--- Go to the Opening Page of this web site ---

'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #7 - Spring 1992
Contents of this Issue:


It's been a very busy spring so far, what with the exhibition back in January, the attendant publicity activities, and of course the carving and printing work. Now that this project has been in progress for a few years and is drawing wider attention, there is a tendency for me to spend more time talking to people about the work than actually doing it, so it's a good thing I have collectors waiting each month to make sure I don't forget to work at all!

Our guest this month is not a craftsman, but a store, just about the most specialized place I have ever seen. Buried deep in the middle of Shitamachi is a shop selling nothing but bamboo skins, and we will pay them a visit and learn a little bit more about 'take' (tah-kay).

It's 'back to normal' this issue, with the regular departments, and as I seem to have confused everyone quite thoroughly in the last issue, I guess I have a bit of explaining to do this time....

Project History

I may not have been having much luck with the hanshita preparation or the woodblock supply, but I was busy on other aspects of the work. I designed a set of folders and a cloth-bound case in which collectors could store finished prints. The folders (made of Japanese 'washi') I could make myself, but as making the cases would be too time-consuming, I searched for a packaging maker who would be able to make them. I visited many such places around Tokyo but ran into the same problem everywhere - my requirements were simply too small for them to bother with.

Saeki-san again came to the rescue. He supplied me with the name and address of the company making cases for his print sets, and this man, Mr. Masataka Toda, was able to help me. He understood my requirements immediately, and was able to supply in any quantity - even a single case. His prices were very reasonable, and I ordered a sample batch of 20 blue cloth-bound cases. I still had no woodblocks to carve the next print. I still hadn't found a way to prepare the design for carving the next print. I still couldn't even print well enough to make a saleable copy, but I was determined to keep pushing forward on every front, and see how far I could get.

A big break came in early March. One of my English students gave me a clipping from the Mainichi Daily News which mentioned an upcoming 'Culture Seminar' featuring demonstrations of woodblock printmaking. Luckily, it was to be held on a Monday evening when I had no English classes, and I was able to attend. The lecture itself was boring, a typical Japanese University-type lecturer mindlessly droning on about the birth dates of a string of artists with incomprehensible names. The history of Ukiyo-e is actually a fascinating example of artists developing and declining in step with their culture, but we heard nothing about any of that. However, when the talking stopped and the demonstrations began, things were different. The carver was Mr. Susumu Ito, who we will meet in a future issue of this newsletter. The printer? Mr. Keizaburo Matsuzaki, whom you met in last summer's issue.

Watching him work was a revelation to me. On my first trip to Japan about seven years before this, I had visited a couple of printmaking workshops, but my knowledge of printmaking was so rudimentary at that time that I could not really understand what I was seeing, and I learned little if anything. Over the intervening years in Canada I had worked absolutely alone, using the trial and error approach, with some successes and many, many failures. My baby daughters were fond of saying, 'I can do it by myself!', and I guess this was my feeling too. For breaking new ground and developing new techniques, this system works fine. To try and develop skill in traditional techniques on one's own is simply foolish. I was ready for this meeting.

The notes I made that night in my journal tell the story: '... economy of motion, peacefullness, gently applied strength, a total lack of tension ...' My experiments to this point had focussed on the mechanics of the woodblock process; how much paste, how much water, etc. etc. Of course these things are important, but they are as nothing compared to the 'mental' state of the craftsman, and it was in one short hour that evening, followed by a day-long visit to his home the next week, that I began to get a glimpse from Matsuzaki-san of just what things were really about. The 'lessons' are continuing ...

I also made a trip to see Shimano-san to see how the woodblocks were coming, and got some bad news. His 'oyakata', the master of the workshop, had retired, and Shimano-san was being left to run things on his own. There was no longer enough work for two, but too much for one, and Shimano-san was only able to shrug his shoulders when I asked about a delivery date. Of course, he had to give priority to his long established (and I mean long established) customers. The new kid would have to wait .... so wait he did.

Collector Profile

Mr. Shigeyoshi Ushiro

June 26, 1964. A highway leaving Osaka, Japan, where a husky 17 year old Japanese boy is setting out on a journey. Most other boys his age are at their desks studying, but Shigeyoshi has had enough of that. His destination: Osaka. The vehicle: his touring bicycle 'Wandervogel', which over the next 73 days will carry him more than 8,000 kilometers, completely around the circumference of the three main islands of Japan, Osaka to Osaka.

I have a copy of Shigeyoshi's diary of the journey, and it is full of the things you would expect: sunshine, rain, famous sights, gravel roads, dump trucks, and day-by-day expenses. But it also contains something else on every page - encounters with the people of Japan. He was helped at every turn, with offers of accomodation, food and assistance. The journal is far more concerned with these people, than with the places he saw. I think these meetings had a lasting effect on the young teenager, for the adult that he became is one of the most convivial people I have met.

Last summer, when we were in my wife's home town in southern Mie prefecture, I was able to spend some time with Ushiro-san and his wife Chikako. They have some land there on which they are building themselves a log house (from scratch, not with a 'kit' from Canada!). Where did he learn how to do this? He is learning by doing, just the same way that I love to learn things, but certainly not a very 'Japanese' way of doing things. Building this house will be an immense amount of work for the two of them, and will take many years, but they do not seem fazed by the size of the task. When Ushiro-san was seventeen, he learned a very valuable lesson on his bicycle, that there is no job too big to be tackled, if one simply takes things one step at a time, one small piece at a time. It may seem like a long way off now as I watch him wrestle logs into place on the foundation, but I have no doubt at all that I will one day have the pleasure of sitting in his 'woody' kitchen and admiring his completed handiwork.

Ushiro-san's examples have been a considerable help to me in my work. He and I are both embarked on long journeys, but hey, getting there is all the fun, isn't it Shigeyoshi?

Visit to a Craftsman

Kaneko Shoten, baren skin suppliers

It was completely by accident that I found Kaneko Shoten the first time. I was on my way to visit Shimano-san the woodblock supplier, and was lost, as usual. The Moto Asakusa area of Tokyo is laid out in a simple grid pattern, not winding twisty lanes, but that doesn't make it any easier to find your destination when all the streets and shops look exactly alike. Every time I visit the area I get confused anew, and end up circling around and around searching for landmarks, gradually drawing closer to my goal. I had heard that there was such a place as a 'bamboo skin' shop in Tokyo, but had not yet got around to looking it up. Luckily, on this particular day when I bumped into it, I had time to spare and went in to see what I could see.

Of course, it is an old place. I use the word shop, but it doesn't look like a store as such. One steps directly from the street into the storage area, and is immediately surrounded by bale upon bale of bamboo skins. How can these people make a living? Are there that many woodblock printmakers still at work? Of course not. Printmakers make up only a tiny fraction of their business. Most of these bamboo skins are destined for use as ... food wrappers. Rice balls, blocks of sweet yokan paste, and many other foods were being wrapped in these tough, flexible coverings centuries before the invention of plastic wraps, and there are a few old-fashioned shops that still like to use them.

Modern Japanese language usage has all but erased the distinction between skins of animals and plants, and the same Chinese character is commonly used for both, but Kaneko Shoten's name card proudly carries the obsolete character for 'takenokawa' (bamboo skin). This business has been in existence since the Ansei era (1850's), and in the present location since Meiji 17 (1884). It has been razed to the ground twice this century, once during the great Kanto earthquake, and then again during the war. The present proprietors, the brothers Yasuo and Mitsuo Kaneko, tend to both the business and their 97 year old mother. During my visit to gather information for this little story I sat and listened to them argue about when this or that ancestor lived or died, and I tried to compare their long heritage to my own very short one. (I don't even know the names of my grandparents, let alone what they did, where they lived, or where they are buried).

There can't be very much about bamboo skins that these two don't know. They were able to tell me where the 'best' skins for use by printmakers are to be found in any given area; a certain place in Chiba, an area near Osaka, even a particular hillside in Gumma Prefecture. The structure, thickness and strength of the skins are obviously determined both by the composition of the soil in which the plant grows, and by the micro-climate surrounding it.

In the Kanto area, the skins are gathered in July, or perhaps I should say, were gathered. This was traditionally kid's work. Village children would be organized to search the bamboo groves for the fallen skins, which would then be bundled up and shipped off to Kaneko Shoten. It is easy for me to imagine such a scene from a few decades ago: groups of children in raggedy summer clothes and straw sandals gathering masses of the skins, and bringing them back to the village to exchange for a handful of sen (mon? ri? yen?). It is not so easy to imagine today's youngsters doing so. Even if they were not otherwise occupied with homework or video games, Japanese kids nowdays of course have no need to go 'hunting' on hillsides for their pocket money. Kaneko-san is thus finding it much more difficult to obtain bamboo from Japan, and is turning to other sources of supply, notably Taiwan. (If you think it strange that this blue-eyed printmaker should be using a 'non-Japanese' material to make his Japanese prints, wait until you hear what goes into the washi ....). And all over Japan, the bamboo skins lie where they fall ...

What of the future for Kaneko Shoten? Well, for them the future simply means just doing what they've always been doing - buying the best bamboo they can find, and supplying them to those who find that no modern substitute will do the job, whether it be covering a printmaker's baren, or making a simple wrapper for a traditional food. Of course printing presses are 'better' than barens, plastic is 'better' than bamboo skin, and it is right that they should have taken over. But if our society becomes so enamoured with efficiency and profit margins that there is no longer any place for such a 'low-tech' but 'high touch' product like the 'takenokawa', then that will be a sad day indeed.

Yasuo and Mitsuo Kaneko, guardians of an old tradition, thank you for your assistance and advice with my printmaking studies. But most of all, thank you for your regular supplies of that miracle product ... the takenokawa. And from now on, I too will use that obsolete old kanji. (If only it didn't have quite so many strokes ....)

'Odds and Ends'

I think it's time for a little 'catch-up' - an explanation of a few things that may have been somewhat confusing as you have been reading this little newsletter recently.

Inoue-san the carver. The last issue was devoted entirely to my visit to the workshop of the carver Shinshichiro Inoue. I thought that I 'explained' things in the last paragraph of that story (which should have said 1775, by the way), but in conversations with some of you since that time, I have learned that I didn't make myself very clear. Inoue-san lived in the Edo era, and was the chief carver of the original book that I am copying. My visit to his workshop was entirely imaginary.

As we have very few written records of the Edo working environment, how authentic was my description? Some publishers of the day (of whom there were literally hundreds) were known to keep 'stables' of craftsmen such as I described, while other men worked out of their own homes. I have no idea where Inoue-san actually worked.

The Shunsho book was published by Karigane-ya, which was located where I described, in front of the Denzuin temple. Shunsho's preface to the book is dated with the equivalent of January 1774. The publisher's information page (like our copyright page) is dated the end of 1775. Did the book really take two years in the making? Shokunin of that day worked extremely quickly, and there is no way that it should have taken such a long time, but a great number of books were issued at the turn of the year, and this one has a special interest for the January 'Karuta' season. Perhaps they missed the 1775 new year and put the blocks aside for a while, then pulled them out to be finished in late 1775 in time for the next new year. We can never know.

My description of Inoue-san's attitude towards his work is of course speculation. It is basically the attitude I find among such men today, and I would imagine that the craftsmen of the middle Edo period were perhaps even more single-minded about their work, having far fewer distractions and diversions (education, travel, media, etc.)

Sharkskin. A few issues back you saw a photo of a sharkskin soaking in our bathtub, and some of you were wondering why. Well I'm not going to tell you ... just yet. I am trying to tell many stories: the making of woodblock prints, bygone craftsmen's lifestyles, hyaku-nin isshu history.... None of these are amenable to a serial, start to finish type of story-telling. As I write these newsletters over the years that this project is under way, I will tell what I can of these things, bit-by-bit, and piece-by-piece. It is kind of like making a large mosaic, with the overall picture only gradually become clear as the details are filled in. This is the way that I am learning things, and it is the only way I can pass them on. Patience, please, and all will be clear in the end. Or at least sort of less muddy ...

'Hyaku-nin Issho'. Why did I choose this name for my newsletter? 'Hyaku-nin Issho' literally means 'one hundred people, together'. It is of course a play on words on 'Hyaku-nin Isshu' or 'one hundred people, one poem each', the name of the poetry series on which my work is based. It is more than just a simple pun however. In the early days of this project, I was forced to consider whether it would be actually possible to make a living at this, or if it would turn out to be completely unsustainable financially. Making the prints is extremely time consuming, and the landlord won't wait!

I got out a large sheet of paper (no computerized spreadsheet, alas!) and tried to work things out. I added up the estimated expenses for woodblocks, paper, and other materials. (These materials are very expensive, each single sheet of washi more than 500\, each woodblock more than 10,000\, a baren - 50,000\). I also included calculations for part-time helpers who would make folders and wrap and ship the prints. Photographic enlargements, exhibition and promotion expenses, anything I could think of all went into the mix, plus of course an allowance for our daily life; rent, food, etc. If I made one copy each month and sold it for a zillion yen, no problem! As this seemed hardly practical, I worked my way through the calculations and found that a sale of 100 copies of each of 10 prints per year, at a price of about 10,000 yen each, would give enough income to pay the costs of producing them, plus taxes and household expenses, and even provide a small saving.

I thought that I could indeed produce 10 prints each year without too much time pressure. Carving each one takes me about three weeks, and printing 100 copies takes anywhere from 4 days to two weeks depending on the number of colours.

So 100 seemed like the magic number, and that became my goal - a group of 100 collectors/patrons - 'Hyaku-nin Issho'. I thus make a hundred copies of each month's print. My two part-timers make folders for them all, and wrap and ship those for the current subscribers, as well as those who are taking back numbers two per month to 'catch-up'. The remainder are stored here in my workshop (which gets smaller and smaller every month!). By the end of the first year I had 15 subscribers. A year later there were 25, and as the third year's set came to a close, 38. 6 of those have dropped out, and 9 others joined at the recent January exhibition. Will I actually reach 100 before finishing the series? Who knows? It would sure be nice to be able to get a month ahead on the rent, but I suppose it doesn't really matter. I'm having fun with my work, and I've got enough food to feed my kids. What else is there?


Message from Canada

February in Vancouver - the crocuses and daffodils are in bloom, and the buds on the trees are swelling. Spring is really on the way.

I am coming to the end of my first year as a university student here in Canada, with my young children waiting for me back in Japan. In the middle of April, I will start my summer vacation, which will last until late August, and I am counting the days until I will see David and the children again. My daily life here consists simply of 7 hours sleep and 16 hours study, although recently I have started swimming each morning, and have now worked my way up to a kilometer a day. As long as I feel that I have the support of my family, I know that I can succeed. I will be able to continue as long as my children and David are able to manage. They speak to me every Saturday on the telephone, and the girls write a daily journal and send it to me every week.

I hope you are enjoying David's prints and newsletter. I will do my best to try and help you to understand his ideas and feelings when I work on the translations.

Vancouver, Canada February 22, 1992