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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #12 - Summer 1993
Contents of this Issue:


"Hyaku-nin Issho" time again ... Even if you can't tell by the weather, you know when you see this thin brown envelope in your mail, that a new season is here. I feel quite proud of myself, keeping to the four-times-a-year schedule for this little newsletter. When I first started, I thought that I'd only be able to find time to do it on an occasional basis, but now, with nearly 200 copies of each issue going out to readers, it's become kind of an institution ...

Cover photographOur main story this time is of course the follow-up to the quiz in the previous issue. I got some great responses in the mail ... not a whole lot of right answers ... but certainly a lot of interesting answers ... Thanks to those of you who participated, and you can find out how well you did by checking the real answers in this issue.

The rest of the stuff in this issue is (blush!) all about me. There is certainly no shortage of interesting craftsmen and collectors to write about, but I recently reached an important milestone, and I thought you might be interested in reading about it. (No, no ... I'm not 50 yet! Not until well after this project is done ...)

Project History

The last few months of that first year of the project saw good progress on all aspects of the work. Although I was spending about 30 hours per week on English teaching activities, I was still able to keep up the pace of one print per month, spending about three weeks on the carving, and then a couple of days on the printing (as only a very few collectors had yet joined, I was only making a couple of dozen copies of each print).

TV crew photographOne exciting event for me during this time was receiving my first real 'baren' (printing tool). I wrote about that visit to Gosho-san in an earlier issue of this newsletter, and I hope was able to communicate my excitement at my new 'toy'. My printing took an immediate jump in quality, partly from the wonderful tool itself, and partly from the increased self-confidence that came from simply having it. I wish it was always that simple to 'buy' progress ...

When I first moved to Hamura there had been a small wood-block printmaking 'circle' at a local community centre, but it had faded away. When the 'Bunkasai' (culture festival) came around in November that year, there were no printmaking activities planned, so I volunteered to do a workshop where kids could learn something about it. I carved some simple blocks, prepared a pile of brushes, pigments and paper, and set up some tables where kids could try printing their own prints. This 'hanga corner' was a great success, and they lined up by the dozens to try it. It has become a traditional part of the Hamura Bunkasai, and the kids gather round eagerly every year to see what design I have brought this time. (Of course I don't use 1000 year old designs. The biggest hit so far has been characters from the big hit movie for kids - 'Tonari no Totoro').

Another interesting spur to the work that year was my appearance on NHK's evening news program on Xmas Day, the first of what was to be many such appearances, on all different types of programs. (Propaganda insert: I have mixed feelings about TV coverage of my work. Of course it feels nice to get such exposure, but I don't like television's effect on a family, and refuse to have one in my home, much to the disgust of my children, and the surprise of visiting TV producers! Of course, there are some useful things on TV sometimes, but they are far outweighed by the negatives: loss of family communication, exposure to bad influences, and the incredible loss of huge chunks of one's life spent sitting staring mindlessly at a box in the corner of the room. Who's got time for it? We're so busy working, studying, and playing that we don't even miss it. Try it sometime ... throw away your box ... End of propaganda!)

I spent the last day of that year sitting peacefully carving in my workshop, and as the sound of the New Year temple bells floated across town late that night, I was still at it, going round and round the patterns on Sarumaru Dayu's kimono. It had been a very, very good year. On the one hand I was losing money, spending more on the printmaking than I was getting back, and barely had enough left to survive. I was also too busy, and barely had enough time each month to get everything done. But I was well and truly launched on my adventure, and there was no thought of turning back. I knew where I was ultimately going, but where the voyage would lead me along the way remained to be seen. What would the new year bring?

Quiz Answers

The moment you've all been waiting for ... haven't you? It seems that perhaps I made the quiz in the last issue somewhat too difficult, as most of you gave up without sending in any answers. There were a few though, who got quite a number of questions correct ... they should - they are printmakers! In any case, here are the answers - 10 'one-point' lessons in traditional printmaking.

1) Those pigments that do not dissolve readily in water are first soaked in alcohol. Most of the traditional printers thus keep a bottle of sake by the side of their workbench (purely for professional use, of course). Actually, as I don't like the idea of all that sugar staying in the print, and perhaps providing food for bugs of whatever kind, I use pure alcohol from the pharmacist. I didn't even have any sake in the house when the quiz program TV crew came over that day, and Michiyo had to run out and buy a bottle. She made a good choice though, because when the president of the company who made it saw me display it on TV, he sent us a complimentary supply of the stuff!

2) The night before starting work on the printing process, Japanese printers thoroughly moisten their printing paper. A lot of Western printmaking is done on dry paper, with oily pigments, and the resulting image is formed only on the surface of the sheet. The paper simply acts as a carrier and support for the pigments. The colour in Japanese work, however, is actually driven deep into the body of the paper by the baren, sometimes even coming out onto the back side. This is only possible if the paper has been moistened first. Attempting to print on dry paper just gives a speckled, uneven surface.

The second reason has to do with paper expansion. If one were to try and make a multi-coloured print on dry paper, the paper would absorb moisture from the first colour, and in doing so would expand slightly. The second colour would then no longer 'fit' in the proper place. If however, the paper is wet (and expanded) to start with, then there is very little further expansion during the subsequent printings. After all colours are done, the paper is carefully dried, and shrinks back to natural size. The finished print thus always ends up slightly smaller than the blocks from which it was printed!

3) I got my camellia oil from Michiyo's mother, but I don't put it on my hair like she does! I apply it to my 'baren wata', the cotton pad on which my printing baren rests during work. The surface of the bamboo skin is thus kept lightly lubricated. This has a few effects: the baren of course slides more easily across the paper, and is less likely to tear the paper surface. The bamboo skin also absorbs less moisture from the wet paper, and thus stays wrapped tightly for a longer time. (It's common when watching older printers to see them absent-mindedly rub their baren on their head from time to time. They are actually picking up a bit more oil ....)

Bamboo skin4) Three uses for bamboo skins: 1) Of course, the outer wrapping of the baren itself is a whole skin, stretched and tied in place. 2) The inner 'coil' hidden inside the baren is also made of bamboo skin (we'll be investigating this more closely in an upcoming issue of his newsletter ...). 3) Left-over bits of bamboo skin are used to make the 'tokibo', the small brush used to transfer the pigment from the bowl to the block.

enogu5) Why don't I use 'seki-o'? Well, would you use a pigment made of 50% sulphur, and 50% arsenic? Would you bend over your bench and grind it in a mortar until it became nice, fine powder, floating around the room? And even if you would, what would your spouse say about it?

6) I learned about shamisen string when I did a television appearance visiting the carver Ito Susumu. He inspected my tools, and was surprised to find that I was using masking tape to hold my knife blade in position in the handle. I hadn't really thought that this was a problem, but when I followed his recommendation and used shamisen string to tie the blade tightly in place, I found it much easier to guide the knife.

7) Which comes first, the outline or the colours? This one puzzled me too when I was working on my own back in Canada. It's nice to do the black first, so you can then guide the colours into the correct location, but don't the colours cover up the black lines? Actually, they don't at all. Although the colours may look solid and deep when printed onto white paper, they are actually quite transparent, and the strong black lines show clearly through.

8) When I first tried printmaking, I bought a few nice soft brushes for spreading the pigments. They were useless. The printmaker's brush must have strong quite coarse hairs, to properly spread the pigment/water/paste mixture well over the block. The pigment is not 'painted' onto the block, but 'scrubbed' over the surface, so the brush hairs must be firm, not soft. But this causes a problem with the finishing strokes. As these final strokes are made, the strong hairs of the brush leave lines in the pigment, and these unwanted lines show up in the finished print. The solution is to prepare the brush by rubbing it over an abrasive surface, causing the tip of each hair to soften and split (kind of like the unwanted 'split ends' in human hair). Sharkskin makes a perfect abrasive surface for this. Rubbed one way it is quite smooth. Rubbed the other, it will tear your skin at a touch. It is thus the apprentice printer's job to regularly rub each of the brushes against this natural 'sandpaper', to keep the tips of the hairs soft and gentle. As the brush wears down, it must be re-treated, again and again, until it finally becomes too short to use. (Maybe one day I'll have an apprentice to do this! Maybe.)

9) I am told that the carving knife modern printmakers use is actually descended from a type of short blade worn by samurai many years ago. 'Katana' is the name for their sword, and the shorter blade was known as 'ko-gatana', or 'small sword'. This is the term that the older carvers still use for our knife, which doesn't look much like a sword, but which is actually made with a similar laminated technology, with a soft, flexible steel acting as support for a hard brittle steel sharpened to a keen edge.

stones10) I'm sure Matsuzaki-san laughed when he saw this question. "Why is he doing it that old way?" he must have asked .... The bamboo skin cover for the baren is very strong, but it wears out very quickly under the stress of heavy rubbing, and must be changed frequently. Printers keep a bundle of skins handy, and it is a simple couple of minutes work to prepare a new one. Simple ... if you know how. Simple ... if you watched your master do it a thousand times. Simple ... if you've done it yourself ten thousand times. Not so simple for me ... yet. If you want a laugh sometime, ask my wife to describe the scene when I recover my baren ...

If the skin isn't stretched tightly enough, the resulting baren is unuseable. The water-softened skin is first rubbed with the hands on a hard board to stretch it. After it has expanded adequately, it is rubbed on the same board with a hard object, to further soften some of the fibers, and break down some of the protruding ridges. It is then trimmed and tied around the baren disc. (Ten short words to describe that process, and ten long years to learn it!).

Of course, the stone in the quiz is the hard object I use to rub the skin, just like printers many years ago. I chose it very carefully, as one too small would not supply enough force, and one too big would damage the skin. And Matsuzaki-san - why is he laughing? Well, he doesn't care as much about traditions as he does about efficiency .... he uses the back end of a pair of Japanese wrought iron scissors. Oh, these modern ways ....!


In a few days from now (on July 1), I will mark the seventh anniversary of my arrival in this country. When I arrived at Narita airport that day seven years ago, I had no official permission to stay in Japan. While in Vancouver, I had applied to the Japanese consulate for a visa on the basis of 'cultural studies', but had been refused. My desire to learn about woodblock printmaking was strong though, and I came anyway, without a visa. Michiyo didn't really want to come back to Japan, but she realized that I was getting more and more unhappy with my 'salaryman' life in Canada, so we put all our possessions in storage, and quit our apartment. I carried Fumi-chan on my back, Michiyo carried all our clothes and stuff in her backpack, and with Himi in hand, we got on the plane. Whether or not I could get permission to stay in Japan, what kind of life we would have, where we would live, how I would make a living ... all these questions were unanswered ... but we came anyway ...

visaAt Narita I didn't know what to say to the Immigration people. I knew that I could get a three month tourist visa, which could probably be renewed for another three months, but with a tourist visa I wouldn't be able to work and support my family. I hoped that maybe I could get some kind of a student visa, which would allow a certain number of hours of work each week. The Immigration man looked at Michiyo and the kids. "Is this your family? Your wife? Is she Japanese?" he asked. "Yes ... yes ... yes," I answered. "Well, why don't you get a 'spouse' visa? With that, you can live where you want, study whatever you want, and work at whatever you want - no restrictions."

I was flabbergasted. I had never heard of such a thing. The people back at the Japanese consulate in Vancouver had put me through a six-month-long application/waiting/refusal procedure for a cultural visa, but had never even mentioned this. This was the answer to all my prayers. I entered Japan that day under a tourist visa, and a couple of months later, after a bunch of paperwork to prove to them that yes, we were indeed a 'real' family unit, I had my spouse visa - valid for a six month term. In due course, they renewed this - first for another six months, then for a year, then for another year, and then for a three year period. There have never been any problems with the renewals, and the Immigration procedures have been simple, quick, and friendly. But I have always felt a kind of sword hanging over my head each time I go ... what if they say 'no' this time? What would happen to my work, my family, my whole life ...? When my three-year term expired last fall, and I went to Immigration to seek a further term, I received the extension, but also put in a different kind of request. It required many pages of paperwork: a comprehensive personal history, 'koseki' and marriage documentation, residence certificates, tax information for many years back (national, prefectural, city), employment information, and guarantor's statements (including his employment, tax and family information). This April, after a seven-month wait, my request was granted, and I visited the Otemachi Immigration office and received the 'eiju' stamp in my passport - I am now a Permanent Resident of Japan.

permanent residence visa

Does it feel different? Well, yes ... and no. Of course I am very pleased to have it, and feel much more secure, knowing that I do not have to go and ask for permission to continue my 'life' every few years. It is also pleasing to have the official recognition that I am doing something useful and of value to this society. But in one way it doesn't feel very different at all. Almost right from the first day I set foot in Japan, I have felt at home here. And this is a great puzzle to me. When you think about it, I should be quite uncomfortable in this country. There is still a huge language barrier - my 'nihongo' is getting slowly better, but I can only communicate a tiny percentage of what I really want to say. In Canada I was completely fluent. Here I have become illiterate - I wander through the wonderful bookstores almost crying in frustration at being so 'retarded'. In Canada, I lived in bookstores. Here my living environment is really quite cramped and uncomfortable - I even have to clean up my wood chips every night just to make a narrow space to lay down to sleep. In Canada, of course I could enjoy a wide, wide living space. Many of the people I knew back in Canada would have run away screaming by now, if they had to live the way I do ... So why do I feel so much at home here?

Well of course, a good part of it is my community - Hamura. I am familiar with many different societies around the world, but cannot think of anywhere where the trade-off between individual rights and social responsibilities is balanced so well as here. JFK's famous dictum about "Ask not what your country can do for you ...." is really and truly observed here, and I am pleased to be in a position where I also am able to make a real contribution to the functioning of the community.

Another reason is my daughters. They are totally 100% integrated here, enjoying their school life and dozens of friends and activities. I am hard pressed to think of anywhere in the world where they could find a better environment in which to grow up. And although I sometimes grumble about the amount of time I have to spend on school meetings, and PTA, and dodgeball tournaments, and piano classes, etc. I know that my participation is also an important part of the process, and I don't begrudge it.

But of course, the most fundamental reason is my work. Every day I sit for long hours on Japanese tatami mats, and using traditional Japanese tools, carve on Japanese wood, creating Japanese designs (based on centuries-old Japanese poetry), which I then print on traditional Japanese paper, in Japanese colours, using Japanese pigments. Good grief - how can I not feel at home here? How on earth could I ever work anywhere else?

Am I becoming Japanese? Well, I don't know about that. I was born in England, but I left when I was five years old, and certainly don't feel English. I grew up in Canada, but am gradually becoming more and more unfamiliar with Canadian society, and somehow no longer feel much connection with Canada. I don't really know what nationality I am any more. But about one thing, there is no doubt. I am quite often asked, "Where is your home?" For a number of years now, my answer has always been the same, and now with this new stamp in my passport, it is official. My home ... is Japan.


After a few more issues, the '... genesis of this project ...' column will be coming to a natural end, and it will become an occasional '... update on this project ...'. I've started to cast around for something to replace it, and I wonder if any of you have any suggestions on this. I've actually got plenty of ideas, but it's very difficult for me to know what you are interested in. What kind of things would you like to read about in this newsletter? If you give me some feedback, I'll be able to put together something that you can enjoy reading. If you don't, then who knows what I'll come up with ... Beware!