Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Photo of Artist at Age 43

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi 月岡芳年 (1839-1892)      


Sources: Artelino Japanese Prints website article by Dieter Wanczura https://www.artelino.com/articles/yoshitoshi.asp; Yoshitoshi's One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, John Stevenson, Hotei Publishing, , 2001; Wikipedia website https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsukioka_Yoshitoshi; The Hotei Encyclopedia of Japanese Woodblock Prints, Amy Reigle Newland, Hotei Publishing Company, 2005, p. 251.

Early Years

Born April 30, 1839 in Edo (the old name for Tokyo) to Owariya Kinzaburō (1815-1863), a merchant who had purchased his samurai status, and an unknown mother, he was named Yonejirō 米次郎 at birth.  At an early age, Yonejirō was sent to live with his uncle, a successful pharmacist. In 1850, at the age of eleven, his uncle enrolled him as a resident student in the school of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), one of the most successful woodblock print designers in Edo and one of its more colorful characters. As was customary, Kuniyoshi gave Yonejirō a new name, Yoshitoshi, derived from the second character of Kuniyoshi's name. Kuniyoshi took a special interest in Yoshitoshi allowing him access to his personal collection of foreign prints and engravings.  

In 1853, at the age of fourteen, Yoshitoshi composed his first woodblock print - a triptych of the naval battle of Dannoura in which the Minamoto clan destroyed the forces of the Taira clan in 1185. That same year, US Commodore Perry arrived with a fleet of battleships and forced Japan to open its door to the West. 

Kuniyoshi's death in 1861, left the 22 year old Yoshitoshi struggling to make a living. In 1863, Yoshitoshi's natural father died.

Yonejiro Becomes Yoshitoshi (芳年)

After his father's death, Yoshitoshi began to sign some of his prints "Tsukioka Yoshitoshi," claiming a rather vague relationship between his uncle's family and the Tsukioka family, which had produced the eighteenth-century Osaka painter, Tsukioka Settei. In that same year a daughter, who died a year later, was born to Yoshitoshi. (The name of Yoshitoshi's wife at that time is unknown.)

Political and Civil Unrest

Yoshitoshi's formative years were lived in a period of great unrest. The continuing encroachment of Westerners and Western ideas through the 1850s and 1860s had a profoundly unsettling effect on a feudal and very closed Japanese society. While popular sentiment was very anti-Western there were those who realized that the only defense against the West was to adopt its superior military and economic technology. The tension between rejecting Western influence and embracing Western technology, coupled with crop failures, economic recession and hyper-inflation shook the ruling Tokugawa shogunate (which had ruled since 1603) to its foundations. This instability lead to armed conflict between the Tokugawa shogunate (which held power in the name of the emperor, but exercised independent and almost absolute control over all policy) and competing aristocrats and samurai who wanted to install a more modern government under the guise of restoring the emperor to his rightful role. This war culminated in the 1868 overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate government and its replacement by a more modern government which proclaimed an imperial restoration and a new era of Meiji ("Enlightened Rule"). John Stevenson, in his seminal work, One Hundred Aspects of the Moon notes that the impact of Yoshitoshi's witnessing the bloody massacre of two thousand shogun troops by the well-armed forces of the emperor at the end of the civil war "reverberated through Yoshitoshi's work for many years."  

Disturbing Images

Between 1866 and 1868 Yoshitoshi produced a number of gruesome and sadistic designs in a series called Twenty-eight Murders with Verse. These prints, several of which show the stabbing or decapitation of women, were quite popular both in Japan and the West, and sold well. Stevenson,  states that "the notoriety of the violence in Yoshitoshi's work is justified to the extent that he did design shocking images more effectively than any other print maker. However, the emphasis that modern critics and galleries place on his bloody prints gives a false perspective to his work. . . [and] does not give an accurate impression of the subtlety, insight, and integrity of the bulk of Yoshitoshi's designs."

Depression and Resurrection

At the time of the Meiji Restoration, Yoshitoshi was achieving a measure of success, with over 240 prints published in 1868 and 1869. A newspaper ranked him fourth in a list of woodblock print artists and his name was included in a popular guidebook to Tokyo. However, by the middle of 1869 his print output slowed to a trickle and did not pick up until the end of 1871, although he did maintain his studio and pupils. As Stevenson states, "perhaps Yoshitoshi's inspiration had been exhausted by the trauma of the recent past."

Towards the end of 1871, Yoshitoshi started to received commissions, producing several series, but by the next year he had fallen into a deep depression. While he continued to teach, he did not produce prints again until the end of 1872. By the end of 1873 he had worked his way out of his depression and produced two triptychs which he signed with a new artist name, Taiso (大蘇) or "Great Resurrection." 

The Satsuma Rebellion

In 1877 political events again changed Yoshitoshi's fortunes. With the dismantling of the feudal system, the samurai found their livelihood and values under attack, with the most egregious attack being the 1876 edict prohibiting the wearing of a sword, the quintessential symbol of the samurai, by anyone except members of the conscript army. Samurai resentment culminated in the Satsuma Rebellion led by the aristocrat Saigō Takamori, a hero to many Japanese who regarded him as a symbol of the values of the samurai class. After meeting with initial success, his forces were pushed back by the imperial troops to a hillside near Kagoshima and made a final stand. In this final battle, 60,000 government forces faced 40,000 rebels resulting in 16,000 casualties for the government and 20,000 casualties for the rebels. Saigō was wounded and later committed seppuku.

The Satsuma Rebellion provided a boom to newspapers and publishers commissioned woodblock print artists to design pictures of the events. Yoshitoshi was literally flooded with commissions, designing prints for at least nine different publishers. These prints brought Yoshitoshi both public recognition and moderate wealth.  (See the print Illustration of the Navy Landing at Sukuchi Village in this collection.)

For additional information on prints of the Satsuma Rebellion see the article Satsuma Rebellion Prints on this website.

Newspaper Work

Source: Yoshitoshi The Splendid Decadent, Shinichi Segi, Kodansha International, 1985 p. 49.

As an additional source of income Yoshitoshi took on newspaper illustration and began creating topical prints for Tokyo's Postal News in early 1875. The demand for his work grow with the popularity of his Satsuma Rebellion prints creating demand from other newspapers for his artwork and around 1880 he began working for Tokyo's Illustrated Liberal Newspaper (E-iri Jyu Shinmbun). Yoshitoshi's salary at the Illustrated started at "a salary of 40 yen a month, a tidy sum in those days, plus transportation to and from the editorial offices in a pedicab bearing the Tsukioka family crest. Later, the stipend was to rise to 100 yen a month, with twenty shares of stock and a jinrikisha into the bargain." His newspaper work paid far more than the typical five or ten yen he would received for even his best designs.


Yoshitoshi's atelier, with more than eighty students, was the major conduit through which training in the ukiyo-e style was passed to the next generation. One of his most famous students was his adopted son Kōgyo who was to become the artist Tsukioka Kōgyo (1869-1927).

The young Kōgyo studied with Yoshitoshi as did many other young, and some older, aspiring artists. A stone monument erected to Yoshitoshi's memory in 1889 lists fifty-nine students and Stevenson cites a source claiming that Yoshitoshi taught over two hundred students during his lifetime. In addition to his adopted son Tsukioka Kōgyo, other well-known artists he taught include Takeuchi Keishū (1861-1942), Migata Toshihide (1863-1925), Goto Toshikage (act. c. 1868-1892), who created a memorial portrait of his teacher inscribed with Yoshitoshi's death poem (see below), and Mizuno Toshikata (1866-1908), who Yoshitoshi designated to succeed him. Lesser known students include Kobayashi Toshimitsu (active 1876–1904), Yamazaki Toshinobu (1857-1886) and Yamada Toshitada (1868-1934) who are represented in this collection.

Later Years and His Death

Yoshitoshi's last years were among his most productive during which his great series One Hundred Aspects of the Moon (1885–1892) and New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts (1889–1892), as well as some masterful triptychs of kabuki theater actors and scenes, were produced.

During this period he also cooperated with his friends, the actor Danjūrō and others, in an attempt to preserve some of the traditional Japanese arts.

In his last years, his mental problems started to recur. In early 1891 he invited friends to a gathering of artists that did not actually exist. His physical condition also deteriorated, and his misfortune was compounded when all of his money was stolen in a robbery of his home. After more symptoms, he was admitted to a mental hospital. He eventually left the hospital in May 1892, but did not return home, instead renting rooms.

He died three weeks later in a rented room, on June 9, 1892, from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 53 years old. A stone memorial monument to Yoshitoshi was built in Higashi-okubo, Tokyo, in 1898.

yo o tsumete

terimasarishi wa

natsu no tsuki

holding back the night

with its increasing brilliance

the summer moon

-- Yoshitoshi's death poem

Retrospective Observations

During his life Yoshitoshi produced many series of prints, and a large number of triptychs, many of great merit. Two of his three best-known series, the One Hundred Aspects of the Moon and New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts, contain numerous masterpieces. The third, Thirty-Two Aspects of Customs and Manners, was for many years the most highly regarded of his work, but does not now have that same status. Other less-common series also contain many fine prints, including Famous Generals of Japan, A Collection of Desires, New Selection of Eastern Brocade Pictures, and Lives of Modern People.

While demand for his prints continued for a few years, eventually interest in him waned, both in Japan and around the world. The canonical view in this period was that the generation of Hiroshige (1797-1858) was really the last of the great woodblock artists, and more traditional collectors stopped even earlier, at the generation of Utamaro (1753-1806) and Toyokuni (1769-1825.)

However, starting in the 1970s, interest in him resumed, and reappraisal of his work has shown the quality, originality and genius of the best of it, and the degree to which he succeeded in keeping the best of the old Japanese woodblock print, while pushing the field forward by incorporating both new ideas from the West, as well as his own innovations.

The Importance of Yoshitoshi’s Prints

Source: The Importance of Yoshitsohi's Prints, John Stevenson, appearing in Beauty and Violence: Japanese Prints by Yoshitoshi 1839-1892, Eric van den Ing and Robert Schaap, Society for Japanese Arts, 1992.

Yoshitoshi gave people something new even as he presented them with images of history. He was on the cutting edge of Japan’s struggle to adapt to the modern world even as he portrayed the old, which he turned into the universal.

Yoshitoshi developed his own personal style in the watershed period of his mental illness in the early 1870s. The style was instantly recognizable and much copied. In contrast to the static, decorative conventions of ukiyo-e, the lines and compositions of Yoshitoshi’s prints are full of energy. The style was well-suited to expressing inner emotional states, subjects which Japanese artist had not previously explored, partly because of lack of suitably expressive style, partly because of lack of interest. Yoshitoshi did not lack interest. He was able to portray the inner states of the wide variety of people he described in his prints because of his emotional involvement with their stories and predicaments, their doubts and victories. He related passionately to what he saw and learned. He empathized, he cared.  

The characterization of individuals in Yoshitoshi’s prints was revolutionary. Japanese painting had used human figures to tell a story, not to develop psychological insights.  

In the age of the photograph people still clamored for Yoshitoshi’s prints. He was the most prolific, popular, and influential print artist of the Meiji period. His skill and passion resisted the forces of change that threatened the old culture of Japan. That wonderful body of folklore and history lives on today in the images that he created.

Print Series

A partial list of his print series, with dates:

Other Names

Familiar Name: Yonejirō 米次郎

Family Name: Kinzaburō 金三郎

Family Name: Taiso 大蘇  (after 1873 Yoshitoshi changed his family name from Tsukioka to Taiso)

(Artist Names): Gyokuōrō 玉桜楼, Gyokuō 玉桜, Ikkaisai 一魁斎, Kaisai 魁斎, Sokatei 咀華亭


click on image to enlarge

Artist Signatures and Seals - A Few Examples


Ikkaisai Yoshitoshi ga

from the series

A Modern Journey to the West,



Ikkaisai Yoshitoshi hitsu with Yositoshi seal from the series

Tale of the Forty-Seven Rōnin, 1860


Ikkaisai Yoshitoshi hitsu

from the series

Strong Heroes of the Water Margin, 1868


Ikkaisai Yoshitoshi zu with paulownia (kiri) leaf seal  from the series

A Theater Alphabet

of True Forms, 1869


Ikkaisai Yoshitoshi zu with paulownia (kiri) leaf seal


Gyokuō Yoshitoshi hitsu

from the series

A Celebration of Gallantry, 1865


Gyokuō Yoshitoshi hitsu from the series

Modern Celebrities of the East, 1860


ōju Gyokuō Yoshitoshi hitsu


Yoshitoshi ga

with Yoshitoshi seal

from 1890 triptych



with Yoshitoshi seal 

from the series

One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, 1885-1891


Yoshitoshi with Taiso seal

from the series

One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, 1885-1891


Ōju Yoshitoshi ga with Yoshitoshi seal, 1884


Yoshitoshi hitsu

應需? 芳年筆

ōju? Yoshitoshi hitsu


ōju Yoshitoshi ga

from the series Twenty-Four Hours at Shinbashi and Yanagibashi, 1880


Taiso Yoshitoshi sha with Taiso and Yoshitoshi seals


ōju Yoshitoshi ga with Yoshitoshi seal

from the series Mirror of Beauties Past and Present, 1875-1876


ōju Taiso Yoshitoshi hitsu from Illustration of the Navy Landing at Sukuchi Village, 1877


ōju Taiso Yoshitoshi


ōju Taiso Yoshitoshi with Yoshitoshi seal


ōju Yoshitoshi hitsu

from the series Barometer of Emotion



ōju Yoshitoshi giga


Yoshitoshi giga

from the series

Comic Pictures of Famous Places Amid the Civilization of Tōkyō, 1881


Yoshitoshi giga from the series

The Battle of the Cats and Mice, 1859


Ryōdōjin Yoshitoshi giga

[Ryōdōjin - a person who knows both ways]

from the series Moral Lessons through Pictures of Good and Evil, 1880


A partial Catalogue Raisonné of the Work of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) https://www.yoshitoshi.net/ [accessed 12-23-23]


Yoshitoshi’s One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, John Stevenson, Hotei Publishing, Netherlands, 2001. 

Yoshitoshi: Masterpieces from the Ed Freis Collection, Chris Uhlenbeck, Amy Reigle Newland, et. al., Hotei Publishing, 2011.

Courage and Silence: A Study of the Life and Color Woodblock Prints of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: 1839-1892, Roger S. Keyes, Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1983.

Yoshitoshi: The Splendid Decadent, Shin'ichi Segi, Kodansha International, 1985.

Beauty & Violence: Japanese prints by Yoshitoshi, 1839-1892, Eric van den Ing, Robert Schaap, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1992. 

last revision:



Prints in Collection


click on thumbnail for print details