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VJP title
Utamaro print showing


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Hokusui YOSHITOYO (北粋芳豊)


Hokusui Yoshitoyo (北粋芳豊, died 1862, active c. 1849(51?)–1860), was a student of the Edo master Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川國芳). He produced roughly 200 or so yakusha-e (actor prints: 役者絵) and fûkeiga (landscapes: 風景画), overwhelmingly in the small chûban (中判 250 x 180 mm) format. There are also some tiny mameban (豆判 130 x 100 mm or smaller) actor prints, as well as musha-e (warrior prints: 武者絵), grouped together on larger hosoban (細判 330 x 150 mm) or ôtanzakuban (大短册判 390 x 175 mm) sheets. Yoshitoyo rarely produced works for the standard large-size ôban (大判 370 x 280 mm), although there is one known exceedingly rare actor portrait and at least one nishiki-e banzuke (full-color theater playbills: 錦絵番付) of that size. A few rare fûkeiga in ôban format have also been found. Finally, late in his brief career, Yoshitoyo provided illustrations for newspapers, referred to as nishiki-e shinbun ("color-picture news": 錦絵新聞).

Hokusui Yoshitoyo 1849 Oiwa
ôju Yoshitoyo ga (Drawn by Yoshitoyo, on request)
Unidentified actor as Oiwa Reikon (Ghost of Oiwa: お岩の霊魂)
Mukashi Oiwa kaidan (The Ghost of Oiwa from long ago: 昔尾岩怪談)
Kado Theater, Osaka, 4/1849
Woodblock print, deluxe chûban

Yoshitoyo's earliest print might be the portrayal of the Ghost of Oiwa shown above. A performance is listed in Kabuki nenpyô (Chronology of Kabuki, vol. 6, p. 521) at the Kado Theater, Osaka in 4/1849, but there are no actors identified in that source. If the performance and date do indeed hold up for this print by Yoshitoyo, it would be slightly earlier than the previously reported active period (1851-1858) for which the first known Yoshitoyo print was a reduced-size copy of a Hirosada chûban portraying Nakamura Utaemon IV and Mimasu Daigorô IV in Sugawara denju tenarai kagami (9/1851). As for Yoshitoyo's estimated last year of activity, that, too, seems to require adjustment. Previously reported as 1858, Yoshitoyo's final year seems more likely to have been 1860, if we can accept the dating of the series Miyako hyakkei (100 Views of the Capital [Kyoto]: 都百景) published near the end of the artist's life around 1860 (see the example lower down on this page).

Regardless, Yoshitoyo's portrayal of Oiwa is brilliantly effective in capturing a late-Edo-period theatrical conceptualization of one of kabuki's most notorious specters. Mukashi Oiwa kaidan was an alternate title for Tôkaidô Yotsuya kaidan (Tôkaidô Ghost Story at Yotsuya: 東海道四谷怪談), the most popular of all kaidan mono (ghost plays: 怪談物) written in 1825 by Tsuruya Nanboku IV (鶴屋南北 1755-1829). Oiwa (お岩), the postpartum convalescing wife of Tamiya Iemon (民谷伊右衛門), is tricked into drinking a poison that disfigures her face so that her husband will divorce her and marry a neighbor girl. Upon her death, Oiwa's spirit and its living human allies exact their revenge against Iemon.

Hokusui Yoshitoyo 1853 Tamashichi
Hokusui Yoshitoyo
Nakamura Tamashichi I (中村玉七) as a shirabyôshi (白拍子), a dancing maiden
Tamuke no hana ninin Dôjôji (手向梅孆道成寺), Naka Theater, Osaka, 3/1853
Woodblock print, deluxe ôban (356 x 252 mm)

Yoshitoyo and all of his fellow contemporary ukiyo-e artists produced works nearly always for the chûban format. One standout exception is the portrait of Nakamura Tamashichi I (中村玉七) as a shirabyôshi (dancing maiden: 白拍子) in the play Tamuke no hana ninin Dôjôji (手向梅孆道成寺), shown above. The play appears to be an adaptation of Musume Dôjôji, which in turn derives from the Theater play Dôjôji. It is also is related to Kyôkanoko Musume Dôjôji (or Musume Dôjôji, The Maid at Dôjô Temple: 京鹿子娘道成寺). The tale involves a woman named Kiyohime who transforms into a enraged serpent-demon obsessed with taking revenge upon a Buddhist priest who flees from her overtures of love. She melts a temple bell at Dôjôji under which the priest has been hidden by the monks of the temple, thereby killing him. It is the oldest surviving -based kabuki dance drama. The actor performs for nearly an hour with nine changes of costume (hengemono 変化物, "change pieces"). Other Dôjôji-mono (Dôjô Temple plays) include Ninin Dôjôji (二人道成寺) with two dancing maidens, Gonin Dôjôji with five maidens, Yakko Dôjôji (奴道成寺) with the main role performed by a male tachiyaku (leading man: 立役), and Meoto Dôjôji (男女道成寺) with an onnagata (male in a woman's role: 女方 or 女形) and a tachiyaku performing. The play commemorated here, Tamuke no hana ninin Dôjôji, features two dancing maidens, and for the 3/1853 production at the Naka Theater, the roles were performed by Nakamura Tamashichi I (中村玉七), shown above, and Nakamura Kanjaku II (中村翫雀). Yoshitoyo's ôban design depicts Tamashichi within a roundel or mirror superimposed over a partial view of one of the scenes from the play. The temple bell is visible at the upper left. Brilliantly carved and printed, with gold-color and silver-color brass pigments, it is one of the finest Osaka yakusha-e in ôban format from the 1850s, and exceedingly scarce, with no other impressions recorded in the standard literature.

Rokkaen Yoshiyuki 1850s cargo boat race
Hokusui Yoshitoyo
Higaki shinmen bansen kawaguchi shuppan no zu (菱垣新綿番船川口出帆之図)
Cotton Transport Ships Racing to Edo Set Sail from the Mouth of the River, c. mid-1850s
Carver: Hori-nushi Seiyôken (彫主盛陽軒)
Woodblock print, ôban triptych (360 x 730 mm)

An ôban-format fûkeiga triptych is shown above — a rare subject and format for Yoshitoyo. Dating from the mid 1850s, it depicts the annual race of cargo ships carrying cotton from the mouth of the Aji River in Osaka to the port of Uraga, near Edo. The festival event was held from 1694 until the early Meiji era. One record of the race states that, in 1859, the winning vessel completed the trip in just over two days, whereas the usual time needed for the journey was about fifteen days. Here, the flotilla of competing boats crowds the river, on either side of which are the storehouses of wealthy merchants. In the distance at the top right one can see large Japanese sailing ships at anchor, while smaller sail boats are visible at the left right and along the red-tinted horizon. The composition is signed at the lower right, but, curiously, more prominent is the block-cutter seal of Hori-nushi Seiyôken 彫主盛陽軒) at the lower left.

Rokkaen Yoshiyuki 1860 shirinashi
Hokusui Yoshitoyo
Taiheiki yûshi meimei kagami (太平記勇士銘々鏡)
Mirror of Each of the Famous Heroes from the Chronicle of Great Peace, c. mid-1850s
Publisher: Matsuya-han (松弥板)
Woodblock print, 12 mameban on a ôtanzakuban

The historical epic Taiheiki (Chronicle of Great Peace: 太平記) written in the late fourteenth century covers the period 1319-1367. It deals primarily with the Nanboku-chô period (1336-1392), a time of war between the Northern Court of Ashikaga Takauji (足利尊氏 1305-1358) in Kyoto and the Southern Court of Emperor Go-Daigo (後醍醐天皇 1288-1339) in Yoshino. The original tale and its many adaptations in popular theater and books were widely known throughout Japan. They also served as the basis for a very successful print series by Utagawa Kuniyoshi titled Taiheiki eiyû den (Tales of Heroes of the Great Peace: 太平記英勇傳), c. 1848-49. Although the Taiheiki recounts events from the fourteenth century, Kuniyoshi's series portrays characters from the civil wars of the sixteenth century, with the names of the protagonists altered. The focal point of the saga is the key historical figure Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉 1536-1598), who was critical to bringing an end to the civil wars and is considered the second great unifier of Japan. On the final print in Kuniyoshi's set (no. 50), he is renamed Nakaura Sarukichirô Hisayoshi (中浦猿吉郎久吉).

Yoshitoyo's print depicts twelve famous warriors in the tiny mameban format on an ôtanzaku sheet,each figure a direct copy from twelve single sheets in Kuniyoshi's series. The names of the warriors as written on Yoshitoyo's print do not always match in every respect those appearing on Kuniyoshi's versions. Moreover, some of Kuniyoshi's designs include background details that were omitted from the Osaka artist's copies, including all of the long biographical inscriptions (written by the author Ryûkatei Tanekazu, 柳下亭種員 1807-58). The one exception is the retention of the water and fish in Yoshitoyo No. 11 (Saitô Toshimoto). Yoshitoyo's heroes are (right to Left, top to bottom, with Kuniyoshi's series numbers as indicated on his designs shown here after Yoshitoyo's numbers in parentheses): (1, K36) Saitô Kuranoshin (齋藤内蔵之進 1534-82); (2, K15) Fukushima Ichimatsu [Masanori] (福島市松 [政守] 1561-1624); (3, K4) Saitô Dosan [Toshimasa' (齋藤道三 [利政] 1492-1556); (4, K20) Takigawa Sakon [Kazumasu] (滝川左近 [一益], 1525-86); (5, K29) Shioden Tajima no kami (四方天但馬守, died 1582); (6, K45) Morimoto Gidayû (森本義太夫 dates unknown); (7, K28) Suzuki Shigeyuki (鈴木重幸 dates unknown); (8, K37) Shibata [Shurinosuke] Katsuie (柴田 [修理之介] 勝家 1530-83); (9, K23) Horio Mosuke [Yoshiharu] (堀尾茂介 [吉晴] 1544-1611); (10, K41) Sakurai Sakichi (櫻井左吉 died 1596); (11, K48) Saitô Toshimoto (齋藤立本 [also 利基] born 1566?); and (12, K33) Yamaji Shôgen (山路将監 1546-83).

Rokkaen Yoshiyuki 1860 shirinashi
Hokusui Yoshitoyo
Yasaka Hôkanji (Yasaka Hôgan Temple: 八坂法観寺)
Series: Miyako hyakkei (100 Views of the Capital [Kyoto]: 都百景)
Woodblock print, chûban, pub. by Ishiwa-ban (石和版), c. 1860

The largest number of landscape designs by Yoshitoyo can be found in the collaborative series Miyako hyakkei (100 Views of the Capital [Kyoto]: 都百景) published by Ishiwa (石和) near the end of the artist's life around 1860. The publisher Ishiwa's cover sheet has an expanded title, Miyako meisho hyakkei (100 Famous Views of the Capital: 都名所百景). Besides Yoshitoyo (signing as Hokusui, 北水), the other artists were (primarily) Umegawa Tokyo (梅川東居 act. c. late 1850s–early 1860s) and (at least one sheet) Raku Shunsui (洛春翠 act. c. late 1850s–early 1860s). The designs feature famous sites in the imperial capital of Kyoto. The view presented here depicts a five-story pagoda (Yasaka-no-to: 八坂の塔) at Hôkanji (Hôkan Temple: 法観寺), which was a fifteenth-century addition to what was originally a sixth-century temple. In 1179, the entire temple complex was burned down during a conflict between the Yasaka Shrine and its rival, the Kiyomizu Temple. Re-erected in 1191 under order of Shogun Minamoto Yorimoto (源頼朝 1147-1199), it was destroyed by fire in 1291, and again in 1436. The present structure was built in 1440 by Shogun Yoshinori Ashikaga (足利義教, 1394-1441). Today, the pagoda is registered as an Important Cultural Property. In regard to Yoshitoyo's design, which is signed "Hokusui sha" ("sketched by Hokusui": 北水写), what is most unusual is his choice to present the famous pagoda during a windstorm with dramatically bending trees and a swirling sky lifting a paper umbrella beyond the upper edge of the image area.

Note: The Osaka artist Hokusui Yoshitoyo was not the same as the roughly contemporary Edo artist with the same art name (Yoshitoyo 芳豊 1830-1866) who used different pseudonyms (Fukuyama 福山 and Ichiryûsai 一龍齋) and happened to also be a pupil of Kuniyoshi.

Hokusui Yoshitoyo's Names

Utagawa (歌川)
Uehara (上原);

Personal Name (jinmei):
Hyōzō (兵三) found 3X on an artist seal

Art Name (geimei):
Yoshitoyo (芳豊) also used for an artist seal
Hokusui (北粋, 北翠, 北醉, 北粹, or 北水)

Art Pseudonyms ():
Hokusui (北粋, 北翠, 北醉, 北粹, or 北水) also used as a geimei
Gansuitei (含醉亭)

Pupils of Hokusui Yoshitoyo

So far, no pupils have been identified.

© 2021 by John Fiorillo


  • Keyes, Roger and Mizushima, Keiko: The Theatrical World of Osaka Prints. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973, pp. 190-191, 259, 279, plate 74, nos. 428-429.
  • Leiter, Samuel: New Kabuki Encyclopedia: A Revised Adaptation of Kabuki Jiten. Westport, CT; Greeenwood Press, 1997, p. 651.
  • Lühl, Hendrick: Schätze der Kamigata: Japanische Farbenholzschnitte aus Osaka, 1780-1880 (Treasures of Osaka: Japanese Color Prints from Osaka, 1780-1880). Musée National d'Histoire et d'Art Luxembourg, 2013, nos. 121, 171, 206, 273.
  • Matsudaira, Susumu: Kôki Kamigata-e (Kamigata Prints in the Later Period, 後期上方絵 Part III, Vol. 6). [Ed. by Waseda University Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum: (Waseda Daigaku Tsubouchi Hakase Kinen Engeki Hakubutsukan-hen: 早稲田大学坪内博士記念演劇博物館編)]. Tokyo: Waseda University, 1997, no. 6-264 and 6-358 to 6-360.
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