Chiura Obata was born in Sendai, Japan. At age seven, Obata began taking freehand drawing lessons from a local Japanese master artist. He continued his studies until age 15. He then studied at the Bijitsuin Art Institute in Tokyo.
He moved to San Francisco, California in 1903. During the 1906 earthquake and fire he made many sketches of the city in ruins. From 1912-1927, he illustrated for several local Japanese publications. In 1932, he moved across the Bay to Berkeley, and began teaching at the University of California. He remained in that capacity until 1954 (except for a period during 1954, when he was confined to a concentration camp in Utah).
Moved by his love of nature, he specialized in landscapes, portraits, still life images, and wood block prints.
Obata died in Berkeley, California on October 8, 1975.
He exhibited at the Oakland Museum, Crocker Museum, University of Redlands, California Art Club, California Watercolor Society, University of Southern California, Santa Barbara Museum, and the San Diego Fine Art Gallery (now the San Diego Museum of Art).