Nobody will ever forget these lines once you have read them. That artist who was confident that he would ‘at ninety have got even closer to the essence of art, and at the age of one hundred I will reach a magnificent level, and at a hundred and ten, each dot and each line will be alive.’ Unforgettable words written by the 75 years old Katsushika Hokusai in his One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, Fugaku hyakkei, coming out in the third month of 1834.

Personally I consider these three-volumes Hokusai’s greatest in the category of books that he largely composed himself. Judging from its popularity among the early Parisian collectors, they too considered it an absolute must for any collector of Japanese art – it ranks first when making an inventory of all those wonderful early twentieth century Parisian auction catalogues (and in case you wonder, the Bunpō gafu volumes rank second, Sukenobu’s Hyakunin jorō shinasadame third, the Hokusai manga volumes fourth, and Kitao Shigemasa’s Seirō bijin awase sugata kagami fifth). It can thus hardly come as a surprise that the short autobiography from the Fugaku hyakkei was translated into French as early as in 1883 in Louis Gonse’s l’Art japonais (Vol 1, pp 286f). The text, just slightly adapted by Edmond de Goncourt – with the assistance of Hayashi Tadamasa? – would then reach an even larger audience as it was cited in his Hokousaï of 1896 (p. 261):

Depuis l’âge de six ans, j’avais la manie de dessiner la forme des objets. Vers l’âge de cinquante ans, j’avais publié une infinité de dessins, mais tout ce que j’ai produit avant l’âge de soixante-dix ans, ne vaut pas la peine d’être compté. C’est à l’âge de soixante-treize ans, que j’ai compris à peu près la structure de la nature vraie, des animaux, des herbes, des arbres, des oiseaux, des poisons et des insects.

Par conséquent, à l’âge de quatre-vingts ans, j’aurai fait encore plus de progrès; à quatre-vingt-dix ans je pénétrerai le mystère des choses; à cent ans je serai décidément parvenu à un degré de merveille, et quand j’aurai cent dix ans, chez moi, soit un point, soit une ligne, tout sera vivant;

Je demande à ceux qui vivront autant que moi, de voir si je tiens ma parole. Écrit à l’âge de soixante-quinze ans par moi, autrefois Hokousaï, aujourd’hui Gwakiô Rôjin, le vieillard fou de dessin.

The text in the second column from the right as it appears in the colophon sheet of the One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, courtesy National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden

My own most recent translation reads:

From the age of six I had already been drawing all kinds of things. Although I had really made many designs from the time I was fifty [1809], none of my works until my seventieth [1829] is really worth counting. It was only from the age of seventy-three [1832] that I have finally understood the true forms of animals, insects and fish, and the nature of plants and trees. Consequently, I will have made more and more progress by the age of eighty [1839], and at ninety [1849 – the year Hokusai died] I will have got even closer to the essence of art. At the age of one hundred I will reach a magnificent level, and at a hundred and ten each dot and each line will be alive. I would like to ask those who outlive me to see whether I have not spoken idly. Gakyōrōjin Manji

… actually, I am cheating a little, I should admit, this translation still had the mistaken ‘age of eighty-six’ [1845] instead of the correct ‘age of eighty’ – and that is the subject here. It was only quite recently that I discovered this widespread mistake when I first compared one of the many transcriptions of this text in Japanese handbooks with the original.

This cannot, of course, be an excuse, but like many of my colleagues, I only made my translations (see below) using very reliable sources, such as Suzuki Jūzō’s Fugaku hyakkei (Tokyo: Iwasaki Bijutsusha, 1972, p 189f, reprinted in 1986; his essay also reprinted in his Ehon to ukiyoe (Tokyo: Bijutsu Shuppansha, 1979, p 311), or Oka Isaburō in the Hokusai volume in the Ukiyoe Taikei series (Tokyo: Shūeisha, 1975, p 88), or Nagata Seiji in the Hokusai volume in the Ukiyoe hakka series (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1984, p 137), or his Katsushika Hokusai nenpu (Tokyo: Sansai Shinsha, 1985, p 117), or even his revised Katsushika Hokusai nenpu in the Hokusai kenkyū magazine, no. 22, 1997, p 148 – all, most reliable sources as you would agree, I guess. And they all make the same mistake of reading ‘eighty-six’ instead of ‘eighty years.’

I still don’t know who did it, could it really have been Suzuki sensei (is this a case of even Homer nods?) who decided to transcribe the text himself, rather than copy it from Narazaki Muneshige who had already in 1944 provided a perfect transcription in his Hokusai ron (Tokyo:  Atoriesha, 1944, p 6) or even go back to Iijima’s Katsushika Hokusai den of 1893 (Vol 1 p 52b)? Anyway, apart from Willem van Gulik (1982 and 2020), Gian Carlo Calza (2003), and myself (1988, 1991, and 2018), it were mostly Japanese writers, such as Oka Isaburō (1975), Nagata Seiji (1984, 1985, 1997, and 2005), Sakai Gankow (1993), Kōno Motoaki (1996), and Asano Shūgō (ironically in his Hokusai ketteiban, or Hokusai The Final Edition of 2010, p 177), who fell victim to this slight but very meaningful mis-transcription. What seems to have happened is that someone in transcribing the text initially read 八十六 for 八十才 (see above in the text in the picture, at the same height as the 狂 of the signature 画狂老人卍) then quickly corrected the 六 into 才, and then left both, to make the 八十六才 ‘age of eighty-six’ that from then started to corrupt this highly personal observation on his art by the artist himself.

The correct transcription of the text by Nagata Seiji, as he came to realize his earlier mistakes in 2008, in Hokusai kenkyu 42

I will continue my search for the original source of the mistake and keep updating, no final edition here. Anyway, if you have any of the books or catalogues giving ‘the age of eighty-six’ please cross out the ‘six’ or rather: paint it black.