Shiba Kokan

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Shiba Kôkan's tombstone, at Jigen-ji in Tokyo
  • Born: 1747
  • Died: 1818/10/21
  • Other Names: Suzuki Harushige, Andô Kiichirô, Tôgen
  • Japanese: 司馬江漢 (Shiba Koukan)

Shiba Kôkan was one of the foremost artists in the tradition of ranga (Western-style paintings), and was extremely innovative in developing new ways to imitate European oil paints and other media, and in adapting European painting techniques and styles. He was also a student of ukiyo-e artist Suzuki Harunobu, and produced forgeries of Harunobu's work as well as prints in the style of Harunobu, under his own art-name of Suzuki Harushige.

A member of the chônin (townsman/commoner) class, and known as Andô Kiichirô in his childhood, he was born and raised in Edo. His father was an artisan, possibly a swordsmith; he had an uncle who was an amateur painter. He is said to have enjoyed drawing from a very early age.

As a young man, he was apprenticed to a Kanô school painter or studio, but quickly tired of the school's style and conservative adherence to tradition at the expense of creativity. In 1762, the year after his father's death, Kôkan began studying painting, as well as Chinese classics and poetry, under Sô Shiseki, a painter of the Nagasaki and Nanpin schools who specialized in bird-and-flower painting. It was at this time that he took the name Shiba Kôkan, derived from the Chinese name Sīmǎ and kanji representing both Edo and China's Han dynasty.

Kôkan studied for a brief time under Suzuki Harunobu, today regarded as one of the top masters of ukiyo-e. After Harunobu's death in 1770, Kôkan, under the name Suzuki Harushige, continued for several years producing ukiyo-e works, some bearing Harunobu's signature, and passed off as the master's work, and others claimed as his own.

After this, he moved to the Shiba Shinsenza district of Edo, and earned a meager living by selling his art, both directly, and through other shops and stalls. He gained a reputation at this time, and soon found himself invited to various tests of skill, painting paintings on themes or subjects chosen at that moment by the patron. He was even at one point, at the age of 29, summoned to Sendai by Gotô Magobee, an artist in the service of the daimyo of Sendai han, where he painted a number of works at Gotô's request, and at that of the daimyo.

Kôkan remained single until his mid-30s. His mother died in 1781, when Kôkan was 34. He married, and had a daughter, but divorced shortly afterwards; his daughter's first marriage did not last long either, and Kôkan strongly disliked her second husband. The relationship between him and his daughter became quite strained as he accused her of a lack of filial piety.

An active traveler, thinker, and writer, Kôkan expressed strong interests in a wide variety of subjects, chiefly those related to Rangaku ("Dutch learning"), such as astronomy, geography, and the natural sciences. He was particularly critical of what he saw as stagnant and conservative philosophical and artistic traditions, and of the kaikin ("maritime restrictions") or sakoku policies which encouraged these attitudes (and came as a result of them), advocating instead that Japan should be a more active participant in the world.

In 1783, he became the first Japanese to produce prints using the copperplate engraving method popular among the Dutch[1].

He traveled to Nagasaki in 1788, at the age of 41, later publishing his diary of this journey. Leaving Edo on 1788/4/23, along the way to Nagasaki he produced and sold paintings, gave lectures on history, geography, and Dutch topics, and demonstrated imported devices such as magnifying glasses and camera obscura. In Nagasaki, he met with Dutch experts including Yoshio Kôsaku, snuck himself into the Dutch settlement of Dejima, normally off-limits to nearly all Japanese, met with Chinese, and otherwise enjoyed the entertainments and culture of the city. According to his writings, he considered this journey a major highlight in his life & career.

After only a month or so in Nagasaki, he turned around and headed back towards Edo, finally arriving home on 1789/3/18.

Later in life, Kôkan considered retiring to Kyoto. He had a farewell party in Edo on 1812/4/1, put his house up for sale, and left for Kyoto, but soon returned. He moved to Kamakura the following summer, where he became a disciple of the Zen priest Seisetsu and was granted the Buddhist name Tôgen. Before long, however, he left Kamakura for Atami, after writing out an obituary for himself and sending it to his friends. Living his last years in Atami and Azabu (in Edo), and associating only with a very small circle of people, he continued painting until his death on 1818/10/21. He was buried at Jigen-ji, a temple in the Honjo-Saruechô neighborhood of Edo; when the temple was moved to just outside Somei Cemetery in 1912, his gravestone was reconstructed there.[2]


  • Plutschow, Herbert. A Reader in Edo Period Travel. Kent: Global Oriental, 2006. pp199-223.
  1. Lane, Richard. Images from the Floating World. New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1978. p292.
  2. Plaques on-site at Jigen-ji.