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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #51 - Spring 2003
Contents of this Issue:


'Sneezing season' has arrived here in Ome - as I sit and write these newsletter stories in late February the air here is already full of pollen.

If I were a chronic 'complainer', there would sure be plenty to complain about with these Japanese seasons! The winter is bitterly cold ... then just as it starts to get a bit warmer the air fills with pollen and a box of tissues becomes a constant companion. We get a few weeks of lovely spring weather in May, but then the rainy season approaches with its dreary dampness ... October and November are wonderful, but then the cold weather approaches again ...

But anyone who takes such a pessimistic viewpoint should just pack up and head somewhere else - there are of course plenty of positive aspects to these seasons too! The river bank just outside my windows, and the mountainsides near my home, are about to explode with blossom and greenery, and it is going to be a real delight seeing the world come alive again.

More importantly, it's going to be a delight feeling warm again! But I wonder - just how many more weeks will it be before I can pack away the hot carpet?

From Halifax to Hamura

When I started this 'Halifax to Hamura' story, I had no idea that it would spin itself out for such a long time. I didn't prepare a careful plan for the series, and just kind of assumed that over a dozen or so issues, perhaps two or three years' worth of newsletters, I would get through it and end up at the point when I actually set foot in Hamura. But looking back through my files now, I see that this 'column' is now in its 10th year! And in the story, there are still three years to go before getting over to Hamura! Have I been gabbing away too much? I have no idea; whether or not any of this has been of much interest I really can't tell. But as I sit down at my keyboard this evening ready to write the next episode, I can't help but think back to the time when I started this series, and to remember one of the major motivations behind it.

In 1994, when I started the story, I had already been living in Japan for eight years, and felt quite at home here. I didn't have any particular reason to feel 'strange' in my community, but knew of course, that to my neighbours I was certainly 'different' (as I still am, and always will be here). One thing did surprise me about my relations with my neighbours though, and that was the extent to which they thought I was doing something 'special' and unusual. Surprised, because in my own mind, I am pretty much an ordinary guy doing pretty much ordinary things. Of course, specializing in making old-fashioned woodblock prints is not a common activity, but in the cultures where I grew up, doing this kind of thing is not unusual in any way. Nor is it so unusual for a person to live for extended periods (or a lifetime!) in a distant country - emigration has been a fact of life for centuries in the European/New World traditions.

But to my Japanese neighbours, the idea that somebody would resign from a good job with a respected company, would take his family (including two who were still only infants) over to a distant country where he didn't even speak the language, let alone have a job ... well it just didn't add up. And yet all around me, and especially with the young adults in the English classes I was teaching in those days, I met people who were not particularly satisfied with the life options they saw open to them in their own culture - school, college, job ...

So that was one of the major incentives for me to start this series; it's not my business to preach at anybody about how they should organize their life, but it wouldn't hurt anybody to see that another sort of living pattern is possible - that dropping out of university doesn't mean 'failure', that leaving a good job is not only possible, but essential, if you aren't satisfied there, and most of all, that one never has to answer the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

Well that was nearly ten years ago, and as those of us who live in Japan know very well, the number of life options available here has increased enormously since those days. That though, is sort of a 'good news/bad news' situation. The good news is that many career options other than the traditional school/college/job path have opened up; the bad news is that without such a clear definition of what to do as the old system provided, many people are now more confused than ever before about how to proceed. I know this from personal experience - from the letters and phone calls I frequently receive from such people.

A typical inquiry will be from somebody in their early 20's; perhaps they are just about to graduate, perhaps they have already left school. They are contacting me because they think they would like to become a printmaker, perhaps becoming my apprentice if possible, but after some conversation it becomes clear that it is not so much what to become that is their aim, it is what not to become ... a company employee. Almost none of them have actually tried printmaking to see if they might really find it a suitable occupation for them, as when they call me it seems that they are expecting to be instructed in what to do - sit over here, start with these tools, etc. etc.

Now I would certainly not criticize anybody because they didn't have a burning interest in printmaking - for the first thirty years of my own life I had no interest in it at all. And the idea that some of these people have - to try it out to see if an interest does exist - is also not a bad idea; I dabbled in any number of activities when I was younger, as this series has certainly shown! My 'complaint' about these people, such as it is, is with their lack of self-motivation; it seems that they expect me to take them in hand, supply them with a course of instruction, and set them on the road to becoming a printmaker.

Now making traditional woodblock prints is not something just tossed off casually, and making a living at making traditional woodblock prints is an immensely difficult undertaking. The hours are long, the pay is low, and the work is physically very hard - there is absolutely no way that anybody who is anything less than totally passionate about the work can be successful. How can I determine whether or not any of these people have the proper level of passion? The method is simple - I ask them to show me some of the prints they have made. But the reply is always the same - "I haven't made any prints yet. I don't know how. I would like you to show me ..."

And I know ... I know as soon as I hear this, that without the inner drive to go to the library and hunt up some books on printmaking, and to follow those instructions to have a try at making some basic prints, and to then look at those awful first prints and try and figure out what's wrong, and then to make some more to try and get better at it ... I know that this person just doesn't have what is necessary to make a go at printmaking - a powerful enthusiasm that drowns out everything else.

Is the presence of enthusiasm a guarantee of success at something? Not at all; over the ten years of episodes of this Halifax to Hamura story, you have read about innumerable occasions of David being enthusiastic about something, only to ultimately fail at it. He failed at university, he failed in the attempt to become a professional flutist, failed with his saxophone in the pop/jazz field, failed as a branch manager ... And many of his other activities, if not outright failures, were just left along the wayside ...

But in each case, the enthusiasm was there, and was there first; it was just not always partnered with the necessary ability. And the older I get, the more I am certain that it is the presence or absence of a passion for something that is the most fundamental determiner of success.

In the next issue of this newsletter, we will return to the Halifax to Hamura story right at the point where David's first daughter is born. He will be given increased responsibilities in the music company where he works, another daughter will then be born, he will start to think about buying a house for his family ... and as you might expect, all these things will conspire to push his dream of printmaking farther and farther off into the distance.

But as we know, here he is this evening sitting in his home in Japan typing away on newsletter stories for his collectors. So what happened to pull it all together? The answer ... is in the enthusiasm!

After ten years of this series, we seem to be no nearer to Hamura than we were at the beginning, but in this final group of episodes, we'll see the most important part of the story - how things came together to make that final large step of a few thousand miles.

(But I promise it won't take ten more years to tell the rest!)

Exhibition Wrap-up

Consistent and reliable ... or repetitive and tiresome? That was the main question about my exhibitions that faced me late last year when it became time to start planning for the 14th Annual show. Because the basic pattern - showcasing the ten newest prints - hasn't changed right since the first exhibition, Sadako and I thought about how we could make things more interesting and useful, and came up with two ideas: the 'David's Choice' display, and the 'Gallery Talk'.

David's Choice

Although for obvious financial reasons 'serious woodblock printmaker' and 'serious woodblock print collector' cannot turn out to be the same person, I have managed to put together a small but interesting collection of woodblock prints, primarily items from the Meiji era up to the present. The collection is being made with two purposes in mind - business and pleasure! The 'business' part comes in because I need a constant stream of good designs from which to make the prints in my Surimono Albums; the 'pleasure' part is obvious - I don't just make prints, I like them too!

There were three basic reasons for including a selection of these prints in this year's exhibition:

  • Although in my own Surimono Albums I am trying to 'cover all the bases', and show a complete representation of the world of woodblock prints, that is simply impossible; I need to include other prints as well!
  • Many people do not understand that beautiful woodblock prints are still available at modest cost - not everything has been tucked away in museum collections!
  • My own prints are well made, but I want to show you the kind of work I would like to be able to achieve. I study these prints all the time - there is a great deal I can learn from them.

What sort of items did I choose? Quite a mixed bag! A pillar print, a Meiji-era magazine illustration, a menu from a pre-war transpacific liner, a print made by a friend of mine in America, a crepe-paper book, a 'standard' ukiyo-e reproduction, a selection of little prints (about the size of old matchboxes), and a wonderful large landscape print by Kawase Hasui. What theme tied them all together? No theme at all ... just simply this guy found them attractive and interesting. And judging from the reaction of the viewers at the exhibition, I seem to have chosen well, as I heard over and over again "Thank you so much for showing us these beautiful prints! I had no idea that woodblock prints could be so interesting!"

Gallery Talk

Having a 'talk' during the show was Sadako's idea; I think she might have proposed it to me some years before, but I wasn't ready to hear the suggestion. This year I paid attention to her idea, and am glad I did, as the Sunday afternoon event turned out quite successfully. The talk tied in with the 'David's Choice' portion of the exhibition, as I based the content on those eight prints. I didn't simply explain what they were, but tried to use each one to illustrate a particular point I wanted to make, or a question I wanted to ask.

These points ranged all over the map, from the difference between Japanese and western ways of placing the paper when drawing a picture (or viewing it), to the question of why an excellent reproduction of an old print is 'worth' so much less than the original in $/yen terms. Each one of these eight points could actually have been enough for a full Gallery Talk, but I was only able to touch on them briefly during the hour.

I planned only an hour for the talk because I had been very afraid of boring people - I myself intensely dislike pompous lecture-type presentations, and tried as hard as I could to avoid such an approach. But I was astonished when I noticed by my watch that the hour was nearly up and it was time to break for coffee ... I heard from some of the attendees later that although they found the talk interesting and informative, they thought there could have been more time for questions, and there also should have been a chance for the listeners to get to know each other better, as many of them obviously share the same interests.

I will keep these comments in mind when preparing next year's talk, and will think of ways to make the event more interactive and social. But that there will be one is beyond doubt - I will have another interesting selection of prints from my collection, and will enjoy showing them and explaining why they are interesting! (2:00 Sunday afternoon, January 25 2004, if you want to mark your calendar!)

But look at this - I've spent nearly this whole report talking about the part of the exhibition not related to my own prints! What about my exhibition?

Well of course the newest Surimono Album was on display, and got plenty of attention from the visitors. After four years of work on that series, there really is a very interesting mix of prints included - probably not everybody likes them all, but there are plenty to suit everybody's taste.

Media coverage was very low again this time, but it was encouraging to have quite good attendance from 'friends of friends', as many of the collectors told their friends about the exhibition, and quite a number of these people came out.

Orders this year were better than last year, and it was a particular pleasure to receive 'first-time' orders from a number of people who have been coming to the exhibitions for some years 'just to see ...'. You certainly couldn't call these 'impulse' purchases!

All in all, it was a satisfactory show, and the only glum feelings I had came when I looked through the guest book later and saw the names of collectors who visited, but whom I failed to recognize when they came in the door! My apologies to you, and I'm sorry if my forgetfulness spoiled a chance for us to talk together. If this happens next year, please make sure to say something to myself or Sadako to jog my memory! See you next January!

Frequently Asked Questions

Those of you who do much browsing on the internet know that many websites have a section entitled F.A.Q., but those three letters might be quite puzzling to people who have not yet spent much time on-line. They stand for Frequently Asked Questions, and the idea is to provide answers to the most common queries.

Well I give a lot of interviews each year, and many similar questions do indeed come up time and again. Let's start a little 'column' where I can answer some of them!

Q. What is your nationality?

A. It is easy to answer this by opening a drawer and pulling out my two passports to show you - one Canadian, one British. I was born in England, but our family emigrated to Canada. Both these countries allow dual nationality, so when I became a Canadian citizen I maintained my British citizenship too. But perhaps the answer really should be more on the lines of "I don't really know anymore."

Considering that I left England when I was five, I can't really claim much knowledge of or feeling for the culture of that country. How it has changed in all those years! And now having been away from Canada for getting on for two decades, the same situation is developing there. Imagine a Japanese who has been overseas for that length of time - if he then returns to Japan he is still a Japanese, but how out of touch he would be with contemporary culture!

So 'on paper' you can think of me as either one, but in my own mind, I really don't know anymore. This is not a matter that concerns me very much ...

Q. You've been here a long time; will you become a Japanese citizen sometime?

A. I don't have any plans to make application for Japanese nationality, for a couple of reasons. First is that although this country is my home, and I have not the slightest intention of leaving, I don't particularly feel 'Japanese'. With the first thirty-odd years of my life spent in the west, my ways of thinking are just too 'different'. This country is just not like Canada or America - countries founded on immigration - where there is almost no such thing as a 'foreigner'. Here in Japan - because of the long isolation from the rest of the world -everybody who comes from someplace else is a 'foreigner', no matter what passport he carries. This way of thinking is not likely to change within our lifetimes ...

Another reason is that Japan - as is its right - demands that those who take Japanese nationality renounce any other nationalities, and despite what I just wrote in the answer above, it would be somewhat disturbing to me to be forced to do that.

More later ...

Sadako's Corner
"What for? Why?"

I still remember my mother saying to me when I was a small child, "What a noisy girl! Go and ask that question to your father!" My mother was always very busy, and I must have been an incessant pest. The reason I asked her so many questions was not that I was enthusiastic about learning things; it seems that I was mostly trying to demand that she pay attention to me.

As the years passed it became my turn to be a mother and to be asked many questions, "Why, Mom? What for?" As still more time went by I graduated from this stage too, and it seemed as though I had reached a stage of life where I was not bothered by questions. Of course it sometimes happened that I was curious about this or that and thought "Why?" but in most cases I just let it be, thinking "Oh, anyway it's OK." And eventually I just reach the conclusion that there wouldn't be any answer! Although that way of thinking could be taken as evidence of mental and physical weakness, perhaps indicating that I was losing vigor, I found it easier to live this way.

But then David turned up in the middle of this peaceful life! David, full of curiosity and unable to keep to himself wherever we are, in a train or strolling around ... "Interesting! " "Why is this ...?" "Isn't it strange that ..." He just can't stop asking these things. At first I tried to share his curiosity, but I gradually became wearied by it, and my responses have become cooler and sometimes far from sincere - "That is the Japanese way!" or "That's just the way it is!" - even though I admit this attitude is not so good. But even so, I still feel better when his comments are made to me rather than ...

The other day we went on a short trip to get away from our work for a while. We bought a very reasonable package that included air tickets as well as accommodation in a Japanese inn. Dinner on the second night was a special selection of fugu (puffer fish) - where the fish was served in a number of different ways, as sashimi, fried, and simmered in broth. David glanced around happily but then began to inspect the pieces of fried fish saying "Look Sadako, there are many tail parts! Here's one, and another one ... Just how many fish do we have here?" All of a sudden he asked the waiter "Excuse me, but is all this from just one fish?" The waiter hesitated a moment, but politely replied that he would check with the staff in the kitchen. A short time later, somebody who appeared to be a sort of manager came up to us, kneeled down politely, and said "Our restaurant uses Tiger fugu, and Tiger fugu is noted for ... Anyway, over at the restaurant in our main branch, there are many orders for the special sashimi from the Tiger fugu ... The remaining parts of the fish ..."


It's now been two full years since I made the move from the tiny 3DK apartment over in Hamura to this much larger house in Ome. On the actual moving day, the men from the moving company brought all the goods out of the truck and scattered them all over this place - room after room filled up with boxes and packages. It was impossible to believe that all that stuff had been able to fit in the apartment! This was an excellent demonstration of that universal rule that states: 'possessions expand to fill the space available' (just the same way that work expands to fill the time allotted for it.)

Bit by bit I got things organized and stowed away in good order. Many things that had been stored at the back of deep closets now came out to the light of day for the first time in years. Among these I 'discovered' a pile of boxes that contained back issues of this 'Hyakunin Issho' newsletter, and I now have to decide what to do with them all - hundreds and hundreds of them.

Might these be of some interest to current readers of this newsletter? If so, and you would like to read some of them, please just drop me a line letting me know which ones you would like, and I will be happy to send them to you. I don't need any payment for this of course, but if you sent some stamps for the postage it would help a bit ...

There are only a few copies of each of the very earliest issues (1989-1990), but there are plenty of copies of most of the rest, from 1991 onwards. Don't hesitate to ask for some if you want to read them ... after all, they will otherwise just get tossed out one day in the future, when this place finally starts to get stuffed tight!