The grandson of a swordsmith and the son of a blacksmith, Munakata Shiko was born in Aomori Prefecture. He adopted the shop symbol used by both his grandfather and father, the region's field chrysanthemum and pine needles, for many of his own prints. Munakata's family were Zen Buddhists and his approach to art and choice of subjects reflect this influence. To Munakata each wood block possessed an innate power that only a successfully carved design could enhance. Nearsightedly bent over his blocks, he carved with great speed as if to remove himself from what he wished to be a mostly automatic creative process.
Munakata began making prints in his twenties when be became displeased with the Western-style oil paintings that had already earned him a degree of recognition. Introduced to woodblock printing by Hiratsuka Un'ichi (b. 1895) in 1928, Munakata chose Buddhist themes and worked with traditional Japanese pigments and papers.
His first important patron, Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961), the founder of the Japanese Crafts Movement and an influential art critic, was so impressed with Munakata's early prints that in 1936 he bought a set for the fledgling Japanese Folk Art Museum. Munakata won his first prize in the 1952 print exhibition in Lugano, Switzerland, and was awarded the top prize for prints at the Biennale in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1955 and at the Venice Biennale in 1956. He founded an association for printmakers in 1959, the Nihon Hangakai, and in 1970 he was awarded the Order of Cultural Merit.