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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #86 - Winter 2011
Contents of this Issue:

Welcome to the winter issue of the Hyakunin Issho newsletter, bringing you news from both my Seseragi Studio, and the Mokuhankan publishing venture. And regular readers will know exactly what topic I'm going to start with this time ... yes, our newly insulated workshop is turning out to be such a pleasure!

After more than ten years of working in an environment that was basically the same as being outdoors, I can't quite believe that it is actually possible to sit here and work wearing only a light sweater. And everybody who comes into the shop utters exactly the same word when they come across the threshold ... "Attakai!" (So warm!).

I have to tell you though, that there is a downside to this new situation. Because the room was formerly uninsulated, I refused to use any kind of artificial heating; I couldn't bear to cause such a waste of energy. But now that we have a 'proper' construction in place, I am using a small electric panel heater to provide the source of the warmth that our insulation will preserve. So unfortunately, just at the time when the electricity company is asking us to reduce our usage below last year's levels, mine has climbed substantially!

But oooohhhhh ... it's worth it!

Visit to a Craftsman

Although it is not very often that I get to do it these days, one of my favourite activities - my idea of a very nice day out in Tokyo - is to take the train over to the Jimbocho used book district and spend a number of hours browsing in the print shops there. The number of places in which one can find interesting woodblock prints has of course greatly decreased over the years, but there are still a few holding out. For the most part, they are hidden away from the casual passer-by, usually up a flight of stairs from the main street.

Will a visit to one of these shops always bring good results? Well certainly not every day; it sometimes happens that you flip through stacks of prints without finding one that catches your eye. But often enough, your patience is rewarded; and for me, these rewards usually come in the shape of a print from the pre-war period. My particular favourites are the ukiyo-e reproductions made by the leading publishers of the Showa period: Adachi, Takamizawa, or Yuyudo.

The pre-war era craftsmen who made those prints are now all gone, and even many of the next generation have now retired. But a few men who learned the craft in those workshops are still active, and for today's 'Visit to a Craftsman', we are going to meet a man with a direct connection to that era.

Carver Motoharu Asaka was born the same year as I, and is currently doing similar work - carving woodblocks - but our paths to this spot couldn't really have been more different. Where I dabbled in many fields before settling on printmaking, Asaka-san picked up his first knife before even leaving school. He had been somewhat interested in printmaking when younger, and when the chance to enter a workshop as an apprentice came up, decided to give it a try. His was the last generation to have the chance of getting the traditional training, but can one really use the word 'chance' to describe it? He worked long hours every day, with few breaks (these were the years of the post-war 'ukiyo-e boom'), and when the day's work was done, out he would go to a part time job, in order to try and earn enough to pay his rent and food, for he received next to nothing from the master during the long years of training.

When he speaks to me now of those days, it is not the financial hardship that he remembers, as much as the work and the training that he received. Who remembers a day forty years ago when you went to bed a bit hungry? But the skills that were driven into him during those years have provided the foundation for all his subsequent working life. And this is another major difference between the two of us. I am self-trained, and have figured out ways of doing things; Asaka-san, having learned the 'language' of traditional carving - the proper sequence of strokes to cut a leaf shape, for example - has a very strong knowledge of fundamentals. It is perhaps similar to the difference between a native speaker of a language (who has also been through a strict education), and one who has 'picked it up' as he went along. Someone like Asaka-san can truly 'speak' woodcarving, in a way that I never will.

After years of training, Asaka-san became one of the main carvers of that workshop, being responsible for uncountable number of blocks. After many years of productive work for them, he eventually left, and has since worked as a freelance carver, as well as in partnership with printers.

In recent years, the traditional system of organizing our work - publishers creating projects, then hiring craftsmen to make them - has pretty much come to an end and it is now 'every man for himself'. Asaka-san is adapting to this new environment in a number of ways. A few years ago, I received a request from a US-based artist to find a workshop who could produce woodblock prints from her designs, and I arranged an introduction to Asaka-san. Their collaboration was fruitful, and the resulting prints - a modern adaptation of ukiyo-e - were soon on gallery walls in California.

He has also opened a kind of 'school', offering classes in carving and printing to those among the hobbyists who wish to make prints at more than basic levels, and among his students are some who are producing work of a quite high standard.

None of us can see where our world of traditional printmaking is going; whether Asaka-san will end his career as a teacher, or whether there are yet many spectacular prints to be made is unknown. But whichever way it goes, nothing will change the fact that there are already thousands (many tens of thousands!) of prints in the hands of collectors all over the world that all had their beginning on a woodblock carved by Asaka-san. A carver's legacy is literally unknowable, but it is real nonetheless.

Given that Asaka-san is exactly the same age as me, I can guarantee that he has many years of productive work still to come. I look forward to following his progress through the uncharted waters we are sailing in!

Mystique Series Wrapup!

Well, it has taken a few months longer than I anticipated, but the 'Hanga Treasure Chest - Mystique of the Japanese Print' series is now wrapping up. As I write this, I am doing the printing of the final number in the set, and it will be flying out to the patient collectors very shortly.

We're finishing off just the way we started, with a Hokusai image of Mt. Fuji, although we've certainly taken the long way around, stopping off at many eras and styles along the way. The 'mission' was nominally to try and show many of the ways that beauty is created in traditional Japanese printmaking, and I think in that respect the series has been successful. For the experienced collectors - those who own many prints already - many of the things I have introduced may have been already well understood, but I think that even for those people the series should have been enlightening, and hopefully interesting.

And for those of the collectors who were new to collecting Japanese prints, I think it has been an excellent introduction to the field.

From my own point of view, the series has been successful on a number of counts. I am pretty satisfied with the level of craftsmanship demonstrated in the set, and can tell myself that even though I am now entering my seventh decade (!), I can still 'do it'! Some of these prints are indeed marvels of the craft.

As for the more prosaic business end of things, this too has turned out very well. As the series comes to a close, it has upwards of 170 subscribers, a level I have never reached before. For many years, I have made it a practice to make 200 copies of each print, with a portion going out to current subscribers and the remainder being sold as 'back issues' in subsequent years. In the case of this series, it seems that it won't be long before that remainder too has flown away ...

The 'downside' to that situation of course, is that come next month, my income will drop from this comfortable level right down to zero (again!). The only way to get around that is to - immediately - get back to the carving bench. Please read more about that in another entry later in this issue!

So a hearty "Thank you very much" to all the collectors who supported this project along the way. I think that you are indeed now owners of a real 'Treasure Chest'!

A Printer's Debut!

Back in the summer issue of this newsletter, I introduced Tsushima-san, one of the ladies who is training here in my workshop. When people visit here, they sometimes ask if she is my 'deshi' (apprentice), but we usually answer something along the lines of 'not really'. In the old days, to be an apprentice was the first step on a career path. The young worker was intent on become a master of his own shop in due time. Tsushima-san - and other ladies here - aren't thinking along those lines.

For them, the immediate motivation to start here was that they needed work. They were not thinking 'career', but rather helping out with the family budget. But an interesting thing has happened along the way; Tsushima-san has found this work to be a very good match to her character and abilities. She is not just punching a clock, but is truly interested in doing this well. And this has shown in the progress she has made.

It is difficult to calculate accurately, because her hours here are very irregular (due to her family commitments), but by looking through her time sheets, we can get an idea of her progress. She arrived here in mid summer and by the beginning of December had accumulated 160 hours of working/training time. If based on a typical 8-hour day, this would be almost exactly one month.

I bring this up because of what she accomplished in December - she did most of the printing on this year's new year print. As was the habit in old workshops, the most experienced printer did the key block printing (me, in this case), and the younger worker did all the colours (Tsushima-san this time). And this was not a trivial job - we made 300 copies of the print! So after 'one month' of training - from a position where she had never touched a baren before - she has reached a point where she is making a major contribution to the studio output.

The next step is clear - it's time to put her to work making prints for our catalogue! This we have started, and I am very happy to announce that her first two prints are now available: a reprint of a Hokusai design I first issued in my Surimono Album series more than ten years ago, and a delicate print of Plum Blossoms created in the Meiji era by Mishima Shoso, which I recarved for Mokuhankan a few years back.

The prints are available from our website [Plums] [Two Women], and this initial batch will have a special 'Debut Celebration' price. We hope you will support Tsushima-san in her endeavours, and I myself am looking forward to a very long association, and to a stream of beautiful prints coming off her workbench!

Why Mokuhankan?

Why Mokuhankan ... by that question I don't mean the question of why I am doing this, because the benefits to me from having an invigorated business are quite clear. But now that we are setting up an actual 'business organization', I am interested in exploring some of the wider implications of such an activity.

We recently read about how Japanese companies are changing, and becoming more like overseas organizations. In the USA, for one example, if you were to ask somebody about the purpose of a business, the answer would usually be that 'it exists to make money for its shareholders.' The investors provide capital, and they want a return on that investment. All the activities of the business: hiring staff, producing products or services, and putting them on the market, are all subservient to that main goal.

Historically, Japanese companies have operated under a different concept, and returning profits to shareholders has not been seen as the primary goal; the position of the employees, customers, and society in general have taken precedence, at least in theory.

Now Mokuhankan has no investors beyond myself, so it is free to create its own balance between these sometimes contradictory motivations. Let me try to outline my thoughts on this; I'll put down some 'axioms' for our business, and I will attempt to list these in order of priority in my mind.

1) The fundamental reason for the existence of this organization is to provide a way for the people working here to make a living, and to do so in a way that helps provide meaning to their life.

Yes, there it is - I am putting myself (and the other employees) first, before customers, before profits, and before anything else. Are you upset about this? Read on ...

2) In order to provide that 'meaning to their life', the activities of this organization must be of a nature that provides value to society. If we can contribute more than we use; if we can create beauty and value where it did not exist before; and if we can do so with an intelligent use of the resources available to us (both local and planetary in scope), leaving our surroundings in a better situation than before we started, then our lives will have had meaning.

3) ...

There is no #3. Profit to the investors? There will be none. And I don't mean because we will fail to make any; I mean because none of it will be taken out. In the short term, all income will be returned directly to running the business and paying the workers. Should our business become successful to the extent that we begin to generate 'profits', all such resources will simply be put back into the venture. Initiating new projects; saving for the inevitable slump that will happen after it is our turn for an earthquake; accumulating resources for expansion; there are any number of ways we will be able to use such money. There will never be anything left for 'investors'.

At present, the legal status of the venture is what is known in Japanese as kojin jigyo - a personal proprietorship. I own everything, and I carry total liability. Moving forward, we intend when possible to change that to some form of formal business organization, presumably some kind of 'company', and this will not be my property, but will be owned by the people working here. When we get to that stage, my own income will then derive from whatever work I do with my own barens and chisels, and not as the 'shareholder'.

Look at this though ... such 'big talk' already, when we are still crawling on our hands and knees, not yet ready to even stand up! But I think it is important to set the tone and establish such things right at the beginning. And indeed, our day by day decisions are already being influenced by this philosophy, in such matters as whether or not any particular batch of prints is 'ready for sale' (we need the profit!), or should be considered as 'just for training' (encouraging a stress-free leaning environment).

So having said all this, perhaps you are left with the impression that I am leaning more towards a Japanese way of doing business than a typical Western way. Well, yes and no. There is one way in which I want this place to be very different from almost every Japanese company I have ever had any contact with. When you come in the door to visit this place, you are going to see a group of people having fun!

What's Next?

Now that the Mystique series has come to an end, it is of course time for me to decide what kind of project to do next. I have a very very long list of things I would like to try, but I am not going to detail them all for you here. It's not that I don't think you would be interested in reading about the ideas, it's that for the most part it wouldn't be relevant, because nearly all of them are - given our current environment - completely 'off the table'.

On occasions, some of the other printmakers of an internet group of which I am a member make a statement such as, "Oh, I can't sell anything these days; the economy is so bad!" I am not willing to say that. One can argue that the economy is not 'bad', it is simply 'different'. These are the times in which we live, and it makes no sense to rail against the difficult circumstances. One must adapt to them.

Even in this difficult climate though, it does seem that there are a great many well-off people around, and I suppose it would be possible to create work targeted at that segment of the market. But I really don't have much taste for doing that. I make my print collections for myself, in the sense that I am a typical 'target' consumer. Would I myself pay 3,500 yen every month or so for such a beautiful object to arrive in my mailbox? Yes, absolutely I would! And I am far from being well-off.

So once again, prints of a fairly small scale - but always unstinting in detail and complexity! - will be the focus this coming year. I'll be making Hanga Treasure Chest III. The first print will be ready around April, and as to what theme this series will be based on, I have to tell you honestly that at the moment of writing, I have not yet decided just what that will be, as I am still mulling over a number of different possibilities.

If you were a collector of the Mystique series, I hope you will let me know, "One more year please, Dave!", and if you have yet to acquire one of these wonderful collections, please call me to say, "Sign me up!"

I'll do my best to keep you informed, entertained, and enthralled during the year, I promise!

Sadako's Corner

I recently don't read books while riding the train. Perhaps this is because I am getting less patient as I get older; instead of reading, I recently use an iPod for listening to things. Sometimes I just close my eyes and relax to the sound, but other times I enjoy watching the scenery - both outside and inside the car.

By watching my surroundings I am able to instantly see when there is an elderly person, or a parent with an infant standing, and can swiftly offer my seat. And not having my nose buried in a book means that I never miss my stop. But occasionally, the scenes that I witness are somewhat unwelcome. For example, we frequently see women putting on makeup while riding the train, although I have now basically become used to that.

The other day a young man was sitting next to me; when the train came to a station he got up and began to walk towards the door. As he passed me, I couldn't help but notice his backside, which was clearly in view due to his saggy trousers. I was shocked to the point of feeling ill!

If he had been a real 'hunk' with a beautiful body, perhaps my instinctive reaction would have been completely opposite, but in this case it left me with such an unpleasant feeling that I couldn't even bear to use that same door when I myself left the train at the next station.

It is not so rare these days to see boys with their trousers almost falling down like this. Seeing them I want to call out, "Hey, look at that bum!" I'm worried that such a fashion style is staying popular. I understand that the concept of 'what is beautiful' is constantly in flux, whether it be music or fashion. Even life values seem to change with time, but isn't there any unchanging core of values? Surely there should be a basic sense that we all share, even though it might be difficult to explain logically.

I remember an old children's story; it depicted a country where everybody stood on their hands all the time, and a person walking on their feet was considered weird. If I were to find myself among a group of these boys in their saggy jeans I would be just like a person in such an upside-down world!

But having said all that; are you asking me that if men are so enamoured of women who show off their cleavage, then why don't I welcome what these young men are doing? Well, talking about such things reminds me of the days when we commonly thought that it was embarrassing or slovenly if a woman was careless, letting even as much as a bra strap show. But now there are even such products on the market - underwear that is so attractive it is meant to be shown off!

It's all so confusing! I suppose that people have just become exhausted resisting new ideas, and are now willing to compromise, even with values that were previously unacceptable!


Now that the 'Mystique of the Japanese Print' series has wrapped up, I think some of the collectors will be expecting me to make an announcement about an exhibition. It has been two years since I last held one, back at the completion of the 'My Solitudes' project. Unfortunately I don't think it will be practical to have a show this time around though, for a number of reasons.

The most basic of these is of course the expense it would take. The new projects here are all using up resources, both money and my time, and as I am also facing a 'no income' gap of a couple of months before the next series gets off the ground, I simply can't afford to hold a Tokyo exhibition just now. I did consider having a more small-scale show in a local gallery, but I doubt that very many of the collectors (and other interested viewers) would want to make the very long trek out here to Ome.

There will be a chance for us to 'meet up' soon though, as I will once again be participating in the Design Festa extravaganza this spring. This will be in May, and I will give you details in the next newsletter. I can very much recommend that show - it is an astonishing aggregation of established artists and designers, side by side with young fresh faces, eager to establish themselves in the art scene.

Which one of those do you think best describes my group from Mokuhankan?!