Naoko Matsubara was born in 1937 in Tokushima, on the island of Shikoku; but grew up mostly in the city of Kyoto. Her father was one of the most senior Shinto priests in Japan, and her mother came from a very old Shinto family. After graduating from the Kyoto Academy of Fine Arts (now Kyoto Fine Arts University), she went to the United States as a Fulbright scholar, spending a year at the Carnegie Institute of Art (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, where she received her MFA. Subsequently she was invited to study at the Royal College of Art in London; and travelled extensively in Europe and Asia before returning to Japan in 1963.
In 1965 she returned to the United States as personal assistant to the late Prof. Fritz Eichenberg, a wood-engraving artist and historian of print-making. She also taught at the Pratt Graphic Center in New York and at the University of Rhode Island, before settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a free-lance artist. In 1972, following marriage to David Waterhouse, a professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto, she moved to Canada, where she has continued to be very active as an artist of single-sheet woodcuts, portfolios and illustrated books, a painter and a mural artist, working out of her studio in Oakville, Ontario. She has also written numerous essays, in both English and Japanese; lectured or taught at many universities and art schools; and travelled widely. In 1981 she was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts; and she has received many commissions and grants.
Naoko Matsubara's work is to be found in museums and other public collections throughout the world, as well as in many private collections. She has illustrated some eighteen books, and contributed to many others. She has had countless exhibitions, both solo and group, on four continents. Her work has been the subject of monographs, as well as of innumerable articles, reviews, newspaper articles and documentary films.
In 2003 Naoko Matsubara had an exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum, entitled Tree Spirit, which was accompanied by a 300-page illustrated catalogue. In the same year she had several other exhibitions, including two in Tokyo; and her newest book, illustrating stories from the 11th-century tale collection Konjaku monogatari, was published in both English and Japanese editions. Early in 2004 she had a further exhibition in Tokyo; and plans for the year include exhibitions in Indiana, Ottawa, and Tokyo; and a new book, In Praise of Hands.