Saitō Kiyoshi

Undated photo of the artist


Saitō Kiyoshi 斎藤清 (1907-1997)

A seminal figure in the resurgence of the Japanese woodblock print after World War II, Saitō was a mostly self-taught artist who first worked in oils and then dedicated himself to woodblock prints.  With his winning of a special prize for Japanese artists at the First Biennial Exhibition of the Modern Art Museum of Sao Paolo in 1951 he was launched onto the world stage.  He became a favorite of American collectors and in 1967 his woodblock print of then Prime Minister Eisaku Satō appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.  His woodblock prints are known for their prominent display of woodgrain, simple forms, and wide variety of subjects, all of which are uniquely Japanese.  While his subject matter is Japanese, the artist credits Gaugin, Munch, Redon, Mondrian and other Western artists as important influences on his work.  Honored as bunka kōrōsha (Person of Cultural Merit) in 1995, Kiyoshi passed away at the age of 90 in November 1997, shortly after opening the Kiyoshi Saitō Museum of Art in Yanaizu. 


Sources: 44 Modern Japanese Print Artists, Gaston Petit, Kodansha International Ltd., 1973; Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn, Oliver Statler, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1956; Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints - The Early Years, Helen Merritt, University of Hawaii Press, 1998; Masterful Images: The Art of Kiyoshi Saito, Barry Till, Pomegranate Communications, 2013 and as footnoted.

Early Childhood

Born in the small village of Aizubange, Kawanuma in Fukushima prefecture on April 27, 1907, Saitō knew poverty as a child.  He was four or five when his father lost his business and moved the family to Yubari, Hokkaido where he found work in the Otaru coal mines.  His mother died when he was thirteen and he was sent off to be the ward of a Buddhist temple twelve hundred miles from home. Unhappy at the temple he tried to buy a railway ticket home.  A sympathetic priest interceded and sent him back to Yubari. 

Moving to Tokyo

Displaying an aptitude for drawing, Saitō was taken on as an apprentice sign painter in Otaru and by the age of twenty set up his own business designing signs for storefronts which provided him with a modest income.  In Otaru he studied drawing with Narita Gyokusen 成田玉泉 (1902-1980) and experimented with painting in oil (i.e. Western-style or yōga painting.)  “Determined to avoid the poverty of his parents, he thought the only route open to him was that of commercial art.  But he also dreamed of being an oil painter”1 and in 1931-1932 moved to Tokyo taking work as a sign painter and studying Western-style painting at the private Hongō Kaiga Kenkyūjo [Hongō Painting Institute, founded in 1912 by Okada Saburōsuke (1869-1939) and Fujishima Takeji (1867-1943).] He was also drawn to Tokyo by the thought of joining Munakata Shikō’s (1903-1975) group of struggling young artists which he heard about through a local elementary school art teacher. While living in Otaru it is reported that he personally met Munakata, one of the towering figures in the sōsaku hanga (creative print) movement.

Print Making

In Tokyo, his oil paintings were exhibited under the auspices of a number of societies including Hakujitsukai (Midday Society), Nikakai (Second Division Society, in which Yasui Sōtarō participated), Kokugakai (National Picture Association) and Tokōkai (Eastern Light Society).  However, his paintings did not receive the acclaim he hoped for, leading him to experiment with woodblock printmaking, at first using a single block which he carved himself and printed progressively, a self-taught skill. In describing Saitō’s prints during this initial phase of printing, curator Barry Till notes “…his methods were quite unusual.  He started out making only once copy of each work but soon realized that he could produce many copies.” Petit relates that while at the Hongō Painting Institute he discovered that “the woodblock prints he had been experimenting with were a well-established form which could be produced in editions and could use more than one block.”3

Crediting the “clear vivid colors” in the woodblock prints of Western-style painter Yasui Sōtarō (1888–1955), Saitō began seriously producing his own prints in 1936 at the age 29.  It was not long before his prints were accepted for showing at the 1936 5th annual exhibition of the prestigious Nihon Hanga Kyōkai (Japan Print Association).  While print making supplanted painting as Saitō’s main oeuvre, he maintained a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards the physical creation of a print, telling Statler in 1956 that “For me, the joy of making a print is not in working with the materials but in creating the design” and “when I’m trying for a new or complicated effect I have to do the work myself even though I don’t especially enjoy it.”4  A similar sentiment was conveyed to Gaston Petit in 1973 who writes “[Saitō] felt no urgent compulsion to make prints; he simply wanted to create a work of art.”5 

Winter in Aizu (会津の冬)

In 1937 the print division of the Kokugakai accepted one of his prints (along with one of his oil paintings) for showing at their 12th exhibition, but in 1938 he was stung by the Kokugakai’s rejection of his prints and paintings. Returning to Aizu in 1938 he began his print series Winter in Aizu depicting his childhood village until the age of four or five.  These early prints began to establish his unique, easily recognizable style and were the basis for his first solo show in 1942 at the Kyūkyodō brush shop gallery in Ginza.  Saitō would continue to make prints depicting winter scenes in Aizu either titled Winter in Aizu or untitled throughout his career and there are over 100 prints that carry that title or depict Aizu under a blanket of snow.6  Some of these prints were made in numbered editions and some were made in open editions.

Winter in Aizu - Examples (reference only - not part of this collection)

Untitled [Winter in Aizu (D)], 1938

14 7/8 x 17 1/2 in. (37.8 x 44.5 cm)

University of Michigan Museum of Art 1958/2.3

Untitled [Winter in Aizu (C)], 1938

14 1/2 x 17 3/8 in. (36.8 x 44.1 cm)

University of Michigan Museum of Art 1958/2.2

Untitled [Winter in Aizu (B)], 1953

17 15/16 x 23 7/16 in. (44 x 59.5 cm)

University of Michigan Museum of Art 1958/2.2

Winter in Aizu (5), 1958

15 x 20.7 in. (38 x 52.7 cm)

Winter in Aizu (13), 1969

Sheet: 14 9/16 x 20 /12 in. (37 x 52 cm)

Art Gallery of Greater Victoria 1969.102.001 

Untitled, Winter in Aizu (3)

John J. Burns Library, Boston College MS.2013.043

In speaking about these first prints Oliver Statler relates:

These were important prints, but it took them a long time to assert themselves. The war intervened; he washed the pigments out of his canvases so that his wife could make them into clothing, but he guarded the blocks for the Aizu prints. "No matter how rough things were," he says, "or how often we had to move to keep a roof over our heads, I held on to those blocks. I couldn't say why, but I did."7  

The artist in Aizu, 1984

Despite moving away from Aizu at a very young age, Saitō always considered it home.

[scanned from Masterful Images: The Art of Kiyoshi Saito, Barry Till, Pomegranate Communications, 2013]

In 1939 he joined Zōkei Hanga Kyōkai (Formative Print Society – also translated as Plastic Print Society) at the invitation of its founder, print maker Tadashige Ono (1909-1990). Tadashige’s group “imposed no standards to be met and offered Saitō the support group he needed in order to develop in his own way.”8 


In 1944 Saitō took work at the Asahi Newspaper Company (most likely as an illustrator) where he was employed until 1954. It was while working at the Asahi in about 1945 that he met Onchi Kōshirō (1891-1955), a founding father of the creative print (sōsaku hanga) movement and the leading abstract print artist, who invited him to his First Thursday Society (Ichimokukai) where many of the sosaku hanga artists regularly met. Onchi included Saitō’s print Ginza in his second issue of Ichimokushū, a collection of prints by Ichimokukai members, published in May 1946. Saitō’s association with Onchi, who was courted by Western print lovers, would help him gain entry to various post-war exhibitions targeted at Western audiences.

Milk, 1949

Image: 14 1/4 x 11 3/4 in. (36.3 x 29.84 cm)

Cleveland Museum of Art 1985.497

In the period following the end of the Pacific War artists struggled to get the supplies they needed, but with the Occupation and the influx of Americans fascinated with Japanese prints, print making began to revive.  Americans were enchanted by images of “exotic” Japan and Saitō’s work was immediately appealing to them.  He was invited to exhibit his work in 1945 or 1946 in a three-man show along with Hiratsuka Un'ichi (1895-1997) and Kawanishi Hide (1894-1965) in a new gallery near the Imperial Hotel where it was a hit with Americans, surprising the artist and leading to his first sales.  By 1948 his Winter in Aizu prints were sought after and in 1949, at the age of 41, he received first prize for his print Milk at the Salon Printemps Exhibition which had been organized to support young Japanese artists with the backing of wives of senior GHQ officials.9 Saitō contributed to several multi-artist print series issued during the early years of the Occupation, the best known being Scenes of Last Tokyo (Tokyo kaiko zue), a portfolio of fifteen prints created by nine artists, all members of Nippon Hanga Kiyōkai (the Japan Print Association), and spearheaded by Onchi Kōshirō. 

Now an accomplished and recognized print maker, he became a member of the Nihon Hanga Kyōkai (Japan Print Association) in 1947 and the Kokugakai (National Picture Association) in 1950.

Steady Gaze, 1950

Image: 23 5/8 x 16 1/4 in. (60 x 41.3 cm)

Sheet: 33 1/8 x 21 9/16 in. (84.2 x 54.8 cm)

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 1965.68.50

The Breakthrough

In 1951 Saitō received first prize for his print Steady Gaze at the inaugural Sao Paolo Biennial, the second oldest biennial in the world.10  As sosaku hanga prints garnered little interest among Japanese art collectors, Saitō’s award for a woodblock print along with an award to Tetsuro Komai (1920-1976) for an etching, “shocked” the Japanese art world.   The fact that hanga artists were picked over more well-known artists’ works in oil and sculpture forced Japanese critics and art connoisseurs to reevaluate sosaku hanga which had largely been dismissed for its supposed catering to American taste.11 Even years later Saitō was somewhat bitter about how his countrymen viewed his work and those of his fellow sosaku hanga artists, telling Oliver Statler “The Japanese still condescend to us, but it was even worse before Komai and I won prizes at the Brazil show in 1951.”12

Saitō was now on the world stage along with the modern Japanese creative print movement.  “Inundated with orders from foreign collectors that he could barely fill”13, Saitō became a full-time artist and printmaker.

Saitō continued to gain honors, win prizes and exhibit in prestigious settings such as his 1957 exhibition at Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art.  His work was featured in Oliver Statler’s 1956 book Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn, the first major book in English on the sosaku hanga movement. 1956 also found him teach printmaking at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and exhibiting at their Museum of Art, part of his tour of the United States under the auspices of the Asia Foundation and

U. S. State Department.  In 1957 he was awarded a prize at the 2nd Ljubljana Biennial Graphic Arts.  In the late 1950s and through the 1960s, he travelled to Paris, Europe, New York, Hawaii, Australia, India, Canada and other international destinations for various exhibitions.  His travels would continue into his early 80s.

Front Page of Time Magazine

As his fame grew, he was also in demand as an illustrator and graphic designer.  In 1967 he was commissioned to make a woodblock print of Prime Minister Eisaku Sato for the cover of Time Magazine.

Saitō sketching the Prime Minister

the original print and the Time cover

The four woodblocks used to make the print which Saitō donated to the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

While the Time magazine cover certainly increased his reputation abroad, a few months earlier The Japan Times noted in a review of his exhibition in the Hotel New Otani Arcade, "There are few Japanese artists living in Japan who are so widely known abroad as Kiyoshi Saito.  He is also exceptional in that his name in Japan proper is not so readily recognized ..."14

Gradually this would change and his "popularity abroad was reimported into Japan...." 15 At the age of 74 he was honored with the Fourth Class Order of the Sacred Treasure by the Japanese government and in 1995 at the age of 88 he was honored as bunka kōrōsha (Person of Cultural Merit), an honor bestowed on men and women by the emperor who have made an outstanding contribution to the development and advance of science and culture.

His Oeuvre

In an attempt to define the first twenty years of Saitō’s prints, Statler tells us "'Saitō himself divides his work into three periods' - an early period dominated by the Aizu snow scenes, a period of realism beginning in 1945 typified by portraiture “and by 1950, a move toward simplification…”16 His later work merged modern elements of modernism, cubism, abstraction, and impressionism with Japanese tradition, after having been influenced by famous modern artists such as Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Gauguin, and Edvard Munch. His subject matter was diverse including Buddhist subjects, the buildings and culture of Kyoto, studies of ancient pottery (e.g., Haniwa burial figures), animals (particularly cats), flowers, bunraku, and landscapes of the countryside, most often with several anonymous solitary figures going about their everyday business and an array of prints based on his overseas travels. Saitō's prints, with their flat areas of color and solid textures, were the result of his search for the essentials of nature.

Examples of Prints by the Artist - reference only, not part of this collection

In the words of author and print connoisseur James Michener,  “Never static, he has progressed through many styles, always with distinction.”17 

Two Cats, 1952

sheet: 31 7/16 x 22 9/16 in.

(79.8 x 57.3 cm) 

image: 23 3/4 x 17 7/8 in.

(60.3 x 45.4cm)

Museum of Modern Art 451.1954

Buddha Siamese, 1957

image: 20 3/4 x 15 1/4 in. (52.7 x 38.7 cm)

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco 1965-01-01

Tahiti (A), 1966

sheet: 21 5/8 × 27 in.

(54.9 × 68.6 cm)

image: 18 × 23 11/16 in.

(45.7 × 60.2 cm)

Carnegie Museum of Art 89.28.1156

Kozan-ji, Kyoto - B, 1974

sheet: 23 1/2 x 18 1/8 in.

(46 × 60 cm)

Artelino 55149

Bunraku Puppet,

c. 1970-1980

sheet: 16 1/2 x 11 1/4 (42.2 x  28.7 cm)

Artelino 53293

May in Aizu (I), 1988

image: 15 x 20 3/4 in. (38 x 52.8 cm)

Art Gallery of Greater Victoria  1991.013.001

May in Aizu (9), 1994

17 15/16 x 37 3/8 in. (45.5 x 90.5 cm)

The Yoseido Gallery, Catalogue No. 31, 1995, print 58.

Assistance in Print Production

Saitō created over 1000 prints during his lifetime.  As the number of his works grew he must have used multiple assistants, at least in the printing of large editions.  Kazuyuki Ohtsu (b. 1935), now a woodblock artist in his own right, was his assistant for forty years from 1958 until Saitō’s death and printed many of his works. The Adachi Print Institute (Adachi Colour Print Studio) also printed a number of his works, including print IHL Cat. #1514 in this collection and their mark, sometimes accompanied by a label pasted to the verso, appears on those prints, as shown below.  “Suri Ikegami” (Printer Ikegami) 摺 いけがみ appears on a number of Saitō’s works, as shown below, but beyond the presence of his stamp on the verso of some of Saitō’s prints (see IHL Cat. #1648) nothing appears about him in the literature.  As also shown below, a "self-carved self printed KIYOSHI SAITO" label can be found on a number of his earlier prints.

In his interview with Statler in 1956, Saitō commented on his use of “artisans” – “It’s not that I object to artisans in principle.  I’m perfectly willing that they copy my simpler things.  But when I’m trying for a new or complicated effect I have to do the work myself even though I don’t especially enjoy it.”18 

It is not clear to me at what age Saitō stopped designing and/or producing prints.  The last dated prints of his that I've come across are from his May in Aizu series that he created from 1988 into 1994 (see May in Aizu (I), 1988 and May in Aizu (9), 1994 above) when he was in his eighties.

Kiyoshi Saitō died on November 14, 1997 at the conclusion of a major retrospective in Tokyo at the Wako Department Store and shortly after he opened the Kiyoshi Saitō Museum of Art in Yanaizu which houses a collection of 850 of his works. (Go to [accessed 11-27-23])

In 1956, Saitō told Statler “I’ve always done the kind of work I want to.” Perhaps this is a fitting epitaph for his long and distinguished career.


Saitō donated prints and blocks to various museums in Japan and the United States throughout his lifetime.  His work can be found in numerous collections including The Ringling (whose collection includes a number of early and rare works); The Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Cincinnati Art Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; New York Public Library; Art Institute of Chicago; Carnegie Museum of Art; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon; Cleveland Museum of Art; University of Michigan Museum of Art; Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art; Kanagawa Prefectural Museum; British Museum; Art Gallery of Greater Victoria; Gallery of New South Wales; Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, Fukushima Prefectural Museum of Art, Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Art; The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.

Signatures and Seals of the Artist

Saitō's works are generally signed or printed with his name "Kiyoshi Saito" and carry his "kiyoshi" 清 seal.  A stamped "K. Saito" generally appears on the woodblock cards he created. 

1 Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints - The Early Years, Helen Merritt, University of Hawaii Press, 1998, p. 243.2 Masterful Images: The Art of Kiyoshi Saito, Barry Till, Pomegranate Communications, 2013, p. 6.3 44 Modern Japanese Print Artists, Gaston Petit, Kodansha International Ltd., 1973, p. 104.4 Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn, Oliver Statler, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1956, p. 54.5 Op. cit., Petit, p. 104.6 Collecting Modern Japanese Prints, Then and Now, Mary and Norman Tolman, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1994, p. 38.7 Kiyoshi Saito 齋藤清版画集 [Saitō Kiyoshi hangashū], Oliver Statler and Chisaburō F. Yamada, Kōdansha, 1957. 8 Op. cit., Merritt, p. 244.9 Kiyoshi Saitō Museum of Art, Yanaizu website] 10 The Bienal de São Paulo was initiated in 1951 and is the second oldest art biennial in the world after the Venice Biennial, which was set up 1895 and served as its role model. [accessed 11-27-23]11 A critique that could better be leveled at the idyllic prints of the shin hanga movement. 12 Op. cit., Statler, p. 54.13 Op. cit, Till, p. 4.14 Kiyoshi Saito Holds Unique Place In History of Contemporary Prints, appearing in The Japan Times, October 29, 1967, p. 5.15 Ibid.16  Op. cit., Statler, p. 57.17 The Modern Japanese Print - An Appreciation, James Michener, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1968, p. 13.18 Op. cit. Statler, p. 54.
Last revision:3/19/20209/13/2018 

Prints in Collection

click on thumbnail for print details