Sasajima Kihei

undated photo of the artist

Sasajima Kihei 笹島喜平 (1906-1993)  


Sources: website of The British Museum; Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn, Oliver Statler, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1956, p. 166-167; and as footnoted. 

Born on April 22, 1906 in the famous pottery town of Mashiko in Tochigi Prefecture about 85 miles north of Tokyo, Sasajima developed an early love of drawing but took no formal training until he moved to Tokyo in 1927 to attend Tokyo Prefectural Aoyama Normal School (now Tokyo Gakugei University). After taking a sketching course in college he “fell in love with art.” Finishing college he started teaching elementary school which he continued to do until 1945, using his free time to study oil painting, calligraphy and drawing. 

His first known contact with print making came in 1935 when he attended a course for teachers given by one of the leaders of the sosaku hanga movement, Hiratsuka Un'ichi (1895-1997).   Sasajima’s interest in calligraphy gave him experience with composition using only black and white, a style favored by Hiratsuka in his prints. A few years later, the famous mingei potter Shoji Hamada (1894-1978) who had moved to Sasajima’s hometown in 1924, introduced him to Munakata Shiko (1903-1975) who Sasajima described as “a genius” although “not a very good teacher.”1 After studying with Munakata, Sasajima dedicated himself to print making and in 1940 he first exhibited at the Kokuga-kai (National Picture Association) exhibition.  

After giving up his teaching job in 1945, Sasajima devoted himself entirely to prints and by 1948 he was sufficiently well-known to be commissioned by the Mitsukoshi Theater (Mitsukoshi Gekijō) to create a series of Kabuki prints for their productions.  A number of these prints are part of The Lavenberg Collection including both black and white works and prints where Sasajima has hand-applied bright primary colors by brush to the back of the print, resulting in a very subtle coloration when the print is viewed from the front.  This is a technique that he likely learned from Munakata Shiko who employed this technique on a number of his own prints.2

IHL Cat. #1379

Ichikawa Somegorō, et al., in Ichikiri Kajiwara at the Mitsukoshi Theater, 1949

IHL Cat. #1379 verso

In 1949 Sasajima created a book of prints based on Chikamatsu's play written in 1721, The Woman-Killer and the Hell of Oil (Onnagoroshi abura no jigoku 女殺油地獄) which he submitted to the 23rd Kokugakai (National Picture Association) exhibition.

In explaining how he was trying to achieve his own style, after studying with two distinctive print-making artists, Sasajima told Oliver Statler in 1955: “My problem now is to stand on my own.  I want to try to find a Japanese expression for the Japanese.  It’s lamentable that everybody is traveling the same path.  You can’t tell whether much of the work is done by a Japanese or a Westerner.”

In 1948, Sasajima became a member of the Nihon Hanga Kyōkai (Japan Print Association) but left that group to join Munakata in 1952 to form the Nihon Hanga-in (Japanese Woodblock Print Academy). He became internationally known through the publication of Statler’s 1956 book Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn, his participation in the 1957 exhibition of contemporary Japanese prints in Yugoslavia and his participation in the Tokyo Biennales starting in 1957. He was a long-time contributor to the annual print exhibition of the College Women’s Association of Japan (CWAJ) and his work was including in their celebratory 60th anniversary show in 2015.

In commenting on Sasajima’s work, Statler wrote: “Sasajima has made some small color prints, usually restricting himself to three or four colors, but most of his work in in black and white.  He uses a line that is longer than Hiratsuka’s and closer to the brush stroke.  He believes that this has been derived from his study of Munakata, calligraphy, and the nanga painters of both China and Japan…”

In 1959 he became ill and lost the strength to rub the impression into the paper with the traditional baren. As a result, and inspired by stone-rubbing, he developed a new technique called takuzuri which consists of forcing paper into a deep-cut block with a press and dabbing the raised areas with ink by use of pads.3

In Images of a Changing World: Japanese Prints of the Twentieth Century, the takuzuri technique is described in some detail as follows:

He cuts his blocks in the usual way, then seals them with a water resistant varnish. He dampens a thin but strong white sheet of paper with a mixture of cellulose glue and water, then places the dampened paper on the cut woodblock, and runs it through an etching press with heavy felt blankets. This forces the paper into all the cut depressions in the block. He allows the paper to dry on the block. Then, with a dabber lightly charged with ink, Sasajima hand applies the ink to what would be the back of the paper if the block had been inked, rather than the paper. He controls the amount of ink by visual inspection and allows the dabber to leave its mark, as in a rubbing.  After the ink is dry, the paper is lifted from the woodblock. The ink has been absorbed into the raised portions of the print, allowing the cutout areas of the block to show in the paper as white depressions. The prints made by this method have a rich tactile surface and a 3-dimensional quality.4

From 1962 he worked primarily on religious themes, including many explorations of Mount Fuji, the Sacred Mountain, and various Buddhist deities. His book of essays on art, Sasajima Kihei gabunshū, Ichijin (笹島喜平画文集・一塵), was published by Tokyo publisher Bijutsu Shuppansha in 1967. 

Sasajima experienced numerous health problems in the 1970s, including stomach ulcers, and passed away from respiratory failure at the age 87 on May 31, 1993.  During the last twenty years of his life, his work was both exhibited frequently, including shows at the Takashimaya department store in Tokyo, and published in books, such as the 1980 publication from Kodansha, 笹島喜平版画集 Collection of Prints by Kihei Sasajima.  In 1990, Sasajima was chosen by Tochigi Prefecture as a Person of Cultural Merit, winning the Lifetime Achievement Award.5 

Artists who studied with Sasajima include Ōhashi Hiroaki 大橋弘明 (1931-?), Tani Akira 谷光 (1920-?), Kimura Yoshiharu 木村義治(b. 1934), Hirota Shigeru (1938-?) and Kaneko Kunio 金子邦生 (b. 1949).

Today the artist’s work can be seen at the Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art, Sasajima Kihei Hall and in the collections of many museums including the British Museum, Hamamatsu Municipal Museum, Japan; Oxford University, England; Berlin Oriental Art Museum; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; National Museum of Art, Osaka; Boston Museum of Fine Arts; Tochigi Prefectural Museum; The Art Institute of Chicago and the Harvard Art Museum.

Sasajima Kihei Hall


Sasajima Kihei Hall features prints by Kihei Sasajima, a Mashiko-born printmaker. He studied under Shiko Munakata (1903-1975), a printmaker representative of modern Japanese art. Sasajima dedicated his life to black-and-white prints created in “Takuzuri”, his own technique of relief printing. Here at the Museum, we have collected nearly 300 prints and 200 sketches. We switch works once or twice a year, and hand-select approximately 20 pieces each time.

1 The Tolman’s in their book Collecting Japanese Prints: Then and Now report that in 1928 Sasajima studied with the famous mingei potter Shoji Hamada (1894-1978) but it is not clear whether he did this before or after moving to Tokyo.2 "The Modern Japanese Print: An Internal History of the Sosaku Hanga Movement," Koshiro Onchi, appearing in Ukiyo-e Art, Number Eleven, Special Issue, Modern Japanese Prints, The Japan Ukiyo-e Society, 1965.3 It is reported that Sasajima used tampons to apply the ink.4 Images of a Changing World: Japanese Prints of the Twentieth Century, Donald Jenkins, Portland Art Museum, 1983, p. 93.5 The Person of Cultural Merit award was established to provide a lifetime pension to an individual who has rendered particularly distinguished service related to the advancement and development of culture in such fields as fine arts, literature, music, and drama.

Signatures and Seals of the Artist

笹 (artist's "sasa" seal)

笹 (artist's "sasa" seal)

笹 (artist's "sasa" seal)

笹 (artist's "sasa" seal)

Prints in Collection

click on thumbnail for print details

Kisshōten V, 1980

IHL Cat. #1404