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VJP title
Utamaro print showing


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TAGAWA Ken (田川憲)


Tagawa Ken (田川憲 1906-1967), whose given name was Ken-ichi (憲一), was born in Nagasaki and graduated from the Nagasaki Business School in 1924. He moved to Tokyo, where in 1927 he met Onchi Kôshirô, who inspired him to learn woodblock printing. Also in Tokyo, he studied drawing and oil painting at the Kawabata Gagakkô ni Nyûgaku (Kawabata Painting School: 川端画学校に入学) starting in 1928. He made his first woodblock prints in 1932. Then, in 1934, Tagawa returned to Nagasaki, where he had his first solo exhibition of prints at the Nagasaki-kenritsu Nagasaki Toshokan (Nagasaki Prefectural Nagasaki Library: 長崎県立長崎図書館), published a collection of prints called Shinpan Nagasaki fûkei (Newly published views of Nagasaki: 新板長崎風景 see below), and founded the Hanga Nagasaki no Kai (Nagasaki Print Association: 版画長崎の会). He was also directly involved in establishing and publishing Hanga Nagasaki (Nagasaki Prints: 版畫長崎), which appeared in February to August 1935, and then, after a long hiatus, the art magazine was resurrected from July 1953 to January 1963 in six additional issues, featuring self-carved, self-printed prints from several artists.

Tagawa Ken 1956 abandoned settlement
Tagawa Ken: Kyoryûchi no haioku (居留地の廃屋)
Abandoned houses on a [foreign] settlement
Woodcut, self-carved, self-printed, 1956

In 1941 Tagawa joined the Nihon Hanga Kyôkai (Japan Print Association: 日本洋画協会). During the war, while stationed in China as a military painter in 1941-42, where he again established a print society, the Shanai Hanga Kyôkai (Shanghai Print Association: 上海版画協会) as well as the Shanhai Hanga Kenkyûjo (Shanghai Print Research Institute: 上海版画研究所). He also published a private Shanghai hanga magazine Ken Tagawa・Mokkoku shôhôryû (Tagawa Ken's Small Bulletin of Woodcuts: 田川憲・木刻小報龍). It was also at this time that he dropped the "ichi" from his given name and began using "Ken" in his art signatures. In 1945 he returned to Japan, but his ship drifted perilously in the East China Sea for sixteen days and he lost all of his sketches and prints. He first settled in Fukue City, Goto, then Yamaga in Kumamoto Prefecture, and finally Nagasaki in 1949, determined to restart his artistic endeavors. In that same year, he designed a haunting image of an infamous site titled Urakami genbaku iseki (Urakami Atomic Bomb Ruins: 浦上原爆遺跡); also called Nagasaki genbaku ikô・Urakami tenshudô (The Ruins of Atomic Bombing at Nagasaki, Urakami Catholic Church: 長崎原爆遺構 (浦上天主堂); see below.

Tagawa Ken 1949 Urakami atomic bom ruins
Tagawa Ken: Urakami genbaku iseki (Urakami Atomic Bomb Ruins: 浦上原爆遺跡)
Woodcut, self-carved, self-printed, self-published 1949 (330 x 395 mm)

The port city of Nagasaki had engaged in commerce with the West since the sixteenth century, first with the Portuguese, and then with the Dutch, before Japan was forced to open its borders in the 1850s under the so-called "gunboat diplomacy." Having been born and raised in Nagasaki, Tagawa's style and subject matter were influenced by the sensitivities of that city. Although he was a sôsaku hanga artist who was well aware of, and sometimes directly involved in, the creative art movement centered in Tokyo, he was also a printmaker whose subject matter was driven in large part by the particular history and cultural exchanges between Nagasaki and the West.

After the war, Tagawa became an advocate for the preservation of western-style houses and settlements in Nagasaki, but to his great regret, those sites continued to disappear or remained under threat of being demolished. His mission then became the production of prints portraying Nagasaki as a way of preserving the appearance of these settlements as an historical record. Many of his images were infused with a nostalgic, even sad mood, such as would affect a preservationist looking back on the old, lost Nagasaki. This quality exemplified Tagawa's approach to printmaking during the 1940s-1950s. In his final decade, the palette did brighten, although the primary theme remained the foreign presence in Tagawa's beloved Nagasaki.

The modernist-realism in these works, often executed with dark, narrow-range color palettes, was an effective mode for Tagawa's emotional response to the foreign influence in Nagasaki. There is a brooding stillness in the views of this type. See the image at the top of this page, titled Kyoryûchi no haioku (Abandoned houses on a [foreign] settlement: 居留地の廃屋), where the silent, empty cobblestone street and open patch in the middle distance indeed evoke a sense of abandonment. The Nagasaki foreign settlement (長崎居留地), sometimes called the Oura foreign settlement (大浦居留地), was established by treaties between the West and Japan in the mid-to-late 1850s, and remained an important center of western life in Japan until the outbreak of World War II.

Tagawa Ken 1953 cover for Shin Nagasaki fukei >Tagawa Ken 1934 Port of Nagasaki
Tagawa Ken: Shinpan Nagasaki fûkei
(Newly published views of Nagasaki: 新板長崎風景)
Tagawa Kenichi hanga shû (田川憲一版画集)
(Collection of prints by Tagawa Kenichi)
Kigen (Era year: 紀元年) 2594 = 1934
Self-published: Guroria Shobô-ban
(Gloria Shobô-ban: ぐろりあ書房版)
Tagawa Ken: Port of Nagasaki
Close-up view of shipping in the harbor
Shinpan Nagasaki fûkei
(Newly published views of Nagasaki: 新板長崎風景)
Kigen (Era year: 紀元年) 2594 = 1934
Self-published: Guroria Shobô-ban
(Gloria Shobô-ban: ぐろりあ書房版)

In the 1950s, Tagawa published several collections of prints. One was titled Nagasaki Shichô (Poetry of Nagasaki: 長崎詩帖) from 1952. However, nearly two decades earlier, in 1934, Tagawa had already produced an impressive collection of self-carved, self-printed, self-published prints in book form titled Shinpan Nagasaki fûkei (Newly published views of Nagasaki: 新板長崎風景). This book was released as both a small private edition (the first 50?) and a slightly larger commercial production (150?) for a total of 200 copies. In this exceptional work, Tagawa designed every aspect of the book. The cover was constructed with handmade Izumo mingei-shi (Izumo folk-craft paper: 出雲民藝紙). The Izumo mingei-shi papermaking enterprise was founded by the first papermaker to be designated a National Living Treasure (in 1968), Abe Eishirô (安部栄四郎 1902-1984) who was born in Bessho, Iwasaka Village, in the Yatsuka District of Shimane Prefecture (now Yakumo Town, Matsue City). In Tagawa's book, there are 23 tipped-in woodblock prints, plus various other printed images, including blue Dejima map endpapers unique to the private edition. The illustrations first appeared in June and July of 1934 in the Nagasaki edition of the Asahi Newspaper. More books like this one were planned but never emerged. It is thought that all 200 copies (combined private and commercial editions) were printed personally by Tagawa (including 4,600 tipped-in prints in three months!) with unsold copies (¥3 for the private edition; ¥2 for the commercial edition) given over time to friends. Shown above is the cover and one of the tipped-in prints.

Tagawa Ken: Jûji bara no mado (十字荆棘の窗)
Stained glass with roses and crosses (Church in Nagasaki)
Woodcut, self-carved, self-printed, 1956 (270 x 400 mm)

Influenced by the work of Kawakami Sumio, Tagawa also produced a number of scenes portraying foreigners in Nagasaki. Fascinated with the buildings constructed in Western styles, or hybrid edifices partly incorporating Japanese architectural details, Tagawa designed a number of prints depicting churches and synagogues. In the example shown above, he focused on the details of stained glass windows (Jûji bara no mado 十字荆棘の窗), the steep Japanese-style timber roofs, and the textures of the walls.

Nobuharu 1847 Nagasaki miyageTagawa's interest in foreign culture and its legacy in Nagasaki continued until his death. A late print from 1964 portrays the Dutch with humorous brio in a style that derives its mannerism, at least in part, from Kawakami Sumio (see image below). It also owes the idea for the composition to an Edo-period artist named (Isono Bunsai (磯野文齋 c. 1798-1851, who also signed as Bunsai Isono Nobuharu, 文齋磯野信春). Bunsai produced a woodblock-printed book titled Nagasaki miyage (Souvenir of Nagasaki: 長崎土産) in 1847 (see double-page spread on the right). In Tagawa's print, the interior scene is clearly derived from Bunsai's work, with the figures more or less in comparable positions (the serving maid has been moved from the left to a standing position between the seated gentlemen), and the Dutch painting and vase appear similarly on the wall. Even the oval-shaped title cartouche at the upper right is nearly the same, and shares the Japanese text for Oranda yashiki (Dutchman's mansion: 和蘭屋敷 accompanied by the equivalent katakana: オランダ and ヤシキ). The figure of the ship's captain peering through his telescope in Tagawa's print might be a composite conceit based on the left side of Bunsai's companion book-sheet where a geisha or servant in Japanese garb takes up that position, while in the distance a simplified silhouetted figure in Western clothes is also peering through a scopic device. Alternatively, there might be yet another early source for this figure and perhaps that of the western woman in the flower hat. Clearly, Tagawa was so steeped in the history of his beloved Nagasaki that he was familiar with Edo-period antecedents portraying the Dutch in the port city. Here, in an entertaining parody, he reconstituted the design through a modern "retro" idiom.

Tagawa Ken: Oranda yashiki (Dutchman's mansion: 和蘭屋敷), "Nagasakie"
Woodcut, self-carved, self-printed, 1964 (200 x 370 mm)

In another work focusing on a religious building, Tagawa depicted the Sôfukuji (Sôfuku Temple: 崇福寺) in Nagasaki in a view that brings forward the roofs of the temple complex set before Nagasaki harbor in the distance (see image below). The Sôfukuji is a Ôbaku Zen temple built by the Chinese monk Chaonian (Chozen) in 1629 as a family temple of the Chinese from Fuzhou, Fujian Province, who had settled in Nagasaki. Architecturally, Ôbaku and Japanese styles are intermingled. Two of its buildings have been designated national treasures. Maso (媽祖), the goddess of the sea and and patron to sailors and fishermen, who in Buddhism is worshiped as an incarnation of the Mercy Goddess Kannon (觀音菩薩), is enshrined in one of the halls. The Inner Gate, Dai'ippomon, and the main Buddha Hall, Daiyû-Hôden, were both fabricated in Ningbo, China, disassembled, shipped to Nagasaki and reassembled in 1695. Today, each is classified as a National Treasure. On February 26, 1921, a "World Peace Bell" (1.2m diameter, 2m high), donated by China's Fujian Province as a symbol of peace and China-Japan friendship, was installed in a belfry on the grounds of the temple.

Tagawa Ken 1965 Sofukuji and harbor
Tagawa Ken: Sôfukuji (Sôfuku Temple: 崇福寺)
Temple roofs at the port of Nagasaki
Woodcut, self-carved, self-printed, 1965 (270 x 400 mm)

In 1956 Tagawa received the Nagasaki Ken Kôrôshô (Nagasaki Distinguished Service award: 長崎県功労章). The newspaper Nagasaki Shinbun (長崎新聞) awarded him the Kaibun Kaaki (First Cultural Seal: 回文化章) in 1960. Not long after his death, a retrospective exhibition of Tagawa's works was held in 1969 at the Nagasaki Prefectural Museum of Art (長崎県美術館). Recently, from Jan. 27 to April 8, 2018, the museum again held a major exhibition, this time commemorating the Fiftieth anniversary of his death, titled Tagawa Ken: Nagasaki ni okeru sôsaku hanga no paionia ("Tagawa Ken: Pioneer of Creative Prints in Nagasaki": 長崎における創作版画のパイオニア).

Works by Tagawa Ken can be found in various public institutions, including the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Honolulu Museum of Art; and Nagasaki Prefectural Museum of Art. © 2021 by John Fiorillo


  • Chiba-shi Bijutsukan (Chiba City Art Museum: 千葉市美術館): Nihon no hanga 1931-1940 (Japanese prints 1931-1940), Vol. IV, 2004, nos. 28-1 and 28-2.
  • Merritt, Helen, and Yamada, Nanako: Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints 1900-1975. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992, pp. 141, 203.
  • Tagawa Ken: Shinpan Nagasaki fûkei (Newly published views of Nagasaki: 新板長崎風景), 1935 [collection of original woodcuts].
  • Tagawa Ken hangashû: Nagasaki shijô (Tagawa Ken — Collected Prints, Nagasaki Poetry 田川憲 版画集 長崎詩帖), 1953 [collection of poems and original woodcuts].
  • Zehnder, Amanda: Modern Japanese Prints: The Twentieth Century. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art, 2009. p. 168.
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