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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #87 - Spring 2012
Contents of this Issue:

Welcome to the spring issue of the Hyakunin Issho newsletter! As usual, we have news from both Dave's own printmaking activities as well as the Mokuhankan publishing venture.

And as you can see by the photo presented here, the journey of making high-quality traditional Japanese woodblock prints can lead to some apparently strange places! My dissatisfaction with some of the tools currently available has led to this sort of scene. Read about it inside!

We'll also have a traditional spring year-end wrapup, covering last year's various activities, along with an introduction to a new face, the usual Sadako's Corner, and - turn the page, please! - the most important story in this issue ... the announcement of Dave's next subscription series.

Resistance is futile. Subscribe now!

'Arts of Japan'

In the previous issue of this Hyakunin Issho newsletter, I let drop the news that my next project will be another Hanga Treasure Chest, and as work is now well under way, I can make a more 'formal' announcement.

The set will be another series of 18 prints, in the same size and format as the previous 'Mystique of the Japanese Print' set. Here's what I wrote as an introduction when I set up the website for the new series a short time ago:

"During the course of the previous 'Mystique' series, we turned the Japanese traditional print to use in an investigation of its own history. This time, we are going to look around at the wider field of Japanese arts in general. And what a wonderfully wide field it is; there are few cultures on this planet that can boast of such a long and rich creative heritage! The people of these islands have been drawing ... carving ... painting ... cutting ... casting ... weaving ... and using any number of other techniques for creating beautiful objects for well over a thousand years, and the legacy of these centuries of activity is now so vast that it is difficult to know where to start! But start I will, and in each of the 18 prints in this series I will provide an introduction to one particular theme - bringing you a woodblock print that illustrates it in some interesting way. Major fields such as pottery, sculpture, bonsai, architecture, flower arranging, and painting will of course be represented, but I intend to poke around in quiet corners too, to bring you some restrained surprises."

As for the schedule, I have been in the habit in recent years of telling people that the prints will be issued at the pace of 'one a month', but as collectors of the previous series know by now, it just doesn't work that simply. Some of the prints are fairly simple, with a restricted range of colours, but other are fiercely complex and take much longer to produce. So this time, I'm simply going to say that each print will arrive somewhere around 4~6 weeks after the previous one.

Just as with all my print series, I am neither announcing nor displaying images of the prints that will be appearing in the set (most of them are indeed, yet to be decided). It's all part of the game - enjoying the surprise when you open the package and see for the first time the print that will be sharing your desk space for the next month.

As you can see in the accompanying photo, I'm using a wooden display/storage case for the series again this time. (You can read more about this in the next section ...)

The 'monthly' subscription cost for this print series is a very reasonable $37.50 per print (see the website for details on payment in other currencies), and the series may also be purchased as a 'Gift Subscription', with the invoices going to you, and the prints being sent to a recipient of your choice.

I'm looking forward to a most enjoyable couple of years of work on this set - I love working on this sort of delicate print! - and I very much hope you will join me for the journey!


One of the 'no compromise' positions I have taken with my printmaking in the 24 years since I sent out the first print in the massive 100 Poets Series is that I do not simply send 'loose' prints to my subscribers. Although I of course recognize that the prints themselves are the 'main attraction', I feel that the way they are presented - and protected - is nearly as important. I myself own any number of prints from long ago which show far more damage from the ravages of time than was necessary. Most print publishers in the past (and some still today) packaged their prints in low quality materials, practically guaranteeing that they wouldn't last very long.

Right from the beginning I have worked hard - and gone to considerable expense - to ensure my prints will have as long a life as possible. The packaging is archival, and as long as each set is opened 'now and again' to get a dose of fresh air, they will last for a great many years.

My Treasure Chests follow this same philosophy, with the added bonus of incorporating a way to display the prints as well as store them. The package for the original Treasure Chest some seven years ago was made to my design in China, while the wooden box for the recent Mystique series was made (again, to my design) by a karakuri workshop in Odawara. This time, in an attempt to ratchet the quality up to a still higher level, I am making the storage boxes right here in my own workshop.

Now there are indeed only 24 hours in each day (much to my regret!), so I am not attempting to do this entirely by myself. I have hired an assistant for the job - Mr. Yasuhiro Lee. He is a young man with an interest in printmaking, and eagerly accepted the challenge of working together with me to take a stack of raw paulownia wood and transform it into beautiful print storage cases.

I have designed a new type of case for this series, and as I write, we have been busy with planning and preparations for a few weeks, and that stage is nearly complete. We have built most of the jigs and tools that we are going to need, and full-scale production will have begun by the time you read this.

It would certainly be a lot easier for me to simply order these from an outside supplier, and certainly much cheaper if I chose one in China, but when I think of how much time and effort goes into making the prints themselves, and how long they are going to last - upwards of 200 years! - I think our hard work on the case making will be amply rewarded.

I hope you agree!

Mokuhankan Tools

Although most woodworking tools last a very long time, the blades for a traditional woodblock print carver's main knife wear down through use very quickly, and the (professional) carver is thus constantly purchasing new ones. Because of this pattern of frequent replacement, both myself and Tsunehisa Sato (the young carver who has been doing work for Mokuhankan) have been keenly aware of the current sad level of craftsmanship in this field. The blades we receive have been getting worse and worse over time, and in recent years the quality has dropped to a level where we find ourselves tossing out as many blades as we use.

I myself had simply been accepting this as a 'can't be helped' type of situation, but Sato-san was more persistent in his search for something better, and eventually located a workshop run by a blacksmith who 1) is not willing to let his quality follow that same downward path, and 2) is willing to accept customer requests for different steel formulations for specific purposes. They are a very small outfit, and because their prices are higher than other shops - a direct reflection of the materials they use and the time they take to make each blade - they are not having an easy time of it these days.

The workshop owner and Sato-san hit it off; the blacksmith was happy to have a (potential) customer who spoke the same 'language' and who understood the difference between good and bad blades (and who seemed willing to pay for it), and he made some samples, one of which Sato-san passed on to me for testing.

I was very impressed. The blade took an extremely sharp edge, and yet was not prone to quick breaking, as most 'sharp' steels are. It was also possible to work for much longer before having to put it back on the sharpening stone. As to how this magic is performed, there is really no particular mystery. The appropriate levels of carbon to be added to iron to create any particular type of steel have been known for a long time; as are the myriad details of the process: what temperature for the steel, how long to hold it at that temperature, how hard to strike during forging, how quickly/slowly to cool it, and a thousand other factors through all of the subsequent steps of annealing, shaping and tempering. These things are not 'secret', and the raw knowledge of how to select exactly those methods that will result in a blade that has the desired characteristics, are known. Any competent craftsman 'could' do this. But these days, few do.

After testing the sample that Sato-san brought me, I was no longer willing to accept what I had been getting from other blade makers, so he and I began talking about how to move forward with this. One thing led to another, and we thought that an obvious course of action to protect our own supply of knives moving into the future, would be for Mokuhankan - which to this point had been dealing in prints only - to become a tool supplier too. So we decided to take the plunge, and we are now announcing the first set of Mokuhankan carving tools.

The blacksmith provides the blades to us in 'raw' form - bare pieces of steel, formed and sharpened to our specifications, but otherwise unusable. We have designed our own handles for them, based on the traditional patterns, and are making them - right here in our own building - with a level of quality that we hope matches that of the steel itself. We know that tools are 'utilitarian' objects, but we want them to be beautiful too.

We use yamazakura - mountain cherry - for the handles of the tools. It is strong and beautiful, and we couldn't resist having the tool itself made from the same wood that is on the bench at the other end of the cutting action!

Our sets of tools come in a paulownia wood box, which we are making (of course!) A small booklet is fitted into a pocket inside the case, containing information on the tools, their background, and their maintenance. Each box has a label pasted inside the lid, on which is printed the maker's information, the date of manufacture, the name of the person for whom this particular set was prepared, and a serial number.

So there you have it. We are very happy to have found this workshop, and are very excited about being able to take their blades and turn them into beautiful tools for woodblock printmakers all over the world. We are extremely proud of these tools, are now using them ourselves exclusively in our daily professional work, and hope that you will consider giving some of them a good home! We are in the final stages of preparation, and the first sets will be available from our website 'any day now'!

2011 Roundup

Every spring issue of this newsletter brings another 'State of the Union Enterprise' update story. These usually begin with an overview of the various media appearances I have made, then cover the exhibition, and wrap up with a capsule financial report. Well, the story this time is going to be pretty short: not only did I not hold an exhibition last year, I had a complete media 'shut out' too. (The days of 'foreigner doing something Japanese = automatic coverage' are long gone!)

But the third part of the story I can bring you, and it has some interesting twists this year, mostly due to all the new ventures getting under way. Let's cut to the chase - did I lose money last year, or come out ahead?

Both! For my subscription printmaking, I shipped 1,670 prints, and the numbers looked pretty good (figures in yen, of course):

  • In: 5,492,127
  • Out: 2,433,363
  • Profit: 3,048,764

Unfortunately, the numbers for the Mokuhankan venture looked rather different! We sent 236 prints and 267 eBooks, amounting to:

  • In: 1,082,057
  • Out: 2,034,267
  • Loss: (-) 952,210

This is actually, all according to plan, as I described in this annual report exactly a year ago; with the subscription printmaking doing well, I would use the accumulating resources to get the Mokuhankan venture moving forward.

The first part of that plan - spending money - is working perfectly. The more than 2 million yen I spent nearly all went to the young people who are working with me on the various new projects. Over the course of the next year or so, I certainly hope that the outflow is followed by the second part of the plan - earning it back!

There are two reasons though, why it may not be all that easy. The first is that the very nature of these new ventures involves large expenses up front, followed by - if all goes well - a slow and steady income stream over a very long time period. To do that sort of thing, you have to be pretty good friends with a banker, and I count no such people among my close acquaintances! We're financing everything from my own pocket.

And that brings me to the second reason - with my subscription print sales being the main source of financing for all this, it is vital that they do well, but because I have been spending so much time with the Mokuhankan staff, I fall farther and farther behind on my own publishing schedules, and the subscription income suffers. I shipped the final print in the Mystique series in January, but the first one in the new Arts series won't go out until mid/late April. My income in February/March was nearly nil.

But not to complain! As I said, this is all proceeding according to plan. None of us can see the future, and we may get to where we intend to go, we may get to some different place, or we may fail completely. But we're having fun, we feel that we're adding value to society, and we're being considerate of resources. What else is there?

If you would like to support our activities, the best way to do so is with a subscription to the current 'Arts of Japan' print series. That's the 'base' on which all the rest is standing at present. Thank you!

Sadako's Corner


One of the joys of early spring is the smell of flowers. I usually pick flowers from my yard and put them here and there in the house to enjoy the scents. Flowers which finally get to bloom after surviving the cold winter always feel so vivid and full of vitality.

Along with enjoying flowers from my garden, I also keep some potted plants indoors. Among these are some Dendrobium which I have kept for many years. The leaves are not so attractive, but I carefully tend them through the year waiting for those few days in March when they bears lovely small flowers.

Even while still in mid-winter, I eagerly search these plants for indications of tiny buds, and when I finally find some I get so excited that I'm afraid the flowers may feel so embarrassed they will fade!

A few weeks later the buds have become larger, but no fragrance is yet detectable. Even once they begin to open and I bring my nose almost close enough to touch, there is yet no scent. It is only when I have almost given up hope that I find myself surrounded by that intoxicating smell! "This is it!" I close my eyes and can't move for a while.

The peak of the fragrance doesn't last long. I enjoy the lovely flowers for a few weeks and then return to the routine of taking care of the unattractive leaves the rest of the year, just for that fragrant moment.

Although I can not afford to live a luxurious life I strongly resist cheap fake "fragrances." These days many such products are available, designed to envelop people and their homes with nice "fragrances". I personally don't like these. I can't find any reason to resist the natural odors that emanate from our daily activities. I feel somewhat unnatural if there is no detectable smell from a person, and such natural odors are far better than chemical "fragrances." If you open your windows every morning to let fresh air flow through rooms, and change into clean clothes every day, there will be no distasteful smells, especially in this modern society where every household has an automatic washing machine. We are living creatures and not robots with no senses.

The other day I went to a bookstore and saw a paperback titled something like "How to Market Un-needed Items." This is exactly my point! I am sorry if you are one of those making a living selling artificial fragrances, but I intensely dislike ads that threaten us – "Hey! You smell bad! You will be disliked by people!"

Eh? Question? How is Dave's smell? Um … Well… I don't know …


I mentioned on the back page of the previous newsletter that I would be attending the upcoming Design Festa in May, and here are the details:

  • Event: Design Festa #35
  • Dates: May 12~13 (weekend)
  • Location: Tokyo Big Site (West Hall)
  • Times: 11am to 7pm each day
  • Our booth: G-276 G-277

I will be displaying side-by-side with Kaori Seki, the young designer who created the images for the senshafuda prints I published last year. We don't have another collaborative project planned just yet, but who knows ... while spending the weekend at the festival with her, perhaps some interesting ideas will present themselves!

I can heartily recommend that you visit the Festa, especially if you have never been to one before. It's an absolutely madcap experience of design/art/performance/ambiance, in an 'anything goes' environment. I'm looking forward to being part of it again this time.

See you there?