Sengai Gibon (1750-1837) was a Zen monk who left behind a plethora of playful ink paintings, the most famous of which is just a circle, a triangle and a square (“○△□;” referred to in English as “The Universe”). Many of his other works look like people and animals drawn by children and resemble today’s cutesy yuru-chara mascots. Sengai, active in the Edo era, spent the latter half of his life as the abbot of the storied Shofukuji Temple. In addition to his paintings, he also left behind many humorous works of calligraphy and haiku poems.
Sengai was born in Mino Province (now Gifu Prefecture) in 1750 and became a monk in the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism at the age of 11. After traveling throughout Japan on foot, he ended up in Hakata at the age of 39, and after becoming a monk at Shofukuji Temple, he remained in the city for the rest of his life. He is said to have only picked up the brush in his late 40s, but he left behind more than 1,000 paintings and works of calligraphy by the time he passed away in 1837 at the age of 88.
Sengai was a popular figure in Hakata, especially with children, because, like his paintings, he was approachable and light-hearted. His reputation preceded him, and people were constantly asking him for paintings. Because people used to bring pieces of paper for Sengai to draw on, he wrote the following humorous poem:
“To my dismay
I wonder if my small hut
is just a toilet
since everyone who comes here
seems to bring me more paper!”
One of Sengai’s early yuru-chara-esque paintings now serves as the mascot of the Fukuoka City Art Museum. Many of his works are in storage at the museum, and from those, several mascot-like figures were selected and used to make decorative towels, Hakata dolls and other items for the gift shop. Be sure to check them out along with his works on display in the exhibition room.
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn250, Oct. 2019)