Though Ishii Hakutei is best known for his contributions to the sosaku hanga movement, he also helped to promote and design some of the earliest shin hanga prints. Hakutei was the eldest son of Ishii Teiko, a lithographer and Japanese-style painter. As a young man, he had artistic aspirations and studied Western-style painting with Asai Chu, and with Kuroda Seiki at the Tokyo School of Fine Art. He also travelled to Europe, an experience which certainly influenced his feelings about art and printmaking. Importantly, he noticed how Westerners admired and collected ukiyo-e prints.
In 1904, Hakutei happened to meet a young printmaker named Yamamoto Kanae who was boarding with Hakutei's family in Tokyo. Kanae, a trained wood engraver, decided to try his hand at woodblock prints. Using the materials and tools of ukiyo-e printmakers, he carved and printed a simple two-color woodcut which he called Fisherman (or Gyofu). When Kanae showed it to the Ishii family, Hakutei was very impressed by the expressive feeling conveyed by the carving strokes. He considered Kanae's print to be a major breakthrough in woodblock printmaking because it allowed the artist to have full control over the final result. At the time Hakutei was working as the editor of an art and literary magazine called Myojo. He arranged to have "Fisherman" published in the magazine and wrote an accompanying article enthusiastically promoting Kanae's revolutionary approach. This small step marked the beginnings of the sosaku hanga ('Creative Print') movement.
Hakutei continued to promote the concept of creative prints working on the magazines Heitan and Hosun. Though he encouraged self-carving and printing, Hakutei also embraced the collaborative tradition of ukiyo-e. By the beginning of the 20th century, traditional Japanese printmaking had gone into a major decline. Ukiyo-e publishers were primarily publishing and selling reproductions of old designs. Hakutei wanted to revitalize ukiyo-e by creating traditionally-themed woodblock prints with new designs, yet he realized that he himself did not have the necessary carving and printing skills.
In 1910, Hakutei began designing a series called "Twelve Views of Tokyo" (Tokyo junikei). Each print featured a traditionally dressed woman, presumably a geisha, in front of a picture of a modern Tokyo scene. This type of design, along with the bright signature cartouche, was popular in later ukiyo-e prints. Hakutei enlisted his friend, Igami Bonkotsu, to carve the blocks. They were printed by Nishimura Kumakichi. Two prints, Yoshicho and Yanagibashi, were completed in 1910, before a long sojourn to Paris. When Hakutei returned in 1914, seven more prints were made. Unfortunately, there was little interest in the designs and the series was abandoned after just nine prints.
Upon his return from Paris, Hakutei did carve and print his own design, Kiba, of a floating lumber yard in Tokyo. Perhaps he was unsatisfied with the results or did not have the time to carve his own print blocks. At any rate, after that he only worked with professional carvers and printers. Several sets of his prints were included in the 1917-1918 Nihon fukei hanga ('Japanese scenery prints'), a series of 50 prints by six different artists, including Hakutei's younger brother Ishii Tsuruzo. Hakutei became well-known for his painting and later became a member of the Imperial Art Academy and Nihon Hanga Kyokai (Japan Print Association).