Hokusai Katsushika – Master of Drawing

Hokusai Katsushika, Mount Fuji, Japanese Landscape

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is considered to be one of the greatest artists by the entire art world. He devoted almost all of his 90 years of life to drawing and painting. Never satisfied with one technique or mastering one style of drawing, he always sought to improve as an artist. Every sketch, painting, and woodblock print is proof of his relentless pursuit of artistic perfection.

British Museum has recently added 103 block-ready drawings dated 1829 by Hokusai to its collection, representing a major new discovery to the life and work of the late master. A wide range of subjects are represented in these drawings, from religious and mythological figures, to animals, birds, flowers and landscapes. Subjects relating to China, Southeast Asia and India are abundant, with themes previously unseen in Hokusai’s work.


While these drawings were intended for publication under the title ‘Great Picture Book of Everything’, for an unknown reason, this never took place. As a result, the drawings were not destroyed during the process of carving, making them extremely rare.


Other similar examples from Hokusai’s work that did make it to print include his wonderful ‘One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji’ (1835-1880) published in 3 volumes and ‘Hokusai’s Manga’ (1814-1878), comprising literally thousands of images in 15 volumes.


Hokusai had a deep connection to Mount Fuji, which had become a place of worship and pilgrimage for ascetic Buddhists and Shinto sects alike in the Edo period (1603- 1868). The series followed Hokusai’s successful colour prints of ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’. Though in absence of colour, the one hundred views series displays Hokusai’s unique composition, sometimes challenging the viewer to spot the playfully concealed peak of Mount Fuji.

As for ‘Hokusai’s Manga’, it was originally intended as a drawing instruction manual but Hokusai almost immediately removed the text and republished the drawings alone. The series took the artist on an encyclopaedic venture, from seemingly insignificant depictions of everyday objects to spirits and historical figures.

Browse a selection of prints from these series in our online catalogue.

Kunisada and the Tattoos of Kabuki Theatre


The urban culture that developed in Edo city (today’s Tokyo) in the 18th and 19th century was a pleasure seeking one as townspeople saw kabuki theatre as the ultimate entertainment. Kabuki and its lively and daring performances offered a break amid a restricted lifestyle with plays largely inspired by everyday sensational events. Actors were the real stars of the day, just like today’s movie or pop stars, and their fame reached such heights that woodblock prints depicting actors in their roles became collectibles and souvenirs for the fans. Kabuki also became a medium for tattoos with many popular roles having tattooed heroes and ruffians with flamboyant costumes and extravagant poses.

Omatsuri Kingoro and Kakuno Kosan, 1858

Kunisada Utagawa (1786-1865) stands as one of the most recognised artists that designed woodblock prints centred on the colourful world of kabuki. Passionate about the art form from a young age, he was accepted as an apprentice around 1800 by one of the great masters of the Japanese woodblock print, Toyokuni I (1769 – 1825), and became one of his chief pupils. In keeping with a tradition of Japanese master-apprentice relations, Kunisada’s talent and popularity would lead him to be honored with his master’s name and become the head of the Utagawa art school himself.


Life for everyday people in Kunisada’s time was strictly controlled by corrupt authorities and there was little leeway to express themselves freely. However, a new group began to distinguish themselves and challenge the injustice faced by commoners – the otokodate. Roughly translated as ‘street knights’, their confidence and bravery made them popular among the merchants, clerks, shopkeepers, and artisans who would often rely on them for protection against injustice. In this way, the samurai and otokodate were natural rivals, and as each group banded together into teams under leaders, fierce and bloody clashes broke out frequently.

Ichikawa Ichizo III as Nozarashi Gosuke, 1858

The otokodate were one of the main groups to adopt tattoos as a recognisable feature in tune with their fearless personalities and were so idealised and romanticised by common people that they became part of ukiyo-e and kabuki dramas. In this political environment, Kunisada often depicted actors in imagined settings and resembled their personalities to great heroes that ordinary people would praise and root for when they were performed on stage. The actors often showcased striking tattoos on their bodies, capturing to a great degree a sense of social decay and public discontent, making them, like the dramas they represent, quite modern in their questioning of established values. It is no wonder that from time to time the government of the time found it necessary to censor a theatre that seemed to call into question its authority.  


An iconic kabuki play that was often the subject of woodblock prints was ‘Summer Festival: Mirror of Naniwa’, focusing on an exciting character named Danshichi Kurobei, a fish seller by trade and an otokodate. This powerful drama revolves around Danshichi’s loyalty to his former master Tamashima, the strong bond he shares with his friends and his fatal relationship with his vicious father-in-law, Giheiji. The first act culminates with a scene in which Danshichi, tries to retrieve the courtesan-lover of Tamashima’s son from Giheiji who has abducted her out of revenge. The performance ends in a thrilling fighting scene in which Danshichi, unable to reason and enraged by Giheiji, chases and kills the wretched, mud-drenched old man. Stripping to reveal his magnificently tattooed back and limbs, Danshichi strikes heroic poses while stabbing Giheiji to the sound of the festive drums in the background. Danshichi takes the old man’s life with a thrust of his sword, then washes splattered blood and Giheiji’s muddy hand prints from his body, using water from a nearby well. He escapes by mingling with the large crowd of festival celebrants. In stage performances during Japan’s hot summers, the use of real mud and real water would have given the audience a pleasant feeling of coolness, but also the satisfaction that justice had been done on their behalf.


Kunisada’s rendition of an actor in the role of Danshichi shows him bearing a lobster tattoo on his forearm, a reference to the character being a fishmonger, but also a symbol of strength and protection. On his shoulder and chest are the feathers of a phoenix. Unlike the western counterpart, the phoenix in eastern mythology is said to appear only in times of peace and prosperity. It is also said that the phoenix is a creature of morality, shunning those who do not meet its high moral standards, it does not tolerate abuse of power and stands for justice and graciousness.

Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Danshichi Kurobei, 1859

Played by handsome actors, the otokodate became a focus of romantic desire. These warriors were viewed as folk heroes and seeing them in prints or on stage inspired fans to get tattoos of the same imagery that their fictional role models had tattooed on their bodies. Eventually, the same engravers who once created woodblocks took their craft to a new medium – human skin. Ukiyo-e and traditional Japanese tattoos are so intertwined that the word for hand-poked tattoos, tebori, a technique that is still practiced today, means ‘to carve by hand’.


Kunisada’s world was there to be enjoyed. He gave his audience an escape from the restrictions of their ordinary lives, and his images, with their optimism and verve, still have the capacity today to attract and entertain. Whether through kabuki theatre or the production of powerful images in ukiyo-e or tattoos, these art forms were crucial in creating myths central to Japanese history, reflecting both the ideals and dreams of the people.


Text: Geanina Spinu


Originally published in Tattoo Life Magazine, Jan – Feb 2020

History of Japanese Pottery (Yaki)

Yaki (焼) is a Japanese word used to describe porcelain, pottery and earthenware. Producing all of them has been a vital and successful art form in Japan, even though earthenware has been widely produced on the archipelago from the Jomon period (from 10,000 to 300 B.C.)- Japanese neolith.

Vase by Shoji Hamada, 20th century

The real boom started in 17th century. At the dawn of Edo period, in 1598, the army of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536- 1598) invaded Korea. During a short occupation period (1592-1598) the Japanese brought over a few families specializing in traditional arts, such as pottery making: art they again learned from the Chinese. Brought over to Kyushu, they started production on Japanese soil, founding a basis of the Japanese porcelain production. The location proved to be perfect, as local lands were rich in kaolin clays. Porcelain is baked in higher temperatures than pottery, and kilns built by the Korean potters allowed achieving phenomenal effects. In later years, Japanese artisans became artistically independent, but the continental influences have always been present.

Kakiemon Plate, 17th century

In late 16th century the tea ceremony culture gained popularity in Japan, being one of the factors propelling the porcelain production. The Japanese exported their products worldwide, continuing the trade even during the isolation of Edo period (1603-1868). The Dutch East India Company was the major consumer of Japanese pottery, stimulating development of that art craft; their first big order was placed at Arita in 1656.

Arita Teapot, early 18th century

17th century was the time of a great prosperity in Europe, an époque called baroque by latter generations. People came into possession of great fortunes and a demand for things unusual, oriental and foreign was tremendous. Factories in Delft in the Netherlands, Meissen, Vincennes, and finally Worchester in 19th century were established to produce copies of Japanese pieces trying to meet the immense need for oriental style porcelain in Europe. 

Satsuma Ware, end of 19th century

Komai metal inlay jewellery

The history and production of metal inlay in Japan.

Metal inlay jewellery is created through a process called damascening. It involves inlaying a steel ground with thin threads of gold and silver. The ground is then sealed through either oxidisation or via use of lacquer.

The Japanese term for damascene work is zogan (象嵌). The latter encompasses not just metal inlay, but can also describe other inlay techniques. One such example is Gohon Mishima ware, which refers to a type of pottery that is decorated via an inlay technique. In the case of Mishima ware, the material used as both a ground and inlay is clay. Another example is Shibayama inlay (Shibayama zogan), which describes lacquer inlayed with shell, coral, tortoiseshell and ivory.

Komai goods

The jewellery and small items we are displaying on this page, are largely so-called Komai goods, produced by the Komai family or their firm.

Historically following the development of the Komai family’s craft, gives us an interesting insight into the development of Japanese art as a whole. This family had produced metal inlay items for generations, well before the Komai firm was founded in 1841, but these items initially took the shape of sword furniture for the Samurai. Sword fittings could be very ornate and personal in design and required a high degree of skill to produce. Due to various changes in Japanese politics over time, Otojiro Komai eventually transitioned from creating sword furniture to other items, using the same technique.

The emergence of metal inlay techniques

Craftmanship commissioned by the Samurai class was prevalent during a very particular, if long, period of time in Japanese history: the Edo period. It began with the unification of Japanese feudal lords under the Tokugawa government around 1603, which calmed the constant warring factions and allowed for the arts to flourish. Among these artistic disciplines were pottery, metal work and woodblock printing.

The Edo period continued for roughly 250 years, coming to an end in 1868. At this point in time, the isolationist government of the Edo period was replaced by the new governing system of the Meiji period.

The Meiji period brought many cultural changes to Japan after the country opened its doors to the West, as well as structural changes to the government, with it. What most critically impacted the arts, was the new ruling outlawing the carrying of swords by samurai. This ruling suddenly put sword smiths and sword furniture artisans into a tight spot, as they lost most of their clientele.

Luckily, these sword smithing and metalworking skills could be used to produce a variety of items. Upon realising this, craftsmen started making various every-day metal objects that featured inlays. Among these objects are vases, mirrors, cigarette/tobacco cases, make-up cases, cufflinks and jewellery.

Today, these objects can be found in different countries, while a few remain in Japan. The reason the majority of them is abroad is that they were made for export and take the shape of distinctly Western items, as you can tell if you pay close attention to the list above. Cigarette cases, make-up cases, mirrors, vases and jewellery had a vastly different shape in Japan and cufflinks largely didn’t exist, because there was nowhere to fasten them on traditional clothing.

In this way, the Meiji period meant both lost and new-found opportunities for smiths, as this kind of international trade only became possible once Japan opened its borders. The Komai family then participated in several international expositions and gained renown and recognition for their craft.

The process of creating metal inlay:

  1. Double-hatch lines are cut into a steel ground.
  2. The design to be created is drawn on paper and is then transferred onto the steel ground with the help of a fine pin.
  3. Gold or silver wires are hammered into the surface of the steel ground and the entire piece is baked on a fire around 30 times. Afterwards, the lacquer is rubbed and polished off with a steel stick. Another finish can be created via oxidisation: The steel ground is oxidised with a chemical instead of lacquered over.
  4. Sometimes, the lines created by the wires are engraved to give the design the desired look.

Inro: a functional art

Contact us to find out about our current selection of inro.

Inro are small containers that could be roughly described as the handbags or pouches of ancient Japan. They had both practical and esthetical value. Though they usually were square, round or polygonal in shape, a variety of special animal shapes also exist. Over time, these containers came to be extremely luxurious and extravagantly decorated gadgets.

Consisting of a few compartments, the containers are joined by a silk string running through hollowed out channels on both sides of the object. As Japanese clothes (kimono) did not have pockets, inro became a substitute for the latter.

Kimono are fastened with a sash that sits at waist level, which was where an inro would be hung from. The inro was suspended at the bottom of the sash, a netsuke securing it in place, while an ojime bead at the top of the inro protected the container from opening accidentally. Initially worn by men, they filtered into female fashion over time.

Inro were perfect for insulating items such as medicine against Japan’s particularly humid and hot climate, because they were largely made of wood and leather coated with lacquer, which is a material that is known for its preservative qualities. Occasionally, ivory, paper, cloth or ceramics were used as additional materials to make these cases.

Lavishly decorated with various types of lacquer work and sometimes supplemented with inlays of ivory, mother of pearl and coral, an inro could be a very personal item. Even today, it has the potential to reveal a lot about the person that it belonged to. While the first motifs that were used for the decoration of inro reference ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints and paintings), the number of inspirations and designs grew countless, only limited by the owner’s circumstances and the artist’s imagination.

Woodblock printing – an overview

Many of the visitors who come to the Japanese Gallery Kensington are surprised to hear that all of our stock consists of original artwork and that the bulk of it is antique. Considering that we mostly carry works on paper, this is not surprising.

Due to the materials that are used to produce woodblock prints, they are much more durable and longer-lasting than artwork that is printed on Western paper. The materials used in the production also contribute to the uniqueness of these already hand-printed items.

Here is a summary of the materials that were used by master printers in the past and that continue to be used by contemporary woodblock print artists today with minor variations due to advancing time:

  • Japanese washi paper (mulberry tree paper)
  • A separate carved cherry woodblock for each colour to be printed
  • A barren. A round disc with a handle that is used to press the paper to the woodblock to facilitate the colour transfer
  • Nori (rice glue)
  • Powdered pigment
  • Water

The paper needs to be damp in order for the printing to happen correctly and the pigment needs to be mixed with nori glue and water. The resulting liquid colour is spread on the block of wood, onto which the damp paper is then pressed.

Next, the barren needs to be moved across the paper in circular motion with regular pressure. This takes a surprising amount of strength to carry out properly. Once the printing is done, the paper can carefully be detached from the block of wood and the process can be repeated with the next carved woodblock and corresponding colour. This goes on until the print is completed and can be left to dry.