Anno Mitsumasa
Award-winning artist

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Anno Mitsumasa (1926-2020) was one of Japan’s most beloved and prolific artists, having illustrated over 300 books since the 1960s. His works have appeared in children’s books for over the last fifty years and generation after generation of readers in Japan has grown up intimately knowing his works as if they were a part of the family. Respecting different cultures and the learning of his readers, Anno was awarded in 1984 with the highest honour attainable in children's book illustration: the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration.

Anno was well travelled and his catalogue of works reflects the inspiration he took from those journeys. He had a particular interest in European history and culture, but also in his home country, Japan; one might think his work reminiscent of M. C. Escher, before being transported into the world of 'The Tale of Heike' from the Japanese Middle Ages.

Japan House London holds several of Anno's publications in the Library and The Shop, including those published in English such as 'Anno’s Journey' and 'Anno’s Animals'. Between 22 August and 27 October 2019, almost 100 pieces of work by Anno Mitsumasa were displayed in the Anno's Journey: The World of Anno Mitsumasa exhibition at Japan House London. It is still possible to experience the exhibition via an audiovisual, 3D exhibition tour.


Anno was born in 1926, the first year of the Shōwa era, in the small town of Tsuwano in Shimane Prefecture, western Japan. A self-taught artist, Anno expressed in his work a natural curiosity for detail and the unusual. Training as a primary school teacher in Yamaguchi – a passion that would influence his future illustrations – Anno was conscripted into the Japanese Army towards the end of World War II, and worked in Tokyo for some years before becoming an illustrator at 35, mostly of children’s books.

Learning and Mystery

Anno’s empathy with children’s curiosity and learning is reflected in his puzzle and educational works. Hidden twists and jokes, trompe l’oeil, illusion and challenging perspectives reveal his desire to entice the viewer to learn and explore the subject matter further. His first book of this type was ‘Anno’s Alphabet’ in 1974, in which he depicts the Latin alphabet, while his topsy-turvy illustrations encourage interaction with each book beyond mere page-turning. As they have no text, viewers are free to make their own discoveries and stretch their powers of imagination.

Peering out 

Anno travelled extensively as a younger man and his fascination with other lands is captured in his ‘Tabi no Ehon’ (‘Anno’s Journey’) - internationally praised for its wit, originality and painstaking detail. Anno depicts these lands entirely through pictures, referencing folklore, literature and local customs, while the lack of text asks the reader to empathise with travellers in foreign lands: although a traveller might not understand the language being spoken around them, they are still able to interpret their surroundings. Experiencing things for the first time in an unknown land is, Anno suggests, a joyous discovery.

Home again

Returning to Japan, Anno’s inspiration for his illustrations also turned towards home. His reframing of Japanese stories through varied, native techniques demonstrates the breadth of his cultural curiosity and understanding. Inspired by scroll paintings from Japan’s classical era, Anno created his ‘Tale of the Heike’ picture book (1996) by adopting a form of painting called Nihonga (lit. ‘Japanese Pictures’). In contrast, his papercuts series (1970) makes reference to the Japanese mingei (‘folk crafts’) aesthetic, capturing scenes from folklore and children’s stories in an affecting style that’s reminiscent of kami-shibai (lit. ‘paper theatre’): a street-style form of storytelling.

Anno's own journey

Some years later, Anno’s own story seemed to predominate his work. Nostalgic watercolour paintings of his hometown Tsuwano capture a rural, pre-WWII world that, under the social economic transformation of Japan during the Shōwa and Heisei periods, was disappearing elsewhere in Japan. Meanwhile, his Mukashi no kodomotachi (‘Children of the Past’) series capture scenes that may have been from his own childhood: children learning to write and playing outdoors, and a brightly coloured steam train in the distance. 

Scenes in and around the capital

In his later years, Anno was inspired by the historical painting genre Rakuchū rakugai-zu, lit., ‘Scenes in and around the capital,’ that was popular during the early modern period (c. 16th century and later). Anno likened the early modern capital city of Kyoto to his interpretation of Britain: a place whose inhabitants recognise the importance of local culture. His fascination with capturing Kyoto in his unique, modern style of rakuchu rakugai-zu perhaps reflects his expressed preference for culture over civilisation, and his efforts to preserve that culture, whether abroad or at home.

Anno Mitsumasa in London 

The Anno's Journey: The World of Anno Mitsumasa exhibition was on show at Japan House London from August to October 2019. Difficult to find outside of Japan, a range of Anno's books, as well as postcards, playing cards and puzzles featuring his illustrations, are available for purchase at The Shop.