Katsushika Hokusai’s Ghost of Kohada Koheiji: Image from a Fallen Era

Sara Sumpter

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Writer's comment:The instructions for this essay, assigned for my Survey of Japanese Art class, were simple: “the topic must concern a literary theme as it appears in a work of art.” This kind of assignment was both blessing and curse, for it enabled me to explore nearly any subject of my choosing, but it also demanded a great deal of planning on my part. I was familiar with the hyaku monogatari, or One Hundred [Ghost] Stories, prints of Katsushika Hokusai, and I was interested in using one of those works to examine traditional Japanese ghost stories and their role in culture and society during the Edo period. It was not, however, until my research was under way that the essay took on a definitive shape. Through my study it was increasingly clear to me just how oppressive and censorious the Japanese government was during the Edo period, and I realized that my selected print, the Ghost of Kohada Koheiji, and others like it, might well have carried a far greater significance than their made-for-popular-consumption veneer initially suggested. Thanks must be given to Professor Hannah Sigur, whose chal-lenging assignment allowed me to craft not only what I consider to be a thorough and fascinating study, but one of my favorite pieces of writing as well.
—Sara Sumpter

Instructor's comment: Art History is ideally a matter of uniting the concretely observable with the intangible facts of history, society, and intellectual endeavor. This process is critical in understanding the art of Japan, where literature plays a foundational role in visual tradition. The essay assignment for Survey of Japanese Art asked students to explore this connection through one work of art. Sara Sumpter’s articulate, richly detailed, tightly focused, and beautifully organized analysis of Katsushika Hokusai’s pictorial interpretation of the famous story, Ghost of Kohada Koheiji, is superlative. Her ex-amination of a single woodblock print takes the reader on a journey from the specific to the general, revealing the dynamic and complex relationship between the literary and the visual, and between art and society, in 19th century Japan.
—Hannah Sigur, Art History 

The Edo period of Japan (1600–1868) was characterized by a cultural shift. It emerged as a peaceful period in the nation’s history, after four centuries oaked
in the blood of civil wars. In the era directly preceding, the Momoyama period, the unification of Japan had been begun by Oda Nobunaga. This unification
was continued and completed by the vicious warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi after Nobunaga’s assassination. Upon Hideyoshi’s death in 1598, power was usurped by Tokugawa Ieyasu. With a newly unified Japan in his grasp, and a powerful family to support him, Ieyasu founded the Tokugawa shogunate and instituted an era of peace that would last for two and a half centuries. That peace was not without a price, however, for in order to obtain safety the Tokugawa shoguns enforced strict laws regarding expression, ownership, and behavior.
      As a result, the peace of this era could not protect it from eventual disintegration, and in this period of repression and restrictions, the ghost story—hyaku monogatari—and the subsequent images based on the most popular of those stories would emerge, not just as depictions of popular Edo culture, but also as metaphorical social commentaries. Katsushika Hokusai’s Ghost of Kohada Koheiji, from the series One Hundred [Ghost] Stories, is an image born of its period. Through this single grotesque woodblock print, Hokusai illustrates the social discontent of the Edo society with a flawed system
that was soon to fall.
      Tales of the supernatural were not uncommon in the periods that preceded the Edo. Perhaps the most famous example of Heian era (794–1185) literature, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, features several supernatural happenings over the course of the story. It is worth noting, however, that these supernatural elements are not necessarily ghostly in nature. In the first supernatural attacks of The Tale of Genji, though one character is visited and even murdered by a spirit, it is the spirit of a living woman. This woman, the Rokuj lady, suspects that she may have committed misdeeds as an evil spirit but is see-mingly unable to prevent this. Her musings reveal how typical belief in ghosts was amongst the Japanese: “it was common enough for the spirits of the angry dead to linger on in this world. She had thought them hateful, and it was her own lot to set a hateful example while she still lived” (Shikibu 167).
      In other Heian era works, ghostly action is more pro-nounced. Shuichi Kato notes, “Heian-period literature, such as the Ise Monogatari and the Konjaku Monogatari, contained tales of people being eaten by ogres, while other tales told of people being haunted or killed by live or dead spirits” (201). While ghostly elements were common in Japanese literature, they typically did not dominate the narrative in this era. They were just there, part of the fabric of the tale, because in Japan the supernatural is a common part of everyday life, understood and unstated. Still, the ghost story, though an ingrained part of the Japanese literary tradition, was not yet a part of common visual culture. Indeed, ghost tales were not widely depicted until the 14th or 15th century; as Kato states, “Illustrations or paintings of these tales were rare, and monsters were not widely depicted until after the Kamakura period (1185–1333)” (201).
      The ghostly imagery common in the Edo period, of which the Ghost of Kohada Koheiji is but one, may have emerged from the popular game of hyaku monogatari, the Gathering for One Hundred Ghost Stories. This game had its origins in re-ligious ritual; as Noriko T. Reider states, “these gatherings may have had their origin during the medieval period in Hyakuza hodan (One Hundred Buddhist Stories), in which it was widely believed that miracles would happen after telling one hundred Buddhist stories over one hundred days” (15). The standard premise of the game was that friends would gather after nightfall to tell scary ghost stories. At the start of the re-citation, one hundred lights were lit, and, as each of the tales was told, one of the lights was put out. In the growing dark-ness, it was believed that at the end of the game something frightening would occur.
      This game continued its popularity into the Edo period. In a collection of ghost stories called Hand Puppets, it was al-leged, “when one hundred frightening tales are told, a frigh-tening thing happens without fail” (qtd. in Reider 37). This game would eventually give rise to the publication of the most popular tales in book form. This no doubt increased their widespread popularity. By the 1600s the hyaku monogatari had more or less gained a standardized format that was well-known and often used by the masses. This game was the foundation for the literature and images to come. Midori Deguchi points out, “the popularity of the game resulted in the publication of various printed books entitled Hyaku monogatari in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” (19).
      The popularity of these tales was not just a random fad, but an indication of a larger social movement at hand. The un-ification of the country under the powerful Tokugawa Shogu-nate “made the terror and death associated with civil war a thing of the past. In a time of peace, people could regard strange phenomena and terror as entertainment” (Reider 16). The unification of Japan and the period of peace heralded by the rule of the Tokugawa shoguns created an incubation chamber for the rise of ghost tales. As the popularity of these tales increased, it was only a matter of time before imagery would be made to complement them.
      It was in Hokusai’s lifetime that ghost prints became pre-valent. Midori Deguchi points out that “by the early nineteenth century, the term hyaku monogatari came to be used as a ge-neric term for ghost stories, and a great variety of hyaku mo-nogatari prints began to be made” (19). The tail end of the Edo period would, in fact, see a massive shift towards the de-piction of a literary tradition that had prevailed for centuries. This shift was characterized by extremities of grotesque depic-tion, as “the Japanese painters of the time exhibited their im-aginative capacities by painting numerous ghosts and mon-sters, going beyond mere realism” (Kato 195). Hokusai was one of the many artists to participate in this enterprise.
      The Ghost of Kohada Koheiji is a color woodblock print that depicts what is perhaps the most popular ghost tale in-volving a male phantom—tales involving female phantoms were far more typical. His first appearance was in a novel by Sant Kyoden, Fukushu kidan Asaka no numa (A Weird Story of Revenge in the Swamp of Asaka). Murdered by his wife’s lover, Koheiji returned from the grave to avenge himself. His haunting led to his killers’ unnatural and untimely ends. This tale was converted into a kabuki play and performed widely. It was this repeated production that spurred Kohada Koheiji’s popularity. The numerous performances of the story as kabuki play “resulted in the production of various Koheiji-related sce-narios” (Deguchi 21).
      Hokusai’s image of the ghostly revenant come for retribu-tion borders on the monstrous. Indeed, Hokusai was ac-knowledged as a lover of the grotesque. In his comparison of various artists of the late Edo period Shuichi Kato states that “Hokusai, more than any other painter, preferred to paint mon-sters” (196). In the image, Kohada Koheiji is seen peering in through the curtains of a mosquito net, presumably at his as-sassins who sleep under its cover. His hands, skeletal and clawlike, inch the netting open to reveal his face—little more than bone and sinew. Around his neck are the remnants of his earthly attire, and upon his head are random strands of his now decaying hair. Koheiji grins with the grim delight of a skeleton at his murderers, who are not shown. The scene is colorful but still dark, with the central figure of Kohada Koheiji shrouded and enclosed by a deep blue-blackness. Koheiji seems to glow with the passion of his vengeance.
      This vibrant depiction of death gone a-hunting speaks to Hokusai’s belief in the supernatural. Tsuji Nobuo states, “Hokusai must have believed in ghosts to have created such realistic images of them” (70). His choice of subject matter shows how connected he was to the literary and spiritual cur-rents of his society. The Ghost of Kohada Koheiji is one of five images in a series by Hokusai entitled Hyaku monogatari (One Hundred [Ghost] Stories). Each of the individual images is strikingly grotesque and three of the five depict scenes from the most famous of Japanese ghost tales. Hokusai evidently knew the most popular tales and drew on them as his inspira-tion. Indeed, he may even have believed in these specific ghosts, as was common in the Edo period. Reider notes that the typical Japanese audience was inclined to believe in the stories, even when presented as fiction: “there seems to be a convergent point in Japanese society where individuals from all walks of life seem to unite in their belief of the supernatural, at least on some level or other” (35). So, although Hokusai most often painted lovely images of nature and culture, his five depictions of the ghostly grotesque show, according to Gian Carlo Calza, that he “was not neglecting topics connected to iconography and popular traditions” (232). The ghost story was an undeniably crucial part of Japanese society at this time.
      Hokusai’s works were tremendously influential, both on his contemporaries and on foreign artists who discovered his work in the late 1800s, after the opening of Japan to the west. Still, not all of his impersonators would match his vitriolic terror. This was particularly true of Western imitators, who tended to tone down the horror aspects of Hokusai’s works in their copies. While some Western works are nearly mirror image reproductions of Hokusai’s compositions, his “pictures of monsters often end up being caricatures, or at least their capacity to inspire fear is played down” (Calza 506). Natural-ly, the Western reaction to the ghost story is different, indicat-ing an entirely different social response to the supernatural.
      Unlike other ghost story–based images of the time period by contemporaries like Kuniyoshi or Yoshitoshi, Hokusai’s five Hyaku monogatari possess an intimate style that heightens their emotional quality. Kuniyoshi, in particular, though a well-known printmaker of ghostly images, often created clut-tered scenes that did not have the immediacy of terror pre-sented by Hokusai. In addition, Kuniyoshi’s works often de-picted actors in the roles of famous phantoms, rather than the famous phantoms themselves. For Hokusai there was no such illusion, as “spirits and demons were the friends that the old Hokusai feared and loved” (Nobuo 73). All of his ghosts, frightening in their truth, appeared with no veil of safety to protect the viewer.
      In this respect, Hokusai showed himself to be, for all his eccentricity, in touch with the beliefs of his era. As a follower of the Nichiren Buddhist sect, Hokusai had an obvious belief in life after death, and even believed that he would one day walk the earth as a phantom. In a haiku written shortly before he death he wrote: “Though as a ghost, I shall lightly tread the summer fields” (qtd. in Nobuo 73). Given this comfort with the supernatural, it is no surprise that Hokusai captured the emotional atmosphere of his society in practically the only sanctioned format available in the Edo period—the ghost story.
      Hokusai’s treatment of ghost stories speaks to the general discontent of Edo society that would contribute to the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate. Shuichi Kato notes, “Ghosts and mon-sters emerge from the depths of human consciousness, but they are usually kept in check by social order. When order is lost, collective hysteria surfaces (Eejanaika) and visions of ghosts and individual imaginings are allowed to emerge in works of art” (195–196). In the nineteenth century, Edo so-ciety was collapsing under the weight of economic failure and authoritarian restrictions. The Kansei reforms that began in 1787 were particularly oppressive—particularly as they con-cerned trade with foreign nations, the amount of debt incurred by government that a common Edo merchant could collect on, and what a person was allowed to own. In this atmosphere of unease, the ghost story was a perfect fit for the fears and wor-ries of a concerned people. Noriko T. Reider states, “wide-spread belief in the supernatural can provide people a way of comprehending the strange or troublesome” (33). However, there are drawbacks to this; as Reider notes, those stories can also “be the incubus for inciting mass-panic, terror, and social unrest” (33).
      With the thought of loss of control firmly in mind, the gov-ernment of the Tokugawa shogunate held a strong grip on the legislation of the supernatural at all times. In addition to the strict Kansei reforms that had by 1790 begun extending from sumptuary laws towards control of publishing and reform of general philosophy, the Tokugawa shogunate issued edicts throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries against a variety of supernatural stories in the interest of pre-venting outbreaks of hysteria. It was clear that the superna-tural was a subject with which officials were not comfortable: “This ‘supernatural threat’ was never too far from the bureau-crats’ and governor’s minds, for they knew the unknown was something they held very little, if any, control over” (Reider 38).
      It is interesting, though, that in spite of this unease—which stemmed mainly from a broad-based belief in the supernatur-al—the Tokugawa government did not fully ban the ghost sto-ry. Political and social satires, on the other hand, were dan-gerous to publish. Sant Kyden, author of the first novel which featured Kohada Koheiji, was also famous in his time for suf-fering one of the harshest punishments for publishing material found unfit by the Tokugawa government. Nishiyama Matsu-nosuke explains:

When Sant Kyden drew the illustrations for Ishibe Kink’s kibyoshi entitled Kokubyaku mi-zu-kagami (Black and White Reflected in Water), the authorities struck back and sentenced Kyden to a heavy fine. Undaunted, Kyden published three more satirical books three years later [1792]; this time he found himself manacled for fifty days. (51) Kyden was not the only one to suffer for the publication. His publisher and the judges who approved his book also suffered greatly. His publisher was fined half of his net worth, and the judges were exiled from Edo. Censorship would only increase from there.

In this atmosphere of unrest, the ghost story emerged as the safe form of expression in a very dangerous era. The ghost story was generally overlooked because it was related to characters (both fictional and historical) who existed in the past. The government kept an eye on creative works of fic-tion, but “by setting tales in the past, authors could get away with prognostication, political punditry and even judgment, since there was no direct association between the historical, fictional characters and Japan’s then-ruling class” (Reider 67). With harsh punishments befalling both writers and artists who dared to break the rules, or who were even perceived to have broken the rules, many writers and artists may have turned to ghost themes to express their discontent. Sant Kyden’s
      ovel Fukushu kidan Asaka no numa (A Weird Story of Revenge in the Swamp of Asaka) quite possibly fell into this category. The novel was based on a historical figure, for Kohada Koheiji was a real murder victim, and could not be associated with the ruling government. While very little is known about Kyden’s intent with this tale, we do know that it was published in 1803, well after his period of trouble with the Tokugawa government. Here one can only speculate, but it is of note that after his extremely harsh and potentially lethal pu-nishment (the ukiyo-e painter Utamaro is widely believed to have died from health complications that arose during a prison stint he served for publishing politically incorrect prints [En-cyclopaedia Britannica]), Kyden veered away from potentially inflammatory material.
      While Kyden’s novel may not necessarily have been laced with political innuendo, it almost certainly expressed the social mind-set at this time. Reider points out, “in Japan’s highly structured, rigid class system, any ideas outside the box of normalcy would have appealed to those who felt trapped by the constraints of their class and birthright” (54). Not only were ghost stories potentially motivated by politically-minded challenges, they expressed the general desperation that filled the majority of Japan’s citizens. As that very desperation was a slight against the Tokugawa government, which no doubt saw itself as superior and righteous, the natural everyday feelings of the common man were virtually outlawed. Through that aura of discontent and misery stalked the Ghost of Kohada Koheiji.
      Hokusai was already an aged and learned man when he created his five prints in the Hyaku monogatari (One Hundred [Ghost] Stories) series. Born in 1760, Hokusai claimed to have begun drawing at the age of six, and throughout his life he was obsessed with the notion of making the lines in his drawings come to life: “When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own” (qtd. in Calza 12). This eccentricity set Hokusai somewhat apart from his contemporaries, and throughout his life he walked a different path from that of his fellow artists.
      At the age of 70, when other artists of Hokusai’s era were painting pictures of the floating world, he was concentrating on nature and the landscape. Unlike some, Hokusai wore many hats throughout his life, took many names, and exhibited many styles. Chief amongst those styles were realism and man-nerism, a style that focuses on the human figure but purposely depicts that figure in elongated and distorted poses and often skews the scale of the varying objects in the picture. Tsuji Nobuo describes the duality of Hokusai’s artistic personality thus:

On the one hand Hokusai the realist, whose sharp observation enabled him to reproduce the forms, inner life and outer expressions of man and nature in a humorous key; on the other Ho-kusai the mannerist, with a leaning towards the fantastic, who enthusiastically translated na-ture’s forms into strange “hokusaisms.” (65)

Hokusai’s mannerist and fantastic style came to the forefront of his work as he aged, and it is in this style that Kohada Koheiji is done.
      Though elements of the supernatural ran through Hoku-sai’s work all of his life (Nobuo 70) Hokusai never more graphically depicted the supernatural than in his Hyaku mo-nogatari series of 1830. This graphic depiction was crucial not just for invoking the level of terror associated with the ghost story, but for creating an ingeniously hidden metaphor of Edo society. With a ruling warrior class exerting an iron grip on the populace, ordinary citizens had virtually no rights to anything, even their own homes. Citizens in Edo period Japan were subject to having their homes confiscated, or their familes moved on the whim of the government (Matsunosuke 37). In this context, Kohada Koheiji is no longer just the ghost of a man wrongly killed, seeking his much deserved justice. He represents the deadening existence that plagued the commoner classes of the Edo period. As he peers through the netting of his victims’ tent, the unseen antagonists become not just Koheiji’s victims, but the victims of the Tokugawa gov-ernment—a mass of nameless protagonists persecuted by grim reforms and restrictions.
      With the benefit of a longstanding tradition of ghost stories, and the threat of stern punishments for violating publishing reforms, Hokusai created a piece of art that managed to speak for his people. This example, which illustrated the anguish and oppression of the Japanese people at the end of the Edo period, speaks volumes about why the peaceful Tokugawa shogunate could not ultimately prevail as a successful social system. The sadness and fear expressed in the Ghost of Kohada Koheiji, though hidden behind a glaze of the superna-tural, would ultimately tell the tale—not just of a man mur-dered—but of a social system fallen.



Works Cited

Calza, Gian Carlo. Hokusai. London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 2004.
Deguchi, Midori. “One Hundred Demons and One Hundred Super-natural Tales.”             Japanese Ghosts and Demons. Ed. Stephen Addiss. New York: George Braziller, Inc.,       1985. 15–23.
Kato, Shuichi. Japan: Spirit & Form. Trans. Junko Abe and Leza Lowitz. Rutland:             Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1994.
Matsunosuke, Nishiyama. Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan,             1600¬–1868. Trans. Gerald Groemer. Honolulu: U of Hawaii Press, 1997.
Nobuo, Tsuji. “In a Fantasy World: Hokusai’s Late Works.” Hoku-sai. Ed. Gian Carlo       Calza. London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 2004. 65–73.
Reider, Noriko T. Tales of the Supernatural in Early Modern Japan: Kaidan, Akinari,             Ugetsu Monogatari. Japanese Studies Volume 16. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen             Press, 2002.
Shikibu, Murasaki. The Tale of Genji. Trans. Edward G. Seidens-ticker. New York:             Alfred A. Knopf, 1977.
“Utamaro.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2004. Encyclopaedia Bri-tannica Premium Service.       1 December 2004. <http://www.britannica.com/eb/artiscle?tocld=9074550>.