Chiura Obata

Name Chiura Obata
Born 1885
Died 1975
Birth Location Okayama, Japan
Generational Identifier


Chiura Obata (1885-1975) was a renowned painter and educator who led art schools in camp.

Artist and Art Instructor

Born Zoroku Obata in Okayama, Japan, in 1885, Obata grew up in Sendai. There he was raised by the artist Rokuichi Obata, who according to different accounts may have been his father or a much older brother, and who either trained him personally or led him to run away from home and apprentice himself with an artist in Tokyo. Whichever the case, after taking the name Chiura (meaning "Thousand Bays") from the landscape near Sendai, he decided to visit the Western world, and in 1903 he traveled to the United States and settled in San Francisco. The young Obata worked as a houseboy to support himself. While he studied briefly at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, he soon resolved to study art independently. Left homeless by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, he lived for several months in a refugee camp on Lafayette Park. Sometime around 1910, he met Haruko Kohashi, an educated Issei woman who was a pioneering American Ikebana specialist. The two married in 1912. The same year Kimio Obata, their first chid, was born. The Obatas subsequently had three other children: Fujiko, a sickly girl who died young; Frederick Gyo (1923- ), who became a celebrated architect; and Lillian Yuri (1927- ). The family returned to Japan in 1928, and remained for two years.

Obata's painting consisted largely of landscapes, many painted on silk, that combined classic Japanese brush painting with aspects of contemporary Western art. He likewise produced numerous watercolors and ink sketches. Much of his early published work consisted of illustrations for Japanese community newspapers, and it was not until after 1920 that his paintings were exposed to outside circles. Although he publicly stated that he refused to sell his artworks, he agreed to exhibit them. Obata gained his first important exposure in 1922 when he participated in a group show at the San Francisco Museum of Art of the East West Art Society, which he had helped found. Two years later, the San Francisco opera hired him to create sets for the San Francisco Opera's production of Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly . He received commissions for public murals from Gumps Department store and the City of Paris. Following a 1927 sketching trip to Yosemite Park and the High Sierras with his friend, UC Berkeley professor Worth Ryder, his subject matter expanded to cover California nature. During his stay in Japan, Obata produced a series of Japanese woodblock prints of California landscapes. Even before he left, a show of his California art went on an extended tour through the state, and upon his return a show of his prints gained him a new audience. Obata's art gained further attention when it was included in shows of the San Francisco Art Association in 1935 and 1939, and in an exhibition of American watercolors at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1940.

Obata also turned to publishing his work. He provided illustrations for George Turner Marsh and Ronald Temple's The Lords of Dawn (1916), a novel set in Japan, and also for Kashin Shimzu's poetry volume Wind of Spring (1923). A limited edition portfolio of eleven of Obata's California paintings, accompanied by the artist's own haiku (translated into English by Wilder and Ellen Bentley) was published as From the Sierra to the Sea (1937). A new portfolio, The Seasons at California , with text by William Frederick Calkins, followed in 1940. Obata, in turn, provided illustrations for Calkins's fable Hokusai (1941).

During the 1930s Obata was perhaps widely known as a teacher of art. In 1932 he was engaged to teaching summer courses in sumi-e painting at University of California, Berkeley, despite his limited English. The courses were so successful that Obata was engaged full-time in fall 1932 as a lecturer in art, and two years later was promoted to assistant professor. He also opened the Obata studio in Berkeley, where he taught classes and sold art supplies.

World War II Incarceration and Later Life

In Spring 1942, Obata and his family were removed from Berkeley under Executive Order 9066 . He was forced to close his studio, and his artworks were stored by UC Berkeley president Robert Sproul. The Obatas (except for Gyo, who relocated to Washington University in St. Louis) were confined at Tanforan . There Obata and his friend George Matsusaburo Hibi volunteered to create an art school for inmates, which enrolled over 600 students. Miné Okubo served as one instructor. When the inmates were moved to the Topaz camp in Fall 1942, Obata and Hibi recreated the school there. In addition to teaching, Obata did hundreds of watercolors and sketches of the journey to camp and confinement experience. In addition to aesthetic value, these were designed to document the experience, since inmates were refused cameras. He also contributed drawings to the Topaz Times newspaper. Meanwhile, Obata did large-scale paintings of the desert landscape surrounding camp. In May 1943, representatives of the Japanese American Citizens League were received at the White House by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt . They presented her with an Obata landscape, Moonlight Over Topaz , as a gift for the President.

Although Obata remained popular with his art students, his pro-American political stance alienated a faction of dissident inmates. In April 1943, a nighttime assault left Obata hospitalized. As a result, he received permission to leave camp, and resettled his family with his son Gyo in St. Louis, where he worked for a comercial art firm. Two years later, following the end of the war, the elder Obatas returned to Berkeley, where they were able to find a home and retrieve their artwork. Chiura Obata resumed his painting and teaching, and presented a show of his wartime art at UC Berkeley in 1946. In the following years, he participated in numerous shows. After his retirement from teaching in 1954, Obata led art tours of Japan. He published the instruction booklet Sumie (1967) and the guidebook Through Japan With Brush and Ink (1968).

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Obata, Chiura, and Kimi Kodani Hill. Topaz Moon: Chiura Obata's Art of the Internment . Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 2000.

Obata, Chiura. Obata's Yosemite: The Art and Letters of Chiura Obata from his Trip to the High Sierra in 1927 . Yosemite, CA : Yosemite Association, 1993.

Last updated Feb. 18, 2024, 11 p.m..