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SHIBA Kôkan (司馬江漢)


Shiba Kôkan (司馬江漢, 1747-1818) was the art name used by Andô Kichirô (安藤吉次郎), also called Ando Katsusaburô (安藤勝三郎). As with many Japanese painters and printmakers, Kôkan used an array of alternate art-names (: 號) or pseudonyms, including Harushige (春重), Fugen Dojin (不言道人), Shiba Yamaguchi (司馬山口), Shiba Shun (司馬駿), Kungaku (君岳 or 君嶽), Shunparô (春波楼), and Rantei (蘭亭). Over the course of his career, Kôkan worked as a print designer, painter, book illustrator, author, cartographer, astronomer (while also engaging in "Dutch learning," Rangaku, 蘭学), and inventor. Above all else, Kôkan is credited with being the first Japanese artist to produce copperplate etchings in the European manner (see "View on Mimeguri" below).

Shiba Kokan mimeguri
Shiba Kôkan: Mimeguri no kei Sumidagawa, September 1783
(View of the Sumida River at Mimeguri: 三囲景隅田川)
Hand-colored copperplate print (dôbanga 銅版画), etching (250 x 390 mm)

Kôkan began his art education in Edo at the age of fourteen or fifteen with the study of academic-style Kanô (狩野) painting, possibly with Kanô Michinobu Eisen-in (狩野典信英川院 1730-1790). After a while, Kôkan abandoned that pursuit. About seven years later, the works of the ukiyo-e master Suzuki Harunobu (鈴木春信) caught his attention, prompting Kôkan to follow along with a very similar style of printmaking from about 1770 to the mid-1770s, signing himself "Harushige" (春重). There seems to be no firm evidence that he actually studied with Harunobu, and thus no indication that he was authorized in any way to "inherit" the Harunobu name. Even so, Kôkan occasionally purloined the famous signature after Harunobu's death, using it on some of his own prints. At the time, these ukiyo-e prints in chûban format were supposedly accepted as true works by Harunobu — something Kôkan acknowledged with pride (see "Courtesan and attendant" illustrated below). In his journal, Kôkan wrote the following: "While I was studying painting under Sô Shiseki, an artist of the ukiyo-e tradition named Suzuki Harunobu was illustrating the female modes and manners of his day. He died suddenly when he was a little over forty, and I began making imitations of his work, [with artisans] carving them on woodblocks. No one recognized my prints as forgeries, and to the world I became Harunobu. I, of course, knew I was not Harunobu, and my self-respect made me adopt the name Harushige [see French 1974 ref.]." As the 1770s came to a close, Kôkan feared that such works in woodcuts and those of a similar style in his paintings might damage his reputation, and so he turned to an entirely different genre — Dutch-inspired, Western-style paintings (yôga: 洋画) in oils on silk, characterized by single-vanishing-point perspective. He continued in this mode through the 1780s and 1790s.

Before the mid 1770s, while Kôkan was designing prints in the Harunobu style, he also studied with the Nagasaki and Nanpin-school painter Sô Shiseki (宋紫石, 1715-1786), learning Chinese painting theory and techniques (he began this tutelage possibly as early as 1762). In 1773 he trained with the artist and author Hiraga Gennai (平賀源内, 1728-1780), an association that some say led directly to his first copperplate etching, the "View of Mimeguri" (illustrated above and discussed below). Gennai, who might have been introduced to Kôkan by Sô Shiseki, showed Kôkan some Dutch books with illustrations of Western copperplate etchings. It is likely that Gennai's laudatory opinion of Western art had a profound impact on him. Other influences on Kôkan's yôga style included the three great painters of the Akita clan: the daimyô (military lord: 大名) Satake Shozan (佐竹曙山 1748-1785), and his retainers Odano Naotake (小田野直武 1749-1780), and Satake Yoshimi (佐竹義躬 1749-1800). In 1773, Shozan invited Gennai to give advice on the fief's copper mines. While in Akita, Gennai also shared his knowledge of Western artistic concepts and methods, including the use of highlights and shading to achieve three-dimensionality in paintings. Later, Shozan sent Naotake to Edo where he stayed at Gennai's house for five years. Naotake not only learned about painting and Western book illustration from Gennai, but he also seems to have come into contact with the aforementioned Sô Shiseki. In 1778, during a return visit to Akita, Naotake and Shozan wrote the essays Gahô kôryô (Summary of Painting Laws: 画法綱領) and Gazu rikai (Understanding Composition: 画図理解), which were among the first theoretical writings on Western-style painting written by a Japanese artist. As for Kôkan, not only did he study the Akita paintings and read their essays, but he probably met Naotake and received direct instruction from him in yôga techniques.

The year 1783 marks a turning point in Kôkan's career, for this was the year he designed "View of the Sumida River at Mimeguri" (Mimeguri no kei Sumidagawa: 三囲景隅田川). This work has the distinction of being the first copperplate etching by a Japanese artist (see image at top of page). It should be noted that copper-plate engraving techniques for pictures of religious subjects had actually been introduced into Japan by Jesuit missionaries in the late 16th century (the Italian painter and Jesuit Giovanni Niccolo, 1560-1626, was involved in this), but that knowledge had virtually disappeared by the early 17th century, likely around or not long after 1612, when the shogun Tokugawa Hidetada (徳川秀忠 1579-1632) issued an anti-Christian edict forbidding propagation of the Christian faith and ordering the destruction of churches.

de Lairesse groot shilderboekDespite the late sixteenth-century introduction of copperplate printmaking (engravings), Kôkan's Mimeguri no kei was a ground-breaking work when it and four other of his etchings (i.e., not engravings) appeared in 1783. The view of the Sumida River near the Meguri Shrine presents a fascinating blend of Western and Japanese picture-making methodologies. The Western single-point perspective is dramatic, featuring a parabolic curve of river and shoreline that takes the observer convincingly deep into the pictorial space, where along the way we encounter the shrine on the left and tile-making works at Imado at the far right. For his understanding of vanishing-point perspective, Kôkan relied on models provided by Western sources for the diminishing size of the pedestrians as they recede into the distance. Kôkan owned an edition of Gerard de Lairesse's 1707 Das Groot Schilderboek, Waar in de Schilderkonst In Al Haar Deelen Grondig werd onderweezen ("The Great Book of Painting, Where All the Concepts of the Art Are Thoroughly Taught"). He would have known illustrations such as the one shown above right offering instruction on decreasing the size of objects as they recede along vanishing-point diagonals. However, he was not entirely successful in rendering Mimeguri no kei according to these Occidental principles of perspective; for example, the figures near the lower left are too small compared to the three figures to their immediate right. The Western influence can be seen as well, in the drawing of the trees, but other aspects of the scene were based on Kôkan's own observations and traditional Japanese ways of depicting human activity and views of nature, including the boats and the wind-swept waves on the river

Shiba Kokan nozoki karakuriMimeguri no kei and four other etchings made by Kôkan in 1783 were intended not only for unaided observation, but also for use with a "peeping glass" (nozoki-megane: 覗眼鏡), a device for looking at images that exploited Western-style perspective (vues d'optique). There were two types of these devices in Japan during the late eighteenth century. In one, an image was placed at the focal point of a biconvex lens, thereby allowing the viewing of a magnified image. Due to the optics of the lens, the observer saw a dramatic and illusory 3-D effect. There was a related type called nozoki karakuri ("peeping reverse-image": 覗繰) shown in a print by Suzuki Harunobu from his "Six Tama Rivers" series (Mu Tamagawa: 六玉川) — see below right, where a plano-convex lens and a mirror are set at a 45-degree angle, with the mirror causing a reversal of the image. Pictures viewed in this way needed to be left-right reversed in the original art works for accurate orientation. as would be most obvious if inscriptions were included on the printed sheet. Indeed, some landscape views of this type did have reversed Dutch-language inscriptions included as titles. Moreover, Kôkan printed some impressions of his five copperplate etchings from 1783 both in normal and reversed orientations, the latter for use in vues d'optique (see Screech ref. nos. 4 and 49).

The second type of viewing device, called a nozoki-bako ("peep-box": 覗箱), consisted of a wooden container with a convex lens mounted in a peephole. The lens offered an enlarged image of a "peeping picture" (nozoki-e 覗絵) or perspective view, but did not reverse it, as no mirror was involved. Essentially, this amounted to looking through a magnifying glass while relying on the perspective inherent in the art work to provide three dimensionality. At times the distinction between karakuri-e (reversed-image peeping) and nozoki-e (peep-box images) has been confused. During the Edo period, the term uki-e ("floating picture": 浮絵) was applied to both types of images and viewing devices as well as to perspective prints that used no apparatus at all. Moreover, the term megane-e ("spectacle pictures": 眼鏡絵), so widely used today, probably dates from the Meiji period, so it was not used during Kôkan's lifetime.

Suzuki Harunobu nozoki karakuriKôkan actually built his own nozoki-karakuri in 1784 (see image above left). The wood instrument measures 685H x 450W x 325D mm and now resides in the collection of the Kobe City Museum (Kôbe-shiritsu Hakubutsukan: 神戸市立博物館). Kôkan took the optique along with him in 1788 when he traveled west from Edo to Nagasaki. He wrote in his diary that people in the more provincial areas through which he traveled — whose inhabitants were unlike the more sophisticated Edoites and had never seen such trickery — were astonished and delighted by the effect of viewing pictures with such pronounced three-dimensional appearance. Always eager to receive recognition and acclaim for his achievements, Kôkan pasted the following declaration on the cover of his device: "Shiba Kôkan, living in Shiba, Shinsenza, Edo, is an artist of the Chinese style. In his spare time he studied Dutch scholarship and learned the Dutch method of copperplate etching.... It took him a great many years to study and master the technique.... his etchings are the very first ever made in Japan. Artists in the future who plan to make copperplates, do not forget that Shiba Kôkan made the first one.... Five of the etchings contained herein depict Japanese landscapes.... May 1784."

In 1799 Kôkan wrote a treatise titled "Discussing Western Painting" (Sei-yôga dan: 西洋画談). Among his many comments regarding Western art (not all accurate), he said, "By employing shading, Western artists can represent convex and concave surfaces, sun and shade, distance, depth, and shallowness. Their pictures are models of reality and thus can serve the same function as the written word, often more effectively. The syllables used in writing can only describe, but one realistically drawn picture is worth ten-thousand words."

Returning for the moment to Kôkan's earlier production of ukiyo-e, the chûban-format print shown below is signed "Harunobu ga," but it is by consensus attributed to Harushige (Shiba Kôkan). Kôkan is said to have boasted of his ability to forge the great master; indeed, he fooled many early collectors in Japan and in the West until a more accurate scholarly assessment emerged regarding the telltale signs of the Harushige style. Modern art historians have noted the calligraphic style of the faked Harunobu signature, which is distinctively different from the original. There was also Harushige's use of often rather pronounced Western-style vanishing-point perspective, something not found so obviously displayed in Harunobu's works. Furthermore, critics have identified Harushige's somewhat less delicate figures, revealed by a slight rigidity and linearity to the necks, heads, faces, and clothing that one usually does not find assembled together in genuine Harunobu prints. The scene shown below portrays a courtesan standing on the veranda of her brothel while composing a letter. Her kamuro (young attendant: 禿) holds a tray with ink and brush. The dramatic perspective of the architectural elements represent typical Harushige.

Shiba Kokan amogoi
"Harunobu" (Shiba Kôkan): Courtesan and attendant
False "Harunobu" signature, 1771-72
Woodcut, chûban (280 x 210 mm)

The chûban-format print shown below, signed "Harushige ga" (春重画), presents no problems of attribution. It is a mitate (comparison picture or clever parody: 見立) of a famous episode among the legends of the venerated female poet Ono no Komachi (小野小町 act. c. mid-9th Century). In this woodcut, the youths are in a house of assignation near the Yoshiwara brothel district, which was accessible via the embankment seen beyond their room. Here, a prostitute is grooming her client while an attendant heats water for tea. Outside, there is a heavy downpour, which alludes to Komachi's composing a poem that ended a drought. Summoned by the Emperor to provide a verse to bring forth rain, Komachi composed a poem, lit incense to Ryû (the Dragon Deity), and recited her poem. She next tossed the written verse into a pond, which initiated a thunderous rainstorm lasting for three days. In the cusped cloud above, the characters at the far right identify the series title, "Fashionable Seven Komachi" (Fûryû nana Komachi: 風流七小町). The remainder represents Komachi's poem, which reads Kotowari ya / hi no moto nareba / teri mo sen / saritote wa mata / ama ga shita towa (Though it is true that Japan / lies under the sun / where its light afflicts us, / even so this land is also / below the rain: ことはりや 日乃もとなれば てりもせん さりとては又 天が下とは). The style of composition and figure drawing reveal the hand of Kôkan, even without the Harushige signature. There is a slight rigidity and emphatic linearity to the necks, heads, and faces, along with strong diagonals in the floorboards, roofs, and embankment — all hallmarks of the Harushige style.

Shiba Kokan amogoi
Harushige (Shiba Kôkan): Mitate of Amagoi Komachi (Praying for rain Komachi: 雨乞小町)
Series: Fûryû nana Komachi ("Fashionable Seven Komachi": 風流七小町), c. 1772-73
Woodcut, chûban (290 x 220 mm)

Aside from Kôkan's significant production of paintings and etchings, he also explored cartography. His "Complete World Map" (Yochi zensu, 輿地全圖 later revised as Chikyû zenzu: 地球全圖), published in 1792 as an etching, depicts two hemispheres on two sheets (see below). It was a faithful copy of a French-language map in the possession of the Rangaku scholar Ôtsuki Gentaku (大槻玄沢 1757-1827), specifically, Alexis Hubert Jaillot's (1632-1712) revision of Guillaume Sanson's (1633-1703) map of the Eastern and Western hemispheres issued by Covens and Mortier (Amsterdam, c. 1730), which included revisions of Japan based on the latest information at the time. Kôkan's map was reprinted at least three times from the same copperplate and with the same colophon, supplemented with illustrations added around the map. From the second edition onward, the title became the aforementioned Chikyû zenzu. Explanatory booklets were published for each edition of the map, with the 1793 illustrated "Explanation of the Complete Map of the World" (Chikyû zenzu ryakusetsu: 地球全圖略說) for the first edition being the simplest. Kôkan's world map includes northern and southern polar projections and Copernican heliocentric astronomical diagrams. Chikyû zenzu was the first Japanese map to include countries such as New Guinea and Australia. North America is shown with the northwest region left blank, although the Northwest Passage is indicated, and there is a vast gulf above California. Even as it pictures the fictional continent of Magellanica at the bottom of the hemispheres, it reduces that area compared to previous Japanese maps. Routes of various voyages and sea banks or shoals are also among the details. A narwhal and a scene of whale fishing is placed above the Western hemisphere and, at the bottom, fruits and flowers are illustrated. As he had done with the label for his self-made nozoki-karakuri in 1784, Kôkan proclaims himself in the map's colophon as the first artist to introduce copper-etching to Japan (in 1783). In the realm of science, however, Kôkan's greatest achievement was probably the popularization of Copernican theory in Japan, primarily through three of his books. In addition to the already cited Chikyû zenzu ryakusetsu (1793) accompanying his world map, there was his "Dutch Astronomy" (Oranda tensetsu: 和蘭天説 ) from 1796 and the "Illustrated Explanation of the Astronomy of Copernicus" (Kopperu temmon zukai: 刻白爾(コッペル)天文図解) from 1808.

Shiba Kokan mimeguri
Shiba Kôkan: Chikyû zenzu, 1792
(Complete World map: 地毬全圖)
Hand-colored copperplate print (dôbanga 銅版画), etching (510 x 860 mm)
John Carter Brown Library, Brown University

A late painting on silk by Kôkan is shown below. It depicts one of the perennial themes in Japanese art — the sacred mountain, Fujisan. This was a subject that Kôkan returned to repeatedly in his paintings and prints. The technique used for this and certain other paintings by Kôkan has been described in two different ways. According to Tanaka Atsushi (see Asano ref.), Kôkan referred to his oil paintings (yuga: 油画) on silk and canvas as "waxed paintings" (rôga: 蠟画), which relied on coloring adapted from lacquerware production. Such oil paintings were called mitsuda-e ("thick pictures": 密陀絵). The pigments were derived from oxidized lead, which used mitsudasô (密陀僧) as a desiccant (equivalent to "litharge" or the mineral pigment PbO). The medium consists of powdered pigments added to a base of perilla oil and a small amount of lead-oxide that has been heated with the oil. Among other things, the resulting mineral pigment enabled craftsmen to paint with a white colorant on lacquerware, not otherwise possible in traditional lacquer painting.

An alternative assessment (by the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, for their painting "Ferry at Imai" discussed below) suggests that what Kôkan did was create a so-called "mud-painting" (doro-e: 泥絵), intended to reproduce the effect of European oil paintings, but with traditional Japanese pigments. The trick was to use some type of thick, opaque paint, often made from inexpensive pigments, and then add a white pigment called gofun (shell powder: 胡粉), all of which were ground up and mixed with water. These colorants were most commonly used for inexpensive art such as popularized Tosa-style "Nara pictures" (Nara-e: 奈良絵) and folk-art such as "pictures from Ôtsu" (Ôtsu-e: 大津絵). The thick pigments were used as well for kabuki theater signs (kanban: 看板), stage settings (ôdôgu: 大道具), and wooden votive plaques (ema: 絵馬). As the thick, "muddy" pigments resembled oil paints in color and texture, they were used by Akita-school artists (Akitaha: 秋田派) for Western-style paintings in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. The pigments were also used occasionally for copperplate etchings and some of the aforementioned woodblock-printed peep-show pictures. [Note: Whether the two descriptions of technique are closely related or even the same is not yet clear to the present author. For example, is the " thick, opaque, paint" in the second description equivalent to the oxidized-lead pigment in mitsuda-e?]

The inscription at the upper left of the painting shown below reads "Ferry at Imai on the Tone River in Shimosa Province. Painted by Shiba Kôkan, a seventy-five-year old man" (Shimofusa Kuni Tonegawa Imai Wataru • Shiba Kôkan fude: 下総利根川今井渡 • 七十五男司馬江漢筆). The inaccurate age cited by Kôkan is discussed in the next paragraph. In the painting, sailing ships are arranged so that their sizes diminish as they recede into the distance, although the receding diagonals do not quite establish exact Western vanishing-point perspective. The parabolic curve present in Kôkan's Mimeguri no kei discussed earlier is also seen here. The thicker colorants do indeed suggest oil painting, most evidently in the white and gray pigments used for Mount Fuji, the sails of the boats, and Western-style clouds. The artist's signature in Latin characters is accompanied by a flourish or writing seal (kakihan: 花押).

Shiba Kokan amogoi
Shiba Kôkan:下総利根川今井渡 (Shimofusa Kuni Tonegawa Imai Wataru)
"Ferry at Imai on the Tone River in Shimosa Province," 1812
Painting on silk, either doro-e ("mud picture": 泥絵) or mitsuda-e ("thick picture": 密陀絵)
Image: 577 x 985 mm; Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

For unconfirmed reasons, Kôkan began to add nine years to his true age when he reached sixty-two. In the 1812 "Ferry at Imai" painting shown above, his inscription proclaims that was he was seventy-five when, in fact, he was sixty-six years old (by Japanese reckoning). Stranger still, he sent out his own death notice in 1813, five years before he died. One conjecture is that Kôkan was influenced by a fable written by Zhuangzi (莊子) or "Master Zhuang," a Chinese Daoist philosopher active in the late fourth century BCE. A story in the Zhuangzi or compilation of writings named for its principal author, asserts that if one follows instruction given by a wise man, he can progressively improve himself each year. Even so, by the eighth year, the protagonist in the tale understood neither life nor death. Finally, in the ninth year, he comprehended "the profound mystery." Kôkan might have hoped to achieve enlightenment sooner rather than later by adding nine years to his age and experiencing a virtual death by sending out his death notice.

Alternatively, it has been proposed that Kôkan's eccentric conduct might have been a response to his falling out with certain Rangaku scholars such as the aforementioned Ôtsuki Gentaku and Morishima Churyô (森島中良 1754-1810). With the publication of updated, advanced books on natural science, Kôkan's clever but idiosyncratic productions on the topic were beginning to seem outmoded. He was considered by some in the Rangaku world to be no better than a dilettante, and he was disparaged as the "Arrogant Fabricator, Hawker of Copperplates." This led to his exclusion from academized discussions and studies in Dutch learning. In response, Kôkan became estranged from the personna he had presented to the world in his earlier efforts in Rangaku and decided, so the theory goes, to fake his age and death as a symbolic escape from current intellectual pursuits in natural science and Western learning (see Tanaka article in Asano ref.).

Kôkan's last copperplate etching appeared in 1805 when he produced his "Chart of Lands Facing Seas" (Hinkai-zu: 瀕海之圖), whose alternate title was "Dutch Chart of Lands Facing the Seas" (Oranda hinkai no zu: 和蘭瀕海之圖 or Oranda tsuhaku). He also abandoned Western-style oil painting around that time. Kôkan then held a retirement party in 1807, turning over his production of prints and paintings to his disciples, and giving away many of his works to those attending the celebration. © 2021 by John Fiorillo


  • Asano, Tôru; Ozaki, Masaaki; and Tanaka, Atsushi: Shajitsu no Keifu I – Yôfû Hyôgen no Dônyû — Edo Chûki kara Meiji Shoki made. (Development of Western Realism in Japan: 写 実の系譜 I・洋風表現の導入。江戸中期から明 治初期まで). National Museums of Modern Art (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka), exhibion cat., 1985, pp. 91-114.
  • Failla, Donatella: "Yôgakusha's Landscape Views and Visions, Metaphors and Symbols in Late 18th-Century Japan," in: Journal of the Art Reseach Center, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Feb. 2020, vol. 1, pp. 11-14.
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  • Screech, Timon: The Lens Within the Heart: The Western Scientific Gaze and Popular Imagery in Later Edo Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002, pp. 100-103, nos. 3, 4, 47, 48.
  • Unno, Kazutaka: "Cartography in Japan," in: The History of Cartography, Vol. 2, Book 2, Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies (ed. by J. B. Harley and David Woodward). University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 435.
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