Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889, Japanese)

Kawanabe KyosaiKawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889, Japanese) was born the son of a samurai and took the name of Shusaburo. When he was just six years old, he was admitted into the school of the great ukiyo-e master Utagawa Kuniyoshi. Later he would study traditional Japanese painting at the Kano Painting School in the studio of Maemura Towa, who would nickname him “The Demon of Painting” (“Shuchu gaki”).

In 1854, Kyosai broke all ties to the Kano school after the deaths of his instructors. He then established himself as an independent artist based on his development of the genre known as kyōga (‘crazy pictures’) – from which his own name Kyōsai is derived. 

Kyosai witnessed the evolution of the Japanese political state by living through both the Edo and Meiji periods.

Kyosai earned a reputation as a caricaturist during the political unrest that followed the revolution of 1867. Because he continued to aggravate those in power, he was arrested many times for his works. He is known as the first Japanese political caricaturist.

Shoki the Demon Queller riding a tiger, subjugating Demons

Shoki the Demon Queller riding a tiger, subjugating Demons

In October 1870, Kyōsai was arrested again after taking part in a shogaki held by the haiku poet Kikakudo Ujaku at a restaurant on the banks of Shinobazu Pond where he got very drunk and painted works that satirized the authorities.  He was held in detention for several months and then sentenced to fifty lashes in January 1871. The works in question showed shoes being put on inhabitants of an island of long-legged people and inhabitants of the island of long-armed people pulling hairs from a large statue of the Buddha – both of which were interpreted as satirizing officials’ sycophancy towards foreigners.  However, not all of his works were satirical, as many were drawn from Japanese folklore.

Playing Tag with Daikokuten and the Mice, ca. 1877. Color woodblock print

Playing Tag with Daikokuten and the Mice, ca. 1877. Color woodblock print


Much of what we know today about his life comes from his friendship with his student Josiah Conder who published Paintings and Studies by Kawanabe Kyosai in 1911. Kyosai was known for his love of sake and for being eccentric. Though he received large sums for his work, he gave it nearly all to the poor. He could bear to see no one suffer while he had a crumb to give. At one time he was stopping at one of those pretty little wayside inns so common in Japan, and called there tea-houses, which was kept by a poor widow. On that day she was feeling especially unhappy, having just been ordered to give up the house for an old debt. No sooner had she told this than the artist began to cover the stainless paper walls with grotesque figures and strange images. Alarmed at the disfiguration of her house, the frightened woman begged him to stop, and finding her protestations useless, she called upon others to take the madman away. But her entire demeanor changed at the whispered utterance of the name ” Kyōsai,” and her joy knew no bounds as she saw him cover with his matchless brush not only walls but ceiling. She realized enough from the sale of those walls to pay all her debts and leave her a comfortable sum besides. Source: Japan, The Place and the People, George Waldo Browne, Dana Estes & Company, 1901, p. 394.

Kawanabe Kyosai, Sleeping Cat

Sleeping Cat


At the end of his life, Kyosai had produced hundreds of paintings and prints as well as illustrated books. Kyosai died in Tokyo in 1889.


Cat with Mouse, Kawanabe Kyosai

Cat with Mouse


The Kawanabe Kyōsai Memorial Museum was established in 1977, located at Warabi Saitama Prefecture, Japan.

In August 2000 a painting by Kawanabe Kyosai on a two-fold screen was sold for 400,000 British Pounds at Christie’s in London, the highest price ever paid for a painting of the Meiji era.


Cats, Kawanabe Kyosai



Cat and Mouse, Kawanabe Kyosai

Cat Catching a Frog, Kawanabe Kyosai

Cat Catching a Frog


Kawanabe Kyosai, Leopard



Cat Monster Kawanabe Kyosai

Cat Monster


Hunting Cat, Kawanabe Kyosai



Tiger Carrying her Cub, Kawanabe Kyosai

Tiger Carrying her Cub


Kawanabe Kyosai, Tiger

Kawanabe Kyosai, Tiger



Tiger in the Mirror, Kawanabe Kyosai


Tiger with its Kill, Kawanabe Kyosai

Tiger with its Kill



Want to know more about the cat in literature, art and history? Then Revered and Reviled is the book for  you. Now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. 

Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat, cat history, cats

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  1. Tamara Nikolic says

    Fantastic! Thank you very much for this text.

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