Asai Chu Biography

Asai Chū, a renowned yōga painter and teacher from Japan’s Meiji period, played a crucial role in shaping the artistic painting style of late 19th and early 20th century Japan. Beginning his artistic journey by joining western oil painting classes, Chū became one of the first students at the Kobu Bijutsu Gakkō, the country’s first Yōga art school. Under the guidance of Italian artist Antonio Fontanesi, Chū honed his skills and later established the Meiji Art Society. He went on to become a professor at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts and furthered his expertise in Western-style painting in France. Returning to Japan, Chū served as a professor at the Kyoto Kōtō Kōgei Gakkō and founded the Kansai Bijutsu-in. Many of his students, such as Sōtarō Yasui and Ryuzaburo Umehara, achieved fame as yōga painters. Notably, the Japanese government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs has recognized several of Chū’s works, including Spring Ridge and Harvest, as Important Cultural Properties.

Quick Facts

  • Died At Age: 51
  • Born Country: Japan
  • Died on: December 16, 1907
  • Place of death: Kyoto, Japan
  • Founder/Co-Founder: Kansai Bijutsu-in (the Kansai Arts Institute)
  • Education: Kobubijutsu Gakkō

Childhood & Early Life

Asai Chū was born on July 22, 1856, in Sakura Chiba, Japan, into an ex-samurai class household. He was the first son of Tsuneaki Asai, a retainer of the Sakura Domain and the principal of the domain school where Chū studied. He learned Confucianism including shishogokyo and martial arts in the domain school.

From 1863 to 1872, Chū grew up in an area that is presently called Masakado-machi in Sakura City. When he was aged 13, Chū started learning Kacho-ga, traditional Japanese painting of flowers and birds, from Nanga painter Kaizan Kuroyama.

In 1873, Chū went to Tokyo to study English language but eventually developed interest in the arts. This led him to join Shogido, a Western-style private art school, in 1875. There he learned oil painting under the tutelage of Kunisawa Shinkuro.

In 1876 when the Meiji government established the Kobu Bijutsu Gakkō (Technical Art School) as the first Yōga art school of Japan and hired Foreign advisors like the Italian artists Antonio Fontanesi, Giovanni Cappelletti and Vicenzo Ragusa to teach European oil painting techniques to Japanese artists, Chū enrolled as one of its first students. There he came under the guidance of Fontanesi from whom he absorbed the palette and style of the Barbizon school. Chū then went on to produce works associated with the Barbizan school including lyrical landscapes portraying labourers at work in farming, fishing and other occupations in natural and rural settings in a palette of greens and browns.


Following his graduation, Chū formed the Jūichi-kai. In 1889, he went on to establish the Meiji Bijutsukai (Meiji Art Society), a group of Western-style painters in Japan, the first of its kind in the country.

The Japanese newspaper Jiji shipō inducted Chū as their media correspondent and sent him to China in 1894 during the Sino-Japanese War to create images of the war from the front. There he came under direct supervision of the army and was sent with the Second Army when the latter invaded the Liaodong peninsula. He created several sketches there using pencil and pen and then highlighted them with watercolours. These sketches were thereafter reproduced using full-colour lithography and published by Shinyōdō in the 4 volumes of Some Sketches of the Japan-China War. In 1895, he returned to Japan and produced several war-themed works such as Captain Higuchi Rescuing a Child and Search after the Battle of Port Arthur. Same year, the Japanese Education Ministry commissioned him to develop a series of drawing textbooks teaching Western-style art.

He was inducted as a professor of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (now Tokyo University of the Arts) in 1898. He resigned from the post in 1900 and went to France on a government-sponsored trip to hone his techniques in the impressionist school. There he attended the Exposition Universelle, a world’s fair, in which his work along with work of other Japanese artists was featured. He stayed in France for two years and spent much of his time there in a village called Grez-sur-Loing. There he lightened his palette to a great extent and produced a series of plein-air works.

He was influenced by the then Art Nouveau Style and transmitted the style to Japan upon his return in 1902. He was then appointed as professor at the Kyoto Kōtō Kōgei Gakkō (present-day Kyoto School of Arts and Crafts of the Kyoto Institute of Technology). Same year, he founded the Kansai Bijutsu-in (the Kansai Arts Institute) and the Shōgoin Yōga Kenkyūsho.

Apart from being a painter, graphic designer and book illustrator, Chū also thrived as a mentor in his effort to train young artists and instil different techniques in them. He established the Yoga Kenkujo, an atelier in Kyoto for his monjin (students). Several of his students went on to become famous painters of the yōga style. Two of the most notable ones include Sōtarō Yasui and Ryuzaburo Umehara, both of whom studied oil painting under Chū at the Shōgōin Yōga Kenkyujō and Kansai Bijutsu-in. Chū also mentored noted print-makers like Maekawa Senpan and Ishii Hakutei; and taught techniques of western art to prominent Japanese poet, author, and literary critic Masaoka Shiki. Chū is said to be the model for the character of a painter called Master Fukami in the full-length novel titled Sanshirō written by Japanese novelist Natsume Sōseki.

Other activities of Chū include forming the Yutoen group with young ceramic artists and the Kyoshitsuen group with lacquer ware artists and start work with a new sense of fashion. His later years in Kyoto saw him getting associated with industrial design projects. He became judge of the first art exhibition that was sponsored by the national Ministry of Education in 1907. He also founded the Kyundo for creating ceramics with his original designs.

Some of the notable works of Chū includes Morning Sun, Sewing Woman, Spring Ridge, The Village Kotaba, Pulling Boat and Harvest. Many of his works are marked as Important Cultural Properties by the Japanese government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs. Two such works, namely Spring Ridge and Harvest presently finds place at the Tokyo National Museum and at the Tokyo University of the Arts respectively.

Personal Life

In October 1893, Chū married Yasuko. She was the younger sister of clansman Naoshi Tatsumi of the former Sakura clan.

Chū died on December 16, 1907, at the age of 52.

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