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Azechi Umetarō (1902-1999)

Prints in Collection

Graveyard at Sengakuji from Scenes of Last Tokyo
Graveyard at Sengakuji from the series
Scenes of Last Tokyo, 1945

IHL Cat. #173


 ReposeRepose, 1963
IHL Cat. #1332

Biographical Data


Sources: Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints - The Early Years, Helen Merritt, University of Hawaii Press, 1998, p. 234-235; Umetaro Azechi, Oliver Statler, Toto Shuppan Company, Ltd., 1959, p. 5-12 and as footnoted.

Azechi Umetarō (畦地梅太郎, 1902-1999) was bornto an impoverished farming family in Ehime prefecture on remote Shikoku Islandon December 28, 1902.  To make ends meet, Azechi’sfather carved masks for village festivals and Azechi would later comment thathe inherited his father’s craftsmanship.  At the age of 16, unwilling to take up farmingand with his father’s approval, he decided to try his luck in Tokyo.  Stopping in Osaka to seehis older brother, his ill-defined plans to move to Tokyo were derailed by hisbrother’s insistence that he first earn some money.  Serving for eighteen months as a cabin boy ona freighter, he would not see Tokyo until the age of eighteen.

Arriving in Tokyo,Azechi held various jobs, includingdelivering newspapers.  It was hisnewspaper route that brought him in contact with an art student who he sawpainting one morning, and Oliver Statler reported that “it struck Azechi thathere was a fascinating occupation.  Hefell in love, not with art, but with the idea of being an artist.”   He proceeded to enroll in an artcorrespondence course and thought of attending a private art school, but lackof funds and a call for induction in the army stopped his art education.  Returning to Shikoku for induction, he wasrejected by the army for being too short. He returned to Tokyo in 1923 in time to experience the horrific 1923Great Kanto Earthquake which forced him to return home again.  Back home he tried farming, hated it, and misrepresentinghimself as an experienced oil painter, was hired as a poster painter for amovie theater.  In 1925, after two yearsin Shikoku and even more determined to become an artist, he returned to Tokyowhere he was hired, through a friend, in a government printing plant.

While at the printing plant,he began making prints by scratching out designs on lead plates, inking themand using a teacup as a baren.  An acquaintance at the printing office suggested hevisit the prominent sosaku hanga woodblockartist Hiratsuka Un'ichi (1895-1997).  Hiratsukasaw potential in Azechi’s lead plate prints and encouraged him to submit work tothe Japan Print Association exhibition.   Hiratsuka also encouraged Azechi to switchfrom lead plates to wood blocks for his prints.

In Azechi's words:

In those days, anyone submitting prints for the exhibition took them to Koshiro Onchi’s home [Onchi Kōshirō (1891-1955)], for Onchi was the guiding spirit of the Association.  I went there, and the man who answered the door was Gen Yamaguchi [Yamaguchi Gen (1896-1976).  That was when he was serivng a sort of discipleship to Onchi and helping as handyman during the exhibitions.  So the first print artist I met was Hiratsuka, the second Yamaguchi, and the third, Onchi.  All became my friends. 

Experiencing success at the JPA exhibition he went on to exhibit at both the Kokuga-kai and theShunyo-kai. 

He would soon quit his job atthe printing office to lead the life of a free-lance artist earning his living,in part, by carving woodblocks for other artists such as Onchi, Hiratsuka and Maekawa Senpan (1888-1960).

While Hiratsuka wasinstrumental in getting Azechi to switch from lead plate to wood blocks, it is Onchiwho Azechi credits for putting him on the path that made him famous – his printsof mountains and mountaineers.  Onchiadvised him to think “about the meaning and function of art and the artist” and"to search for the essence of his own experience and to trust hisinnermost feelings."  This search broughthim back to his boyhood in Ehime and his love for the mountains and theirpeople and set the focus of his life’s work – the mountains he remembered fromhis childhood, the yama-otoko, men of the mountains, and his love of climbing.

Cry on the Mountain, 1956
(San Francisco Fine Arts Museums)

Azechi exhibited with the Nihon Sosaku-Hanga Kyokai (Japan Creative Print Association), the College Women's Association of Japan, and his work appeared in many international exhibitions.  He also authored the 1963 instructional book Japanese Woodblock Prints: Their Techniques and Appreciation.

I'm grateful to Hiratsuka for his initial encouragement and his steady support all through the years. Maybe without him I wouldn't be an artist today. As for my work, the greatest influence was Onchi [Onchi Koshiro (1891-1955)], and my simplified style today owes most to him - Azchi Umetarōo


 Azechi Umetaro (c. 1965)

An accomplished mountaineer, who is well known in
Japan for his writings about the mountains, Azechi maintained a vigorous lifestyle well into his 90's.

In commenting on Azechi's work, artist and writer Frances Blakemore states, "Despite their repetitiousness, one never becomes bored with Azechi's prints.  Their humor delights.  They can be called primitive, but their primitiveness is the bold statement of a mature artist, not the accidental simplicity of a child."1

A writer, as well as a printmaker, he wrote on mountain lore and mountain climbing and was still vigorous and climbing mountains at the age of eighty.  Azechi passed away in the Spring of 1999. 

My roots are in the Country, and I like simple rustic work… I respect (Shiko) Munakata’s approach, and I agree with him that Japanese artists imitate too much.  In my own case I think my lack of training saves me from that kind of thing.2  - Azechi Umetarō

1 Who's Who in Modern Japanese Prints, Frances Blakemore, Weatherhill, 1975, p. 28.
2 blog of Glenn Hernandez http://www.funomena.com/blog/2014/12/drawing-inspiration-from-the-life-and-work-of-umetaro-azechi