Nihon Day Thirty One: The Thirty One Cultural Pioneers of Japan

When I was a little kid, and I used to dream about the amazing country of Japan, I had a copy of Winnie The Pooh in Japanese. I obviously couldn't read it, but I used to copy out the kanji and kana onto pieces of stationary. This was partly because I've always loved the look of these foreign characters, but I had another reason for doing this. After writing out a whole page of kanji and kana I would fold it up, put it in an envelope, and write my address on it. Then I would draw a stamp on it, something that looked Japanese, and seal everything up. They were my very own letters from Japan. 

At the same time, me and my best friend, Nicole, were avid stamp collectors. Both of us got the stamp magazine and eagerly anticipated the new releases. We bought some stamps new from the post office, but mostly we cut them off of envelopes. There's a tricky technique where you soak them in a shallow dish of water with a little soap in it. After a few minutes you can carefully slide the stamp from the wet paper. Once dry, you have your very own used stamp, without any paper. 

It's been a while since I combed through the mail to find interesting stamps, but I still save anything from a foreign country. For example, a few years ago I bought some decorative paper from Australia. I saved the winter olympics stamps that were on the envelope. Obviously, Japanese stamps would have been the best, but everything I've had sent here from Japan has come in a bigger package, which has different postage than stamps. 

This is where ebay comes in. I discovered that Japan has Beatrix Potter stamps, and of course I needed them right away. Beatrix Potter is my personal hero and I collect the books, artwork, porcelain figures, and anything else I can find. Japanese Beatrix Potter stamps were a must. Plus, Japanese stamps don't just come in the rectangular shape we're used to seeing in America. The Beatrix Potter ones had round and oval stamps as well. Soon I found them on ebay for a reasonable price. 

Looking through the sellers page, I saw that he had hundreds of foreign stamps, mostly from France, but a lot from Japan too. I decided then and there that I must start a Japanese stamp collection. I didn't have a lot of money, but I had enough for one more batch. There were lots of interesting, beautiful, and artistic stamps, but I wanted something that I could use for a blog post. That was when I discovered the series of thirty one Cultural Pioneers. This was perfect, since I could learn history, find out about culture, and enjoy the stamps. 

I ordered my stamps, had them here within a week, and found them every bit as exciting as I had imagined. Now, the fun of the cultural pioneers was looking up who everyone was. Scientists, artist, poets, musicians, from every era, and walk of life. Now for the best part, telling you about them. 

I've split them into groups, so this will be a post with several parts. Without further ado, here are the first six. 


1. Katsushika Hokusai (October 31, 1760 – May 10, 1849)

We're starting out with one that should be known to most westerns, if only because he is the artist behind the most iconic Japanese print. It is commonly know as "The Wave" but is actually called "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa". His ukiyo-e prints were revolutionary in their time, focusing on landscapes and the every day lives of Japanese people, instead of courtesans and kabuki actors, the traditional subjects of the art form. 

Hokusai is believed to have been the son of a mirror maker, working for the Shogan. There is some speculation though, that since this man never made Hokusai his heir, his mother was perhaps a courtesan. Hokusai most likely learned to paint from his father, and after working first in a bookshop and then as a woodcarver's assistant, he moved to the studio of Katsukawa Shunsho, a skilled ukiyo-e artist. He was eighteen at this time, and did the typical kabuki and courtesan portraits. When Shunsho passed away, Hokusai began to explore other artistic styles, including some European examples. It must have been difficult for him to find these, since Japan was still closed off from the rest of the world, under penalty of death. 

Hokusai was eventually expelled from the studio by Shunsho's successor. Later in life, he would credit this humiliation with the development of his own style. After a brief stint in another ukiyo-e school, Hokusai set himself up as an independent artist.


As every successful artist will tell you, talent will only get you so far. Hokusai had the talent, but he also had a certain knack for self promotion. He would grow to be an artist of great renowned for his beautiful landscapes, nature scenes, and other innovations. Hokusai was the first person to publish manga, though they were rather different from their modern namesakes. This books of instruction and random drawing were highly popular in their time. 

In the 1820s, Hokusai had reached fame throughout the entire country. During this time he produced the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, including The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, which is famous worldwide today. In old age, his popularity faded somewhat, but he never stopped painting. On his deathbed at the ripe age of eighty eight he said "If only Heaven will give me just another ten years ... Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter," showing the true spirit of an artist.  

2. Kitasato Shibasaburo (January 29, 1853 – June 13, 1931)

Moving on from the world famous artists Hokusai, we find someone working in a field with far less glamour, a bacteriologist. But, as much as I respect the arts (being an artist and all) I have to admit that Kitasato probably deserves a lot of praise for dedicating his life to the treatment of infectious diseases. 

Kitasato was educated at Tokyo Imperial University, but moved to Berlin in 1885 to study under Dr. Robert Koch. It was here that he became the first person to grow a pure culture of Tetanus bacillus, which was a big deal in bacteriology in the 1880s. Kitasato worked together with Emil Von Behring on antitoxins for tetanus, dypyheria, and anthrax. They were actually able to discover a diphtheria antitoxin serum. In 1901, the first year of the Nobel Prize, he was recognized for this work with a nomination. However, Emil Von Behring alone walked away with the award. 

After five years in Germany, Kitasato returned to Japan and founded The Institute for Study of Infectious Diseases. When Hong Kong had a breakout of the bubonic plague in 1894, the Japanese government sent Kitasato to see what he could do. It was at this time that he was able to identify the bacterium that causes the disease.

If you know anything about science history you might be scratching your head thinking I've mixed him up with the Swiss Bacteriologist, Alexandre Yersin. After all, the bacterium is called Yersinia pestis. Well, Yersin and Kitasato were both working on the same problem in Hong Kong, and they both isolated the bacterium individually. Kitasato discovered it several days earlier than his Swiss colleague, but because of his somewhat vague note taking habits, many historians give sole credit to Yersin. But this didn't discourage Kitasato, who would go on to isolate the bacterium responsible for dysentery four years later (with the help of his student Shiga Kiyoshi). 

His other achievements include founding the Kitasato Institute (later Kitasato University) and founding the Terumo Corperation, which is still manufacturing medical equipment today. He also served as the first Dean of Medicine at Keio University. In 1924 he was made a danshaku (baron) in recognition of his achievments. 

3. Uemura Shoen (April 23, 1875 – August 27, 1949) 

There are twenty six years between the death of Hokusai and our next pioneer's birth, but they were both influential artists. Indeed, when Shoen was a young girl she was inspired by the works of Hokusai. In a time when women were often constrained into rigid roles in society, Shoen was growing up in a household entirely made up of women. Her father had died when she was young, and now her mother ran the family and their tea business. 

Supported by her mother, Shoen studied Chinese style, Kano, and Sesshu painting at Kyoto Prefectural Painting School. She would move on to other styles and teachers, but also developed her own techniques. Her work is now remembered for her paintings of women, often inspired by Noh theatre. Her two most famous works are Jo-no-mai and Soshi-arai Komachi, painted in her fifties and sixties, which depict scenes from famous Noh plays. 



Soshi-arai Komachi

Soshi-arai Komachi

Shoen had two illegitimate children, a son and a daughter, who she raised independently, never revealing the father of either. This was certainly a big deal in the late 1800s, but Shoen appears to have been a trail blazer in more ways than one. Thanks to her amazing talents, Shoen became the first woman to be invited to join the Imperial Art Academy, and the first woman to be awarded the Order of Culture. Also, Jo-No-Mai was the first painting by a woman that the Agency of Cultural Affairs deemed an Important Cultural Property. 

4. Umetaro Suzuki (April 7, 1874 – September 20, 1943)

Back from the world of art to the world of science. Umetaro Suzuki was a Japanese scientist, and a contemporary of Kitasato Shibasaburo. However, his speciality was the as of yet undiscovered cause of beriberi.

If you're unfamiliar with this condition, it is caused by a deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1), and used to be very common in Japan. This was because of the reliance on white rice as a dietary staple. But wait, you might be thinking, a few months ago you were telling us how great white rice is! Well, it is, because of all the reasons I spelled out in that post. However, you can easily get thiamine from other sources, like green peas, spinach, buckwheat, and even pork. Good news for those who do not want to get beriberi, which is something you don't want. I'm not entirely sure of the symptoms because I only got far enough into the wikipedia page to find out the is a "dry beriberi" and a "wet beriberi" and that was enough for me. 

As I say, Umetaro Suzuki discovered thiamine, after researching components of rice bran. No doubt, he had become curious as to why people who ate brown rice didn't get beriberi. This was early in the time of modern vitamin research, and that name was yet to be coined. Umetaro called his discovery aberic acid. Due to the fact that Umetaro's article was poorly translated into German, accidentally failing to note that it was a new discovery, Umetaro received no recognition for his discover worldwide. It was instead given to Kazimierz Funk, the Polish biochemist with an amazing name. He succeeded in isolating thiamine two years after Umetaro, and dubbed it a vitamine (vital amino). Jeez, what is it with Japanese scientists of this period not getting their proper credit?

Umetaro was a professor of agricultural chemistry at the University of Tokyo and was also the director of the Division of Chemistry at the research facility of RIKEN. 

5. Kazan Watanabe (October 20, 1793 – November 23, 1841)

There's a bit of a pattern here, for we are moving on to another artist, Kazan Watanabe. But, Kazan was a lot different from Hokusai and Uemura Shoen. For one thing, he was a member of the Samurai class, though from a poorer family. He was a sort of Edo Paradox, both a firm believer in the Confucian principles of Samurai and daimyo (lords) and an enthusiastic admirer of western artwork, science, and politics. 

His artistic style was influenced both by traditional Japanese techniques and western paintings. He painted both realistic portraits and beautiful natural images, such as birds and bamboo leaves. 

A resistir portrait of Sato Issai by Kazan Watanabe 

A resistir portrait of Sato Issai by Kazan Watanabe 

The Watanabe family served the lord of Tahara Domain (persent-day Aichi Prefecture), and Kazan served their lord as a senior councilor. However, he wrote two essays, not intended for publication, that could have been interpreted as critical of the Shogan and pro-westernization. Those essays were discarded, but most unfortunately they were found. At this time, Japan was still closed, and it would be for another two decades. Kazan was exiled to Tahara for his opinions, which were never intended to be made public. 

There were conditions to his exile, one of which being that he must cease the sale of his paintings. However, being financially dependent on these sales, Kazan ignored this condition and continued to sell the paintings in secret. This lasted a little while, but he was once again discovered, and this time his punishment was house arrest. Kazan Watanabe was forty eight when he committed seppuku (ritual suicide) to atone for the political embarrassment he had caused his lord. Today he is remembered as a exemplary painter and scholar. 

6. Lafcadio Hearn (27 June 1850 – 26 September 1904) 

While I was sorting through the thirty one stamps, I was interested to find Lafcadio Hearn, mostly because that is clearly not a Japanese name. But also, it rang a sort of bell. A few minutes later, as I read his wiki page, I remembered where I had read about him before. It was during my research for the post about Kaidan, Japanese ghost stories. Lafcadio Hearn was a writer, best known for his books about Japan, and this collections of legends and kaidan. 

In this day and age, it is hard to imagine not knowing anything about Japan. Ever since the twentieth century our countries have been linked. First as allies, then as enemies, and finally in a friendship where we both borrow and evolve each others culture. I would make the argument that Japan has become one of the most well known countries to the youth in America today. But, it wasn't that way for a very long time. After all, Japan spent over two hundred years closed off from the rest of the world. It wasn't until the 1850s, when Commodore Mathew Perry forced Japan at gunpoint to trade with America, that the modern world really became aware of Japan.

Today, that sort of thing would have been covered by all the major networks, and it would only be a matter of days before you could learn as much as you wanted about the newly open country from the internet (disregarding the language barrier). But, information was far slower in the 1800s. To the average westerner, Japan was unimaginably exotic, and a complete mystery. However, Japan's beautiful esthetic began to make itself known in the west, notably at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, where they erected a Japanese pagoda. After that, people in the west were eager to learn more about this fashionable culture. Luckily, though there were still hardly any books about Japan available, they could rely on the works of Lafcadio Hearn. 

Lafcadio was born in the greek Ionian Islands, the son of a surgeon. The family immigrated to Ireland when he was two years old, where he was eventually abandoned by both his parents and left in the care of an aunt. He would remain there until age nineteen, when his uncle purchased him a one way ticket to America. With the instructions to make his way to Cincinnati, where he would receive help from his uncle's sister and her husband, Lafcadio once again immigrated to a foreign country. However, the only help he got from his American connection was a five dollar bill and a "good luck". 

Lafcadio was left to a life of menial labor on the streets of Cincinnati. Perhaps he would have been doomed to continue that life, if he hadn't befriended Henry Watkin, the owner of a printing business. Watkin was willing to give Lafcadio a job, giving him his first in on the publishing business. In 1872, four years into his life in America, he got his first job as a writer, working for the Cincinnati Enquirer. He would work there for three years, until his anti-religious writings would land him in hot water. He was fired by the Enquirer, who sited his illegal marriage to an African American woman as the reason. 

Skipping ahead some eighteen years, during which Lafcadio would divorce, move to New Orleans, work for several news papers and magazines, publish works on New Orleans' culture, and then spend two years in the West Indies and publish two books on the subject. In 1890, Lafcadio was hired to go to Japan as a correspondent reporter. Though the contract was terminated soon after his arrival, Lafcadio was enraptured by Japan. Soon he had a middle school teaching position in Matsue. In a little over a year, Lafcadio had fully committed to his new home, marrying the daughter of a Samurai family, changing his name to Koizumi Yakumo, and becoming a buddhist. 

Lafcadio Hearn and his second wife, Koizumi Setsu

Lafcadio Hearn and his second wife, Koizumi Setsu

In 1891, Lafcadio obtained another teaching position and moved his new family to Tokyo. During this time he wrote "Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan", the first of fifteen books he would write over the next ten years. These books were for quite some time the only peak into the mysteries of Japan for curious westerners. In Tokyo he had four children with Setsu, became a teacher at the Tokyo Imperial University, and became the authority on Japanese folklore. 

Sadly, Lafcadio had only spent thirteen years in Japan, when in 1904 he died of heart failure at age fifty four. Today he is remembered in Japan for his collections of Japanese folktales and ghost stories. On the island of his birth there is a museum dedicated to his life, and in Ireland there is an extensive Japanese inspired garden planted in his memory. The fifteen books he wrote about Japan, a snap shot of preindustrial-Meiji era, are still considered important historical works today. 

I hope you enjoyed reading about these cultural pioneers. This blog post ended up being a lot longer than I had originally intended, and I'm not sure how often I will be able to post about the rest of the stamps in this collection. However, I will do my best to keep telling you about these amazing people, and their contributions to the history and culture of Japan!

Until next time, do your best to make the world a better place!

If you enjoyed this post, you will probably also enjoy this one, where I talk about how one man changed the candy industry in Japan. Or perhaps this one, where I tell the story of a Japanese company's rise to power. 

P.S. It's funny how sometimes things just work out. I have been planning this post for a while now, ever since I purchased these thirty one stamp. I had no idea that the post would end up being Nihon Day Thirty One until this very moment. So perfect!