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
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
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 ...
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?