used theme, that talent, creativity, and accomplishment doesn’t always belong to the realm of the young. In fact, that age brings with it a wealth of experience and wisdom.  

That’s not to say that youth isn’t capable of great things either. Truly great things have been done by those who are young too. Rather, it is that you shouldn’t be afraid of growing older. And that just because you’ve grown older, you shouldn’t just sit back on your knowledge and wisdom – you should always learn and grow and you can ALWAYS learn and grow. I want to end with a quote from Hokusai, shared earlier from Thomas “When I am 80 you will see real progress.” 


  • Encyclopedia Britanica: Mukai Kyorai
  • Carter, S. (2019) ”How to Read a Japanese Poem”. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Carter, Steven. (1993) ”Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology”. New York: Stanford University Press.
  • Harris, F (2010) “Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print”. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.
  • Kenji, H (2015) “An Introduction to Ukiyo-e in English and Japanese”. Japan: Tokyo Bujitsu.
  • Kodansha. (1993) ”Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia”. Tokyo: Kodansha Ltd.
  • Forrer, M.(2018) “Hokusai: Mountains and Water, Flowers and Birds”. London: Prestel Publishing.

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Heavenly Spear