Sumi ink painter, printmaker and essayist Toko Shinoda has wowed generations with her groundbreaking artworks that blend traditional calligraphy with abstract expression. On March 1, 2021, Shinoda passed away just shy of her 108th birthday. We take a look at the incredible life and career of Japan’s version of Picasso.

Photo credit: Daisaku Sato (STUDIO DAI)

Art Runs in the Family

Though her affluent family was originally from Gifu, Shinoda was born the fifth of seven children on March 28, 1913, in Manchuria where her father ran a tobacco factory. However, her father’s first love was sumi ink painting and calligraphy. He was inspired by his uncle, an acclaimed artist who designed the official seal for Emperor Meiji. After relocating to Tokyo as a toddler, Toko Shinoda was administered strict calligraphy lessons from the age of 6.

Her Mistakes Inspired Her Signature Touch

Shinoda admits she was an unruly student. By the age of 15 she was experimenting with the Chinese character for river, wanting to elaborate upon the simple image to depict the nuances of the flowing water. She was also fascinated, as well as irritated, by the red correction marks her teachers constantly made on her calligraphy homework. She later implemented red vermillion streaks in her abstract works as an homage of sorts to her exacting lessons.

She Is Well-Connected

Shinoda’s first calligraphy exhibition was held in 1940 at the Ginza retail store Kyukyodo. Founded in 1663 as a pharmacy, the high-end store specializing in paper goods was the official stationer of the Imperial House of Japan. This is where Shinoda purchased her centuries-old sticks of Chinese sumi ink, as well as fine washi paper. Today the Imperial family owns pieces of Shinoda’s artwork, and she is friends with Empress Michiko – as Shinoda was good friends with the 84-year-old empress’ mother.

Toko Shinoda, Determination. 2013, 62.5 x 194

She Just Missed Meeting Jackson Pollock

After World War II Shinoda focused squarely on abstract sumi painting, for which there was no market in Tokyo. In 1956 she set her sights on New York City where Jackson Pollock and the New York School were making noise. Pollock and Shinoda had a similar style in that they both worked standing up over massive canvases spread out horizontally. While Shinoda was represented by Betty Parsons, the same art dealer who represented Pollock, she never got to meet the reclusive and volatile Wyoming native as Pollock died in a drunk-driving accident two weeks before Shinoda arrived in New York.

She Refused Recognition

By 1983, TIME magazine compared Shinoda’s achievements to Picasso, and her legacy as a master of the brush and ink was set as art collectors from around the world snatched up her work. Shinoda celebrated her 100th birthday by unveiling a 194cm-long masterpiece that bears the striking red vermillion streak she is famous for. Last November The Tolman Collection showcased Shinoda’s work at Zozoji Temple. However, she refused awards, even forcing a newspaper to print a retraction after it was announced she was awarded ¥1 million, a gift which she declined. Even though she would never accept the title as living national treasure, at 106-years-old, Shinoda is just that.

This article has been updated. Originally published on on March 28, 2019.