Utagawa Yoshitora was a Japanese printmaker with a wide spectrum of subjects. But he is best known for Yokohama-e - prints depicting Westerners from the enclave of Yokohama and their technological achievements like iron ships, hot air balloons or locomotives.
First Publication: May 2002
Latest Update: April 2013
Yoshitora was born in Edo. But neither the dates of his birth nor his death are known. At least we know for sure that he was a student of the famous ukiyo-e artist Kuniyoshi Utagawa. According to some sources, Yoshitora was later thrown out by Kuniyoshi. Things are a bit in the mist with Yoshitora Utagawa.
Although Yoshitora is famous for Yokohama prints, the majority of his designs show conventional subjects - historical scenes and Japanese legends, town views and scenes from Tokyo, beautiful women, warriors and actors - a little bit of everything.
In the Treaty of Kanagawa Japan had to open the country to the West. The presence of the foreign diplomats and merchants was restricted to an enclave at the harbor of Yokohama. The Japanese population had never seen foreigners before. There was an enormous curiosity and a large demand for prints depicting the foreigners and their hitherto unknown technical inventions.
Many of the diplomats gave commissions for portraits of their whole family - often shown with their servants and pets. This new genre of prints was called Yokohama prints or Yokohama-e - e meaning picture in Japanese.
Yokohama-e became the business of the moment and the ukiyo-e artists and publishers rushed towards the deal. Yoshitora became one of the most active artists to design yokohama-e.
Laurance P. Roberts thought that Yoshitora Utagawa had never seen any foreigners, but rather copied them from Western engravings. It does not sound very plausible that he never saw any foreigners since Yokohama is only 28 kilometers South of Tokyo. But he definitely - as many other ukiyo-e artists of the time - made many of his designs after illustrations in foreign newspapers and books.
In the series Bankoku meisho zukushi no uchi - Complete Enumeration of Scenic Places in Foreign Nations - Yoshitora depicted foreign places like London and Washington.
Yoshitora used different names to sign his prints - Ichimosai, Kinchoroh or Mosai. After 1880 the output of woodblock prints by Yoshitora stopped. We do not know whether Yoshitora had retired or if he had died.
Another major subject for Yoshitora were scenes from Japan's history. During the Edo period (1604-1868) it was not allowed to depict any members of the ruling Tokugawa family nor members of the aristocratic bushi, members of the samurai class. This censorship covered also the rulers Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
After 1868 the Japanese public therefore had a lively interest in images that were forbidden by censorship before. Ukiyo-e publishers and artists did their best to meet this popular demand. After all, woodblock printmaking was a business, and not regarded as high art in our Western sense.
Yoshitora made several triptychs of historic battles as well as a series of famous leaders and warriors of Japan, titled Dai Nippon Rokuju Yo Sho, "Sixty-odd Famous Generals of Japan".
Another series is Biography of Royal Vassals, a series inspired (one could as well say "copied by") by Kuniyoshi's series of 47 Faithful Samurai - the infamous 47 ronin.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
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