This Life of Hiroshige by Professor Yone Noguchi is taken from the small booklet Hiroshige and Japanese Landscapes published by Board of Tourist Industry Japanese Government Railways, 1936.


Hiroshige was born in the ninth year of Kwansei, 1797, when Utamaro, a great painter of female beauty and of the harem, had just finished the work on which his present fame rests. During the regime of the eleventh Shogun of that period, the times were speedily relaxing into an ephemeral epicureanism. Hiroshige's birth-place was the compound of the firebrigades at Yayosugashi, Yedo. Here, his father, Genyemon, lived as one of the officials, who, after serving twenty-five years, resigned the post to Hiroshige when the boy was but thirteen years old. At this time Hiroshige lost his parents almost simultaneously. The work at the office must have been nothing more than nominal that even a boy of thirteen could manage it, and at the same time pursue the leisurely study of art which Hiroshige had already begun. This was because the fire-brigades to which he belonged had only to attend to the Shogun's castle where fires occurred but seldom. Besides, although wearing two swords, people of Hiroshige's class were but small and insignificant.

Hiroshige held the post till he was twenty-seven years old, when he turned it over to Nakajiro, his son or uncle (the relationship is not certain). Leaving for good the house which Nakajiro had established, Hiroshige started independently a branch of the family in the profession of the fine arts. Before he was admitted as a pupil to Toyohiro's studio in 1812, when he was sixteen, Hiroshige had already shown his precocious talent in a scroll entitled Procession of the Luchu Islanders, which he had drawn from life when Hiroshige was a boy of ten. This appears certain, because in 1806, according to an authentic record, the Shogunate government of Yedo received an official visit from an ambassador bringing tribute from the Luchu Islands. When the present writer saw this historical scroll some years ago, he was at first surprised at Hiroshige's ability, certainly remarkable for his age. Then he felt sorry that Hiroshige was obliged to suffer a restraint of twenty-five years before he could establish his name in public.

It is said that Hiroshige wished at first to become a pupil of Toyokuni and not of Toyohiro, but because he already had too many pupils, Toyokuni refused him. It is not without interest, however, to muse on the possible outcome had Hiroshige ever been received by Toyokuni, and duly impressed by his platitudes, if not vulgarity, in superficial arabesque making. Of course there is nothing more foolish than to think that anything could have made a successful Kunisada (Toyokuni the Third) of him, even though, born to a corrupt age in holiday mood, he was charmed by the stage and actors. Among the extant work of his earliest period there are found, even today, a number of actor-prints. No one would deny, I believe, the happiness of Hiroshige's association with Toyohiro, (1) who was not aiming at popularity, and certainly was not in Toyokuni's class, and who therefore had something identical with Hiroshige in temperament. Moreover, what pleased the youthful Hiroshige most, I think, was that Toyohiro never used on him his master's hammer of discipline, but watched patiently over the youth's development.

The book, Hiroshige Wakagaki (Hiroshige's Early Work) by Tatsujiro Nakamura, 1925, contains many female figures in Uchi to Soto Sugata Hakkei (Eight Views with Figures, Indoors and Outdoors) and Goku Saishiki Imayo Utsushiye (Modern Images Warm-coloured), both produced about 1822. In these the influence of Yeizan, or Yeisen, is clear. But as far as the landscapes, flowers and birds are concerned, and which Hiroshige produced at the time of the Toto Meisho series in the Kawaguchi edition, about 1831, the influence we can trace in them is that of the Hokusai-school artists, or possibly of Yeisen. Since these prints of natural, subjects would never have appeared under the influence of the Toyokuni School. Toyohiro was a suitable teacher to Hiroshige, if indeed he needed one at all. But as Toyohiro's student, Hiroshige was an interesting rebel, or black sheep who received but little direct influence from his teacher.

When Toyohiro passed away in 1831, Hiroshige was asked to succeed the teacher as Toyohiro the Second, but he refused with thanks, preferring to pursue his own independent life. Although there is no complete catalogue of the work of his whole life, it is estimated by Minoru Uchida that the total number of individual pieces would exceed eight thousand, of which some five thousand and five hundred pieces are colour-prints, large or small. Hence, it may be seen what a prolific painter he was. There is reason of course to say that if his force and energy had been used more scrupulously, he would have become a still more distinguished artist. Admitting that the unprincipled spirit of the time made him produce careless work, and to repeat his subjects again and again, Hiroshige's vitality was certainly something-amazing.

I can imagine that the primary need with him was how to pour out his lyrical mood untramelled, with his thought about subject-matter as only secondary. The same scenery appealed to him quite differently at different times, according to the situation and his mood. It was not that Hiroshige drew his pictures at random on the same subject with a different approach, but that he used the same subject when it was diffused with a new mood or emotion. Consequently, there are in his pictures great variations in atmosphere. What we see in them therefore is Hiroshige's personality and not a scenic photograph. Besides, since they are colour-prints made by hand, one cannot expect them to be uniform, even when they treat the same subject. The pictorial effect depends more or less on chance.

As with other artists of the Ukiyoye School, little is known of Hiroshige's life. Whether or not he left the firemen's compound by Yayosugashi for some other place, when he resigned his official post, is not recorded. By 1840 or 1841 he had lived in Ogacho Street, and afterwards moved to Tokiwacho Street, and still later, in 1849, to Nakabashi Kano-shinmichi, the place where finally he died, loyal to the heart of the city of Yedo. Unlike the Yedo people of the time, who imagined the western side of the Hakone Mountains, some ninety miles from Yedo, to be a dark desert where goblins or cannibals lived, Hiroshige was fond of distant journeyings. Some of the travelling diaries he jotted clown between sake-cups and his favourite dishes at roadside taverns (for he was a city man with epicurean tastes), remain in the Diary of the Journey (the major part of it lost by fire in 1923), the Diary of the Kanoyama Temple Journey and the Diary of the Journey into the Provinces Awa and Kazusa, the Hokku poems or humorous Uta verses which make the diaries precious.

Among artists of the popular school who were uncultured, although not actually illiterate, Hiroshige was an exception because of his literary knowledge and tastes. He was a man of facile pen, for in the diaries are apt descriptions and occasional snaps of cynicism, all of them delightful because they are casual and informal. Had he pursued literature with the assiduity that he espoused art, he would undoubtedly have become a writer or poet. Although, as, with any phraseology or puns which are ephemeral, and therefore difficult to translate into English, the following poems from Kyoka Momo-chidori will indicate his usual. vein :

Putting aside the moon and snow,
How delightful it is to live roundly
With a head more round
Than a dumpling round and round!

The verse alludes to the common saying, Hama yori dango, meaning literally A dumpling is better than a flower. Of course it treats with both satisfaction and mockery the author's own shaven head. Utashige was Hiroshige's name as a humorous poet. He sometimes signed this name to Harimaze-ye (mixed prints of small size) or Sensha-fuda (visiting cards to shrines or temples) or illustrated books of lyrical drama. Also, some of the famous view-prints produced after 1839 bear the name of Utashige.

Hiroshige married twice. His first wife, doubtless a typical woman, chaste and dutiful, whose sagacity assisted Hiroshige to tide over many financial difficulties, passed away in October 1839, when he was forty-three. A touching story is told in the Biographies of the Ukiyoye Artists of the Utagawa School, by Kyosin Iijima, that once she raised her husband's travelling expenses for sight-sketching by secretly selling her clothes and ornamental combs. It is fortunate, however, that this devoted wife knew something of the better days into which Hiroshige was slowly entering. When he took Oyasu, a daughter of Kayemon, a farmer of Niinomura village in Yenshu province, for his second wife is not recorded anywhere. She was sixteen years younger than her husband, and a woman of both constancy and spirit. She died on the second of October, 1876, at the age of sixty-four, having survived Hiroshige by eighteen years.

Though not always comfortable financially, Hiroshige was not exactly poverty-stricken, for in the closing years of his life he lived in a house of his own building, a presentable two-storied affair of five rooms. He had, however, borrowed money for it, and he worried on his deathbed over the payment of the debt. It is also hardly believable that he could not support a small family like his own when he drew, according to the estimate of Mr. Uchida, an average of two pictures a day throughout his life. But Hiroshige was careless and free in money matters, and no discredit to the Yedo-man's qualification, whether proud or foolish, of not allowing money to stay in the pocket overnight. Again, as is seen from an extant diary in which his diet is minutely described, he was an epicure, fond of dishes not necessarily rich but oddly flavoured. It goes without saying that he loved sake, though he was not a drunkard. Oyasu, Hiroshige's second wife, shared this taste for the Cup.

Hiroshige was indeed a man wealthy in soul, though not in purse. Confirming the current dictum of olden time, he was not a Yedo man wrongly born and therefore a money-maker. Without money he was always happy, and with unconstrained placidity he was nonchalant towards the trifling and mercenary matters of the common world. Yet he rigidly observed social courtesy. He was fond of quiet company, but treated his friends handsomely. He left these words in one of his wills, Reduce foolish expenses without being niggardly ; you should feast richly the people who kindly keep a wake before my coffin.

It must have been at the age of fifty-one, in 1847, that Hiroshige, learning from Confucian ethics that a man should know at fifty how to resign himself to fate, shaved his head and became a novice. At this juncture Hiroshige made the third change of his personal name to Tokubei. He was called Tokutaro when he was young, and later assumed the name Juyemon. How Hiroshige may have looked with a shaven head will be seen, as Mr. Uchida pointed out in Hiroshige and in the print entitled Mapleviewing at Kaianji Temple, Shinagawa, one of Famous Views of Yedo in the Yamadaya edition, 1853. Here, a shaven-headed artist is seen sketching the view by a large maple tree in the centre of the canvas. It is amusing to think that people without knowledge of him may have taken him for an apostate priest transgressing the field of sketching.

Hiroshige was an artist who never thought that teaching was of any value, because he used to say that the art student should study art by himself. He was not one of the same class with Toyokuni the Third and Kuniyoshi, who were surrounded by pupils. Hiroshige was of a retiring nature. Moreover, his passion for travelling made him object to the regularity of tutorial exercise. Yet, there were some eighteen pupils, to each of whom a part of his name, Hiro or Shige, was given ; and to seven of them, it is said, Hiroshige orally bequeathed mementos.

As he himself knew, Hiroshige was unfortunate in his pupils. Hiroshige the Second was bad. And Shigemasa, who followed Hiroshige the Second as Hiroshige the Third, was equally bad. Hiroshige the Fourth left almost nothing we can call art. After him Hiroshige's lineage ceased, even nominally.

According to the inscription on the Memorial Portrait of Hiroshige, by Kunisada (Toyokuni the Third), and also to the preface of Thirty-six Views of Fuji published in the year following his death, Hiroshige passed away on the sixth day of September of the year 1858, the fifth year of Ansei, at the age of sixty-two. The disease of which he died is said to be cholera, which was fearfully prevalent in the fifth year of Ansei, according to the records of the time, and took the lives of some twenty-eight thousand people. As a man self-possessed and free, who carried life's calamity lightly, with a smile suitable to the humorous poet that he was, Hiroshige found a moment amid the agonies of death to write the following Uta poem in his usual playful vein:

I leave my brush at Azuma,
I go to the Land of the West on a journey
To view the famous sights there.

The words over the signature of Toyokuni the Third in the said memorial portrait, meaning, Shedding tears in thought of him, express the general sentiment of the people at Hiroshige's death, and that of Toyokuni the Third, who was a great friend of the master. It is felt that Hiroshige died at the most appropriate time, because, according to the preface of Thirty-six Views of Fuji written by Shunba, Hiroshige often spoke of retiring from the art world before age and fatigue should disgrace his past. He was wise in thus knowing himself.

Supposing this memorial portrait of Hiroshige to be reliable, since the artist was his close friend, we know that Hiroshige's head, as he himself said in the verse quoted above, was as round as a round dumpling. The space between the end of the nose and the lips was long as is that of a Yedo man of the older generation today. With thick eyebrows, large eyes and a high nose, his face is clear and noble. Unlike his lovely and delicate landscapes, Hiroshige's features are strong. Since he was a drinker of sake and a lover of fine dishes, he was portly and of a ruddy complexion.

(1) In 1812 Hiroshige became a pupil of Toyohiro. He adopted the name Hiroshige in the following year, 1813. It is a combination of Hiro a part of Toyo-hiro, and Shige, a part of Juyemon, Hiroshige's own name.