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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #56 - Summer 2004
Contents of this Issue:


Before I came to Japan to try my hand at printmaking, I really had no idea whether it would ever be possible to make a living at it; my early experiments in Canada had been very discouraging in this respect, and the general consensus of those who heard about my plans was that I should 'keep the day job'. As I have learned by now, it clearly is possible to make a living in traditional printmaking, but just what kind of living? I know that if I were still on the outside looking in, I would be intensely curious about this, so I thought it would be interesting to show you just what happens to the money you pay for your prints. I can tell you right now - not much of it gets wasted!

We also have a number of the regular features: Halifax to Hamura, Sadako's Corner, a short Essay Corner, and a Collector Profile. Something for everyone I hope ...

From Halifax to Hamura

At this point in the Halifax to Hamura story, Dave has become 34 years old (although do you realize, the telling of the story has itself now been going on for more than ten years ... incredible!). 34 years old, with a partner and child ... no, two children - for second daughter Fumi was born in the spring of that same year that I was experimenting with displaying prints at craft fairs. On the face of it, things were going fine, and had the script been written that way, I would still be there in Vancouver, perhaps managing the music store, living in a nice house in a leafy suburb, maybe with my daughters in college there, and making woodblock prints as a hobby on the side.

With friend Terry ...

But there was such confusion in my mind about which way my life should be going - stay with my job, or try to follow a printmaking dream? So many different factors were crowding into the mix!

... news came that we had to leave our comfortable little home. The owner of the house upstairs had been pretty reasonable, considering that I had moved in as a very quiet single tenant but had gradually added 'members' one-by-one, so I certainly couldn't complain when he gave us a month's notice to vacate.

... an uncomfortable situation was developing with my daughters and their mother. As long as there had been only one child, everything had run quite smoothly, but once the second baby arrived, things started to run downhill. As is frequently the case when a first child is faced with the arrival of a new baby, Himi became obnoxious and troublesome, and unfortunately, her mother wasn't able to find ways to effectively deal with this. I would sometimes arrive home after work to a room full of tears and stress, "I can't stand this; you take care of her!" On occasion, I would even get phone calls at the office asking me to come home and help.

This story is not the place to get into a discussion of the various responsibilities each member of a couple 'should' be capable of assuming; it's perhaps enough to mention the thought that thus arose - if I could find a way to make a living that didn't involve leaving the house every morning, then our life would be much better.

... another factor to consider was her parents; she had been a fairly late baby for them, so by this time they were in their late seventies. They were still trying to run the family farm, but that could obviously not continue for much longer. We were sending some money every couple of months to help them out, but it was very unclear what the near future held for them.

All these threads started to weave together into a new picture - leave my employment at the music store, put our possessions into storage, and go and live 'for a while' in Japan. I felt that I could earn a basic living by teaching English at home, and such an arrangement would presumably satisfy our various needs: I would be able to spend more time with the children; I would be much closer to sources of information on printmaking to advance my skills; she would be able to give her children a good 'head start' in Japanese language and culture (something next to impossible to obtain in later years), and we would be closer to her parents.

The main downside to the plan would be that she would have to postpone her immediate educational goals there in Canada. But there was really no escaping the fact that - for the present, at least - her main job was to be a good mother to the children. She had chosen - had desperately chosen - to have babies; their care now had to come first.

As with any decisions in life, whether large or small, there are three steps: anybody can easily think about possible courses of action. Then after thinking it all over, at some point one has to decide which course to take. But that's not enough; many a decision made one evening sometimes just doesn't quite look like such a good idea the next morning ... You have to go the final step, and act.

One day that spring I told Bill that - for the final time - I wanted to leave the company. He accepted my decision, we discussed a timetable suitable for us both, and settled on a date a few months down the road. I called a travel agent and booked our plane tickets to Narita, and also arranged for the rental of a temporary apartment for that gap between leaving our present room and leaving the country. I then went to the Japanese Consulate in Vancouver and put in an application for a culture visa, so that I would be able to stay in Japan longer than the 3 months allowed for tourists.

We were ready to make the big step ...

So it seems that it's almost time to bring this story to a close. But as I promised to take it 'From Halifax to Hamura', in the next installment we'll cover that last 'few' kilometres, and the establishment of our life in Japan. Finally, instead of saying 'continued next time ...', it's time to say ...

Collector Profile

Here's a little quiz for readers of this newsletter who have been collecting my prints for at least the past few years - take a look at the woodblock printed name label illustrated here; where have you seen it before?

Full marks to those who recognized that this label was integrated into the fan design I included in my third Surimono Album a few years back. That print was made using senjafuda designs owned by Mr. Toshikazu Doi of Musashino City here in Tokyo, who at that time graciously allowed me to dig through his extensive collection of Meiji-era prints mining it for the gems I needed.

He had been more than happy to comply with my request because - like any enthusiast - he loves to share his enthusiasms. One day this summer Doi-san dropped over to my place with a big fat folder of woodblock prints to show me, and as you might imagine, he barely got back home before the trains stopped running for the night!

Leafing through a batch of prints like this is sometimes a bit difficult - we both have so much we want to explain to each other; I look at them from a craftsman's point of view, "The sizing on this paper is quite weak, in order that the colour of the pink cherry blossoms should look blurry and naturalistic." Doi-san on the other hand, after years of collecting, has learned a great deal about the provenance and background of the prints, "This copy, with the different characters on the lantern, and the much more gentle colours, is the first pre-war issue." We sat there for hour after hour talking at each other, adding to our knowledge, and enjoying our mutual connoisseurship of these coloured scraps of paper.

Doi-san is an active member of an international internet group that studies the 20th century shin-hanga prints in sometimes excruciating detail as they try to unravel all the mysteries of their creation, writing and publishing papers to share their findings. I have laughed at him sometimes, to know that he is measuring the seal on a particular print to see if it is a 6mm or a 7mm version, but it is he who has usually had the last laugh on me, as any number of times he has provided information helpful to my work. This recent visit proved no exception, and he passed me a video copy of an old film of craftsmen working about 50 years ago. This has been hugely useful to me, and as far as I'm concerned, he and his friends can dig as deeply as they wish in the print history sandbox ... all knowledge is good knowledge!

Doi-san is not just a 'passive' collector though, buying old prints in the bookshops; he is actively helping new prints to come to life. He is a member of a group that commissions craftsmen to carve and print collections of modern senjafuda, and has also independently had prints made to his specifications, thus helping those men to keep the wolf from the door for at least a little longer.

Doi-san is about my age, and is thus getting to the time of his life when he is starting to look towards retirement (he has worked for a major Japanese brewery in various departments for about 30 years). As you might expect, as with anybody who has such a passionate interest, he has no shortage of ideas and plans for possible projects. Of course, publishing his collection is one such major idea, but the one that is most intriguing to me is the development of his database of information on printers and carvers of the 20th century, as the more I can learn about 'those old guys' the better!

I am sure that Doi-san will have a jam-packed and productive retirement; after all, it has now been nearly twenty years since I myself took that step, and I can confirm that it can be the best part of your life!

I'm a Millionaire! ... not!

Just as this newsletter is being prepared, the first print in my new series - Beauties of Four Seasons - is being sent out to the subscribers who are waiting for it. As part of the planning for this new project, it was necessary for me to go back through my records and inspect some of the cost and revenue figures for the previous two series', in order to make an accurate budget. This sort of analysis had been next-to-impossible for me to do before, but with the new bookkeeping system that I built last year, it is now quite easy. I was able to obtain the numbers that I needed without too much trouble, but I also came across some other numbers that I found not only interesting, but quite shocking.

The Hyakunin Isshu series started back in early 1989, with the first print being delivered to our friends Cho-san the baker and his wife. I am still sending out prints from that series, more than 15 years later, but had never had any opportunity to add them all up before. It turns out that over that period, I have shipped out to collectors a total of 1,110 sets of 10 prints each, for a grand total of 11,100 prints. As they have all gone out at exactly the same price - 10,000 yen each - that means that my gross earning from those prints has been 111,000,000 yen. When I first saw this figure I assumed that I had put too many zeros on the end, so did the calculation again. It was correct.

I then did a similar tally for the Surimono Albums, and found the figures there to be 539 sets of 10 prints, making a total of 5,390 prints at 6,000 yen each for an income of 32,340,000 yen.

Add them together ... and it seems that over the fifteen year period I sent out 16,490 prints, and earned 143,340,000 yen. In US$, at current exchange rates, that's around $1,300,000 ... Good grief, I'm a millionaire!

As everybody knows though, there is a very important difference between the 'Gross Income' and 'Net Income' figures on a business statement, and of course I had to spend a lot of money running my business during those 15 years. But how much do I actually earn? Is traditional printmaking a lucrative career, or am I barely surviving? I know that the motives for collecting my work vary widely among the collectors; some of you may be wanting to help support me because you feel I really need your help; some of you may be collecting my work because you feel I am 'famous and successful'; and some of you may not be thinking of any such things at all, but just like the prints! Once you see the 'numbers' perhaps you will all be satisfied!

Together with this story are three tables/graphs. The first one shows the 'big picture' - the overall income/expenses in yen for the fifteen-year period (to get a rough approximation of $, just knock off two zeros from the end of each figure).

It seems that my income these days after the major business expenses are deducted can be pretty accurately gauged at just around 5 million yen per year. But that too is actually a 'gross' figure, because then the taxes and personal deductions start, resulting in a 'bottom line' figure that represents the discretionary income left to me after all the mandatory expenses are taken care of.

Divide that bottom-line figure by 12, and we arrive at a figure of around 140,000 yen as my monthly income. From this I pay for food, clothing (not much of that!), books/newspapers, and vacations.

The three bars in each year of this 15-year history graph represent the same three figures: Gross Income, Business Expenses, and Net Income. It's fascinating for me to see vividly illustrated in this graph so many of the major events that took place!

  • the first two years show almost no income at all. At that time I was also teaching English, and that is what was keeping rice on the table.
  • in 1991 I closed the English school, and for the next three years, things were extremely tight indeed.
  • there is a large jump in income for 1994; this reflects the success of the 'half-way' exhibition of the Hyakunin Isshu series. Since that time, I have never been in danger of not having food on the table ...
  • the giant spike for 1999 of course followed the 'final' exhibition of the Hyakunin Isshu series, with its massive publicity avalanche.
  • the 'slump' for 2003 reflects my recent inability to maintain the pace of 10 prints per year. Over the previous couple of years, doing the Surimono Albums - with their very intricate and time-consuming work - and doing many reprints of the Hyakunin Isshu series, turned out to be overload.
  • from 1995 right through to the present, through spike and slump, my income (after business expenses) has been in the same 4~5 million yen band.

In the Halifax to Hamura story a few pages back, I described how I finally made the decision to 'go for it' and move to Japan to try and improve my printmaking skills. If I had had access to figures like these before I came, what would my reaction have been? Part of it would have been scary - I would have seen that life could be very difficult at times - but overall, I think it would have been encouraging. Because the important question (to which I had absolutely no inkling of an answer at that time) - "Would it really be possible to find an audience for this kind of work, to the extent that people would actually be willing to purchase prints?" - has been answered with a most resounding "Yes!" It has been answered 16,490 times ... and counting.

So please read into these figures whatever feeling you wish to see in them. Yes, looking at the top numbers, I would have to say I'm pretty successful, but looking down at the 'bottom', things are a whole lot leaner! This year will be a mixed one; because of the 'change of pace' with the new series, which has yet to prove its worth, the number of collectors has shrunk considerably, and I am only being kept afloat by the back issues of Hyakunin Isshu and Surimono Album that people are also collecting.

Am I rich? No, I don't think anybody would say that. Am I doing OK? Sure! Here I am, sitting in my 'own' home with my belly full, and when we speak of 'making a living' at some activity, that's the basic measuring stick!

As for next year? Who knows which way it will go ... maybe up, maybe down; I'm certainly not going to lose any sleep over it. If I were that type of person, I wouldn't be here doing this, would I!

Essay Corner
Fireflies ...

We had a very strange spring this year, very cool overall, with some quite dramatic temperature ups and downs, so I was a bit apprehensive about the fireflies; I have read that they are quite difficult creatures, sensitive to small variations in the surrounding environment. Perhaps it would be too cool for them, and there wouldn't be a good 'crop'.

I needn't have worried. Maybe indeed they are quite sensitive to such temperature variations, but if so, it must be the other way around - a cool spring is just what they want - because there are plenty of them here this year!

After more than three years in my new home in Ome, I've learned something about the habits of the fireflies, and have my viewing routine organized. Around eight in the evening I head down the outside stairs of the building, treading very softly in my bare feet, and take my position sitting in a small space I have cleared among the wild grasses growing along the edge of the old stone wall that borders the river. The fireflies themselves don't seem to care the slightest whether I make noise or move quietly, but I have learned that there are other animals down there that do!

I then do nothing. Nothing but sit quietly and wait. The fireflies come and go, doing their gentle floating dance up and down the river. At any given moment, I might see none, I might see three or four, and sometimes, there might be a dozen within view. After ten minutes or so, my eyes have become somewhat accustomed to the gloom, and I can make out the surrounding geography. The opposite side of the river (about 7 metres away) is more open than my side, and seems to be a kind of highway for the night creatures.

The tanuki (similar to a racoon) are the most obvious of the animals that I might see; they barrel their way heavily along the highway with no real attempt at stealth at all. I can hear them coming from quite a long way off, as they just push their way roughly through the underbrush. I think there is a pair of them living in an overgrown part of the riverbank about 30 metres downstream from my place, and many nights they come this way shortly after sunset. I said they are not so stealthy, but if I happen to make a sound, that's it - a few seconds later they are gone.

I've learned something interesting about distortions of one's visual perception in gloomy light like this. The other day a faint white animal came by, padding along quietly and moving just like a cat. But it was much too large to be one of the local cats ... what could it be? The little 'mystery' was solved a few minutes later when one of the people from the house across the river came down near the river and stood for a few seconds on an embankment silhouetted against the dark sky. He was absolutely huge, like a giant figure in a horror movie! I realized then, that it must be the faint light that tricks our eyes/brain into seeing objects at a distorted size; I knew he wasn't that tall, but he looked monstrous. That faint white animal then, must just have been a cat, slinking quietly along its way. So I have learned not to trust my eyes when seeing things out here at night, but can now understand how people in older times must have sometimes come home with 'tall tales' of creatures they had seen in the woods: "It was absolutely gigantic!"

I mentioned that the other person stood there only a few seconds, and that is typical of what I see my neighbours do. The script usually goes like this: I hear a door open and the sounds of somebody coming out onto their balcony; a few seconds later they call back into the room 'mienaiyo' ('can't see anything'), followed a moment later by the door closing again. I want to yell up to them "Just wait a minute or two ... fireflies come and fireflies go ... you'll see plenty!", but of course I don't. And I have never seen any of them sitting down here by the river watching the 'action'.

The fireflies though, don't care the slightest whether we watch them dance or not; they are interested in one thing only - catching the eye of a possible firefly partner! I wish them every success ... after all, I want to see lots of them next year!

Sadako's Corner
Tastes Differ ...

Since the beginning of David's 'Surimono Album' series, I have been doing the translation of his stories into Japanese. I first see each story as it arrives in my email; after going through it I ask any necessary questions, some stemming from my own lack of comprehension of particular passages, and some necessitated by unclear logical structure in the original. David then sends amended versions as needed.

Once the basic translation is done, we sit together and David reads aloud my Japanese version from start to finish. Now it becomes his turn to ask the questions, and there are plenty, as he won't proceed past any point until he understands what I have written. This work requires patience and is very time consuming, because we can never reach the end of the story without being led astray any number of times. Our conversation frequently goes off in completely unexpected directions and we find ourselves forgetting the work! During this process he usually amends still more places in the original, and after this I can finish up the translation.

Helping him like this I came to understand how nobody can write a good story without knowing much more about the topic than what actually appears in the piece itself. The same concept applies to teaching: if the teacher barely has enough knowledge of the topic to explain something, the students can easily sense this. As David has quite a depth of knowledge about woodblock prints, he usually only writes a fraction of what he knows into the quite limited space available. Good as this is, it tends to make the stories a bit clumsy and I - as a complete layman - am thus a good proofreader for him!

But this time the situation was very different. As you know, his current series is 'Beauties of Four Seasons', and whenever David discusses anything involving 'beautiful women' I find his comments very clumsy - it is obvious he hasn't 'researched' much about this topic! This forced me too, to think more clearly about these points. What on earth do we mean when we say 'a beautiful woman'?

When I was a small child I often heard the women around me discuss this, perhaps talking about a Miss Japan contest or similar event. Sitting among them while eating snacks and sipping tea I vaguely thought, "Just what type of woman is considered beautiful?" I sometimes tried to join such conversations by pointing to a picture and saying, "Look, isn't she beautiful?" The swift response usually came back, "Oh no! She is ugly!", and I was left even more confused.

To add to my confusion, my father one day said to me, "Have you heard the expression 'funny face'? You know, that kind of person we're seeing on television so much recently, even though they're not what we think of as 'classically' beautiful." So what I had thought to be beautiful seemed to be a 'funny face'! I intently studied what I saw on television and in magazines, but couldn't seem to grasp just what was 'beautiful'.

When I was in junior high school, we learned one day in history class about a goddess of beauty. As the teacher referred us to the picture of the goddess in the textbook most of my classmates burst into laughter. For young students at that time this goddess, with her puffy cheeks, was just too incongruous. I too felt so, but I did have quite mixed feelings, as the face was so serene and peaceful. After the class was over an unexpected thing happed - some of the boys started to tease me by calling me with the name of the goddess; in those days my cheeks might have been as puffy as hers. At that time I deeply regretted that I had been born in this age and felt sad, but if such a thing should happen now I would easily be able to fend off such teasing with some cutting remark!

As time has passed, and thanks to globalization, we are now familiar with a wide range of facial types that can't be judged by the standards of our own country. It is complete chaos! And in my particular case a potential source of confusion is very close to me now! It doesn't happen very often, but I sometimes hear Dave say, "Oh, she is beautiful!" I turn and ask, "Where?" When I look at the woman he is referring to, I never see quite what I would have expected! On these occasions I always remember the expression "tastes differ." That's why things go smoothly. The more varied our tastes, the more our life will go smoothly.

I myself am honestly not so interested in this topic but there is one thing about faces very important to me; the face must reflect a good character. Nationality, race, gender ... all are of no account, if the character is there. We can't see this sort of depth on the unblemished face of a youth, as faces are created only by an accumulation of life's experiences, with each wrinkle and mark signposting the journey. I feel so pleased when I see such a person, and I myself would wish to have that kind of face.

Well, David's project this year is 'Beauties of Four Seasons.' What surprises you may encounter!