“Ōi! Ōi!” The print master Hokusai would call across the workshop to his daughter Eijo. “ōi, ōi, oyaji dono” what’s up old man? she would reply.* Eijo was the first child born to the great Edo printmaker Katsushika Hokusai’s second wife, and like her older sisters Mijo and Tatsu she was brought up in the studio, where tradition dictated they assist in the family business until they married. But for Eijo, drafting the elegant courtesans, musicians, and warriors that populated Japan’s famous ukiyo-e prints was more than duty, it became her life’s work.
As expected from a young Japanese woman in the early 19th century, Eijo was married in her early 20’s to a young shopkeeper turned artist named Tsutsumi Tōmei. But her husbands artwork was devastatingly poor and apparently Eijo was none too subtle in her criticism. After just three years, Ei had divorced Tōmei and returned to her father’s studio, to work the brush once again, and with the poetic aim of becoming a Xian sage—an immortal soul set apart from the chaotic world of men.
It would have been a welcome reunion. Eijo’s sister Mijo had died shortly after her marriage to Shigenobu, one of Hokusai’s students, and Tatsu had died in her twenties, leaving Eijo the last of his children to share the family trade. Hokusai was turning 60, and changed his artist name to ‘Iitsu’ during this period, and in a move that seems to capture her sly humor, Eijo gave herself the artist name of Oi. The two worked obsessively, ignoring housework, buying ready-to-eat meals at local markets, taking breaks only for the old master to fall asleep under his heated kotatsu table, and for Eijo to smoke her long pipe. Shortly after her return, Hokusai seems to have suffered the first of a number of paralytic ‘palsies’ that would plague him for the rest of his life. Eijo cared for her father during these periods, and for art historians this begs a fascinating question: to keep the studio open, did Eijo produce work under Hokusai’s name?
In her day, Eijo was known as an accomplished artist in her own right. Fellow ukiyo-e artist Keisai Eisen said she was “skilled at drawing, and following her father has become a professional artist while acquiring a reputation as a talented painter.” And Hokusai himself preferred Eijo’s bijin-ga, paintings of beautiful women, to his own, saying “The bijin-ga I paint myself are no match for Oi’s.” The are only a few known artworks that bear her signature, Oi Eijo hitsu, but they are striking, clever, and subtle—from the surreal horror of general Guan Yu receiving a bloody operation while playing a game of go, to the quiet inversion of the Three Women playing Musicial Instruments, where she inverted tradition by facing the central figure away from the viewer. So, we have a skilled artist, who spend decades in the workshop, yet to whom less than a dozen artworks are currently attributed? As Katherine Govier, writer of a number of essays on Oi and a fictionalized biography puts it “What was Oi doing all her life in the studio, if not creating art?”
I'd love to speculate on which Hokusai artworks were secretly created by Eijo, but these is currently little to no academic consensus. In her essay Oi without Hokusai, Govier points to a bijin-ga called Te-odori zu (Hand Dancing), whose figures display Eijo’s more advanced rendering of hands and fingers, and to the erotic art, or shunga, that kept Hokusai’s studio afloat during the difficult 1820’s—compelling cases fueled by both formal and historical analysis—I'd recommend reading her full essay, and look at the artwork. Ultimately, as Govier so poignantly comcludes “If...the pair worked together like two clasped hands, can they be pulled apart?”
On 10 May 1849, Hokusai died at age 88, with Eijo, now nearing 50, at his side. From here Eijo’s next decade slides into conflicting and increasingly vague stories. Historian Richard Lane claimed she became increasingly idiosyncratic until she left Edo for the seaside port of Kanazawa, where she died at 66. Art critic Kobayashi Tadashi claimed she “became reclusive and eventually broke ties with relatives” leaving the hospitality of Hokusai’s second son Kase Sakejiro, and becoming an itinerant artist. But the most evocative account cord from Hokusai’s apprentice Tsuyuki, who wrote that “After Hokusai’s death she was not in grief. She did not live in mourning and she did not stay in one place for long...one day she left not telling where she was going and no one knew where she went. Her age was 67.” I like to think that she might still be out there, crouched over her pen and her pipe in some hideaway village, the sage transcended through dedication to her art.
* A note on translation: I don't speak Japanese, and I'm on particularly shaky ground in the deep nuance of honorifics. However, from what I can find, ‘oyaji’ means old man — as in ‘oyaji gyagu’ meaning roughly ‘dad jokes’ — and ‘dono’ is an honorific meaning ‘master’ or ‘lord’ but with the specific qualification that the person speaking it has the same rank as the person being referred to! So Eijo was dancing a fascinatingly careful line here, referring to her father with a certain degree of respect, but placing herself on equal footing. A true partnership. If you, dear reader, happen to be fluent in Japanese and its honorifics, let me know if I've got this understanding correct!
Reed Enger, "Katsushika Ōi, The other half of Hokusai," in Obelisk Art History, Published January 20, 2016; last modified June 27, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/katsushika-oi/.