10 Famous Japanese Artists You Should Know

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Writer’s Profile

Bryce was born in California, but raised from the age of 3 near Seattle, Washington. He’s been living in Tokyo for about 7 years, and graduated from Temple University, Japan with degrees in economics and international business. He loves traveling of course, but also cooking, snowboarding, some video games as well. His biggest interest is songwriting/music production, more specifically electronic music… (think Skrillex, Marshmello, Daft Punk, etc.) He also has terrible humor as you’ll notice, but he hopes you’ll enjoy it!

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Japan is responsible for many iconic contributions to the world, whether it’s their incredible automobiles or hour-sapping video games, it seems like there is no limit to what can be turned into a work of art. And of course, at the heart of this ability to turn anything into a work of art is art itself. As you explore the rich history and culture of Japan, you can’t miss delving into the lives and masterpieces of some of the most influential artists who have left an indelible mark on the canvas of Japanese creativity. From the iconic prints of Katsushika Hokusai to the avant-garde visions of Yayoi Kusama, this curated list promises to unveil the soul of Japan through the eyes of its artistic visionaries.

1. Katsushika Hokusai

Get ready to ride the waves of artistic brilliance with Katsushika Hokusai, the ukiyo-e master whose iconic “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” is as synonymous with Japan as Sushi. While this painting has been astoundingly current throughout the years, Hokusai is actually responsible for 1000s of works, and has contributed illustrations to more than 270 books. Hokusai’s prints, capturing the essence of Edo-period landscapes, transcend time. Dive into the world of woodblock prints and discover how Hokusai’s keen eye immortalized the beauty of Mount Fuji and the sea.

2. Yayoi Kusama

Step into the kaleidoscopic universe of Yayoi Kusama, the avant-garde queen whose polka dots and mirrored rooms redefine contemporary art. From the polka-dotted pumpkins to the immersive Infinity Rooms, Kusama’s creations blur the boundaries between reality and imagination. Her art has been heavily influenced by the hallucinations she’s had throughout her life, as well as the time she spent in the US in cities such as Seattle and New York. Uncover the secrets of her eccentric world and how it continues to captivate art enthusiasts worldwide.

3. Takashi Murakami

CitlalivargasssCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Enter the realm of Superflat with Takashi Murakami, the maestro of contemporary Japanese art. Murakami’s whimsical characters, a fusion of traditional and pop culture, have taken the global art scene by storm. From his iconic flower motifs to the iconic smiling flowers, discover how Murakami’s Superflat movement challenges conventions and brings a touch of irreverence to the art world. His transition from being highly trained in Nihonga (a traditional Japanese art form), to doing contemporary art is also an inspirational journey for many.

4. Yokoyama Taikan

Speaking of Nihonga, Journey into the serene landscapes of Yokoyama Taikan, a pioneer of the Nihonga movement. Taikan’s meticulous brushstrokes capture the essence of Japan’s natural beauty, from majestic mountains to tranquil rivers. Explore the traditional roots of Nihonga and how Taikan’s luminous paintings continue to evoke a sense of harmony between man and nature. Fun fact: his dad was a Samurai of the mito clan!

5. Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Uncover the vivid narratives of Utagawa Kuniyoshi, the ukiyo-e artist renowned for his dynamic depictions of samurai and mythical creatures. His name was originally Yoshisaburo, but Kuniyoshi was given to him by his master. Kuniyoshi’s prints tell tales of courage and mythology, offering a glimpse into the dramatic stories that captivated Edo-era audiences. He also essentially did “headshots” of Kabuki actors. Discover the artistic flair that made Kuniyoshi a master storyteller in the world of woodblock prints.

6. Kawase Hasui

Dive into the world of Kawase Hasui, a master of shin-hanga printmaking. Hasui’s delicate prints beautifully depict the changing seasons and landscapes of Japan. His keen eye for detail and poetic compositions make each print a lyrical journey through the country’s scenic wonders. His art was so influential and contributed so much to Japanese culture that he was actually deemed a “living national treasure” by the government. Explore how Hasui’s work encapsulates the essence of Japanese aesthetics, inviting you to experience the beauty of nature through the lens of printmaking.

7. Sesshu Toyo

Travel back in time to the Muromachi period with Sesshu Toyo, a Zen Buddhist monk and ink wash painter extraordinaire. Toyo’s masterful landscapes, characterized by bold ink strokes and minimalist compositions, reflect the Zen philosophy of simplicity. Uncover the spiritual depth in Toyo’s art and how his ink wash mastery transcends the boundaries of time, inviting contemplation and introspection. In fact, his work was so prolifically influential that many art schools appointed him as their founder.

8. Hasegawa Tohaku

Enter the realm of Hasegawa Tohaku, a sixteenth-century artist whose pine tree screens are a testament to timeless beauty. Tohaku’s meticulous depictions of pine trees symbolize longevity and resilience, offering a visual journey into the sublime. While his fame for pine trees is immense, his work with other landscapes and portraits are also significant. It’s also worth noting he derived some inspiration from Sesshu while studying art in Kyoto at the prestigious Kano school. Delve into the artistry behind Tohaku’s screens and discover how his work continues to inspire a sense of awe, capturing the enduring spirit of nature.

9. Ogata Korin

Experience the enchanting world of Ogata Korin, a pivotal figure in the Rinpa school of art. Korin’s vibrant and decorative style breathes life into traditional Japanese motifs. From irises to folding screens, explore how Korin’s innovative approach to design has influenced generations of artists. Immerse yourself in the beauty of Rinpa’s aesthetic flourish, where nature and art become inseparable. It’s also worth noting that Ogata was born into a wealthy family which also contributed to the arts, yet he still fell into financial troubles due to his exciting social life. 

10. Kitagawa Utamaro

Step into the captivating realm of Kitagawa Utamaro, a maestro of ukiyo-e portraiture. Utamaro’s bijinga (beautiful women) prints are celebrated for their elegance and attention to detail. Discover how he captured the allure of courtesans and Kabuki actors with a keen eye for facial expressions and costume intricacies. Utamaro’s portraits are not just art; they are windows into the vibrant social scenes of Edo-period Japan. Though not much is known of his life, his over 2000 works have contributed immensely to the whole of Japanese art.

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