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Sumida Hokusai Museum Teaches What Books Don’t: Edo Livelihoods





Getting started with the world of ukiyo-e can feel a bit daunting. After all, how does one even begin to understand the art of the “floating world”? For those not familiar with woodblock printing, it can seem like very foreign art medium.


Yet, that same sense of the exotic is part of its attraction. To learn more, JAPAN Forward interviewed the curator of the current special exhibition taking place at Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward.


As the name suggests, this is an art museum which focuses on Katsushika Hokusai, a towering figure in Japanese woodblock printing who lived until 89 and was active until his death at 89.


The museum building itself, which opened in 2016, reflects the entrepreneurial spirit of the artists. It is modern on the outside, yet filled with art pieces which are hundreds of years old on the inside. It was designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Kazuyo Sejima.


This spring, the Museum is tackling the theme of “Edo Livelihoods,” a journey into images that show the occupations and lifestyles of people in the Edo period of Japanese history (1603-1868). In our interview, the curator Maho Yamagiwa explained the significance of the exhibition and discussed what we can learn from Hokusai, one of the main exponents of ukiyo-e art.



‘Edo Livelihoods’


When asked about the choice of theme for this exhibition, curator Maho Yamagiwa explained that Edo livelihoods were a significant theme found among the work coming out of Hokusai’s workshop. Indeed, Hokusai and his students “left behind a lot of woodblock prints regarding this theme.”


Going around the museum, it’s clear that this is the case. The occupations of Edo residents are depicted in great variety, many paralleling activities we see in modern day Japan. There are Kabuki entertainers, merchants, artists, taiko drummers and plant sellers, sumo wrestlers and fabric dyers, among others.


A snippet of the differences between then and now can be glimpsed in the prints by the Edo period artist. Yamagiwa explains, for example, how Kabuki entertainment had a more popular quality during the Edo period.


“Nowadays, we think of Kabuki as a luxurious and spacious place where we can leisurely enjoy entertainment. But at the time, the theaters were very different from what we imagine now. People were packed in.”


Some of the other occupations depicted are drastically different from how we imagine them now, such as the job of a doctor. Naturally, at the time diagnosis was based mostly on the observations and impressions of the physician, whereas now we rely much more on data and technology.


Occupations which are not easily imagined in today’s modernized world are also depicted. There are peddlers, bear balm vendors, sedan chair vendors, object carriers, to name a few. Yamagiwa explained how some jobs – which we can’t envision in today's world – help us understand more about the capabilities of man.


“In the Edo period, there was a river called Oi-gawa, which didn’t have bridge.  It was wide with fast running waters, and even boats couldn’t cross it. Therefore, to carry objects across, people had to swim across the river. I think it’s occupations like this which really reveal the incredible strength of mankind.”



The Uniqueness of Hokusai


Of course, there were a lot of wood-block print artists, especially during the Edo period which was associated with fun-loving and decadent times. It is therefore no accident that the art of the period had the appellation of belonging to “the floating world.”


However, there are many reasons to visit the Sumida Hokusai Museum, including  just to appreciate the singularity of this ukiyo-e artist and his workshop.


Yamagiwa points out in the first instance that Hokusai’s style is quite unique among ukiyo-e artists as quite a lot of detail is documented in his works.


“If you read a regular history book, you might find out about the existence of a certain occupation, but you wouldn't know in detail what they do.” She continued with an illustrative example, pointing at a craftsman constructing a large round wooden structure. It appears to be a larger version of the elegant containers we now often see used to serve sushi.


"If you look carefully, Hokusai depicted even a tool to stop the structure from rolling over. This is a very practical detail, which gives a real feel for what kind of work people did in this occupation. You don’t have this kind of detail in books.”


The young curator of the Sumida Hokusai Museum also took the time to explain the broader reasons why we should appreciate Hokusai as an artist.


“He had a really long life. But also, he was an artist who always sought to challenge himself. For that reason, I would really like for people to come and appreciate his work as well as his sense of humanity.”


A concrete example is found in an artwork called " Hamaguri Uri ( Clam Vendor)", exhibited for the first time in this temporary exhibition. It is unique in both the technique and materials used to create it.


Yamagiwa explains how it is a revolutionary work. “First of all, this was painted by the artist, instead of created as a traditional wood block print. So, in that way it’s also different. But in addition to the theme of “Clam Vendor”, the element used to paint this work is in fact clam shells which have been ground into a powder called gofun. I think, in terms of artistic skills, this is a very interesting piece.”


To add to the curious technique, the sheer existence of this work was unknown until recently, making this exhibition the first time the piece is shown in public.


This spectacular exhibition continues until June 9. However, for those who can’t get there before it closes, the permanent exhibition on the fourth floor is highly recommended and most worthy of your time.


There will be additional rotating exhibitions in the coming months, such as a collaborative exhibition with the Smithsonian Institution Freer Gallery in Washington D.C., which begins in the second half of June


For more information on the Sumida Hokusai Museum, visit the link here.


Information About the Exhibition:

Special Exhibition Until June 9

Permanent Exhibition Daily, except December 29-January 1

Opening Hours:

9:30 am – 5:30 pm (Entrance gate closes 30 minutes before the closing time)

Permanent Exhibition Prices:

Adults: 400 JPY  (Group fee: 320 JPY)

High school, university, and vocational school students and seniors (age 65 and above):300 JPY (Group Fee: 240 JPY)

Temporary Exhibition Prices:

Adult 1,000 (Group fee: 800 JPY )

High school, university, and vocational school students and seniors (age 65 and above): 700 JPY (Group fee:560 JPY)

Junior High School Students : 300 JPY (Group fee: 240 JPY)

People With Disability: 300 JPY (Group fee:240 JPY)

*Group admission applies to 20 or more paying adult.


Website Information:

Edo Livelihoods by Hokusai



Permanent Exhibition



The Tsuzuri Project: The Art of Hokusai, reproduced from the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution



Author: Arielle Busetto