Visit to Mokuhankan - in the year 201x
Posted by Dave Bull at 8:34 PM, January 1, 2011 [Permalink]
The following (extended) post is a way for us here at Mokuhankan to try and communicate to you some of our ideas and concepts for the kind of business we want to create. Just how far we will succeed in turning this vision into reality remains to be seen ...
November 201?. A busy street in Tokyo, on the sidewalk outside Mokuhankan (moku han kan), the woodblock printmaking shop/studio run by long-time Tokyo resident David Bull. Dave will be giving an interview today to a reporter from a media organization, and this person has just called on their cell phone to say that they are on the way from the nearby subway station. Dave has stepped outside to wait, and the guest now arrives. They exchange name cards, as tradition dictates, and today's conversation then begins ...
Dave: Thank you for coming along today; I'm glad that you could find time to visit us. Shall we go inside?
Guest: Just a minute please. Before we do I'd like to ask you about the sign!
Dave: (laughs) Yes, everybody seems to be interested in that. Here in Japan, everybody knows what a baren is for, so what better symbol could there possibly be for Mokuhankan?
Guest: Well yes, but not many of us have ever seen a three-meter wide one before! It looks a bit dangerous, hanging up there on the front of the building!
Dave: Oh, there's no danger; we made it from fiberglass, and it's quite light. Our major concern was making sure it was fastened securely enough that it would survive major storms. So far, so good ... And it certainly does its job - every person who passes down this street knows we are here, and what we do!
Anyway, please come in ... It's still early, so the shop hasn't become too busy yet. We should be able to have a good interview.
Guest: May I take photographs inside?
Dave: Sure. No problem at all. Nothing 'secret' here!
They go into the building. As they come in from the street, they enter the main 'shop'. Along one side is the counter area, and the cheery clerk busy there calls out the traditional 'Irasshaimase' greeting as they come in.
At first glance, this seems something a bit like a record shop (back when there were such things!) - browser bins made of light-coloured wood are along some of the walls, and a few customers are flipping through the items in them, now and then pulling one of the flat packages up for inspection.
On the wall above each section are some prints illustrating that category, to help people find what they might be looking for.
Dave: Well, here is the most public part of our business, the retail shop. As you can see, we have a very wide selection of prints here for viewing. They are basically organized into groups, as you can see by those signs and samples: ukiyo-e classics are of course a mainstay - landscapes, actors, beauties, etc.; next to them we have the kacho-e - the nature prints. But it's not just reproductions of old designs here; a large section over there is devoted to original work from contemporary designers who work together with our craftsmen.
Guest: It's a very attractive space, very light and airy, and so many planters! I must confess that when I heard I would be coming to visit a 'print shop' today, I had expected a kind of old and dusty used book shop!
Dave: No, nothing ‘dusty’ here. We might be working with a very old-fashioned technology, and one of those shelf units over there is dedicated to actual old prints dating back to the Meiji-era, but we try to keep things very clean and contemporary!
They walk further into the shop. Dave directs them to an area where a wide horizontal band of shoji screens takes up part of the wall at chest height. In front of this is a sloped 'shelf', and in front of this are more browser bins. A customer is pulling items from the bins one-by-one, placing them on the shelf where they are illuminated by the soft light passing through the screen.
Dave: Please take a look at this - once you understand what this is for, you will understand one of the main concepts about our business. Go ahead, pull out a print - at random if you wish - and put it on the shelf.
The guest flips through some prints, and takes out an image of a dragon bursting through the clouds, first looking at it in the package, then placing it on the angled shelf, as instructed.
Guest: Oh! Look at that! It becomes completely different once you put it down. I can see the embossing, the texture of the paper ... it's beautiful! What's happening!
Dave: It's all about the light. As I mentioned, we consider this to be the most important thing that we can show people - woodblock prints made in the traditional Japanese way are not simply 'pictures'. Of course the image content is important, but it is the whole 'object' itself that is what you really want to be looking at and drinking in.
The purpose of this shelf - with the lighting arranged behind it - is to let the print be seen in the same way that it would have been viewed back in 'the old days' - under gentle, horizontal light. Seen that way, these prints become such beautiful objects; nobody can forget this once they have seen it!
Guest: Well, if I learn nothing else today, this alone will have been worth the 'price of admission' here! (smiles)
Dave: Now you're getting it! And you know how to begin your story, don't you!
Guest: It's kind of an interesting point, but it leads me to another question - when people hang these prints up on the wall at home, surely that beauty would be lost, wouldn't it?
Dave: Yes! That's why you won't find any frames for sale here at all. We know of course that some people do purchase prints from us and have them framed. They are looking for a kind of decoration for their home, and we shouldn't complain that they have chosen one of our works. But look over here, this is how we are trying to encourage people to keep their prints.
Dave moves over to a display area against one wall. It is backed by bookshelves, and on the counter in front of the shelves are a number of small wooden boxes. Some of these have an angled stand on top, on which are placed woodblock prints.
Dave: Here are some of the ways that we recommend for print storage and display. We have albums, portfolios, and storage cases. The basic idea behind them all is that the prints should mostly be kept out of sight.
Guest: Out of sight! But what's the point in having them, then?
Dave: Well of course I don't mean permanently hidden. What we intend is that the prints not be on display all the time; any object that is in permanent view just becomes part of the 'background' - kind of like wallpaper actually - and loses its attractiveness. But if the prints are usually kept in storage, and then brought out for display and inspection on an occasional basis, either at the appropriate season, or to show a visitor, etc., they will remain fresh and interesting forever!
Guest: Ah, like in the old days, when people kept artworks in the kura storage building!
Dave: The same basic idea, but you don't need to be a wealthy landowner with a old kura; a normal bookshelf will do! Look up here on the shelf. Do you see that little wooden box among the books? Please take it down and have a look.
The guest puts down his notebook, reaches up to the shelf and pulls down the box. He's not quite sure what to do with it.
Dave: Don't worry; it's not all that fragile. Open it up ...
The guest pulls open a wooden drawer, and begins to try to figure out what this is all about. Looking at one of the other displays on the table, he understands what this must be, and over the next minute or so, succeeds in setting up the display stand, and putting one of the prints onto it.
Guest: What a clever little item! There are many prints inside, each one with some kind of explanation pamphlet, and the box converts into a display stand!
Dave: Yes. This particular set is one of our Treasure Chest series. This one has 18 prints inside, a mix of themes and images from different seasons. I see you've put a spring scene up there, but we're now in November. (they laugh) But you get the idea. This would go on a desk, a coffee table, or perhaps in a Japanese home it would be placed in the entranceway, where guests would see the print as they came in. But any particular print would not be on display all that long, and certainly not long enough to become 'stale'. You can either change for another one, or just put the whole box back onto the bookshelf, to await another occasion.
In addition to the Treasure Chests, we have many other sets of prints available. Here is one of our Surimono Albums, here is a set of classical ukiyo-e prints, the one over here is from our 'Famous Calligraphers' series, this is a set based on the haiku poetry of Matsuo Basho, and down there on that low shelf in that row of dark blue cases is our most expensive item, the complete set of 100 prints of the Hyakunin Isshu poets.
Guest: Ah yes, that's the series that you yourself made all those years ago. It took you, what, ten years, is that right?
Dave: Yes, that's correct. But my own edition was sold out a long time ago. The prints here are printed from my blocks by some of the Mokuhankan craftsmen. Instead of my original studio seal, these have our Mokuhankan embossments.
These print sets can all be purchased on a 'subscription' basis. People place an order for the set, and get the storage box along with the first print, and they then receive the rest of the prints in the set one by one at intervals after that, usually one per month. So the pleasure is extended over a year or more ... It's also common for people to buy subscriptions for friends or associates as gifts. Our many subscription series provide our main 'bread and butter'; we could never survive by selling prints one by one to random customers off the street, or on the website, but the stable income from subscriptions provides a base on which everything else can hang.
But anyway, I think you now get the point behind these cases and portfolios - our beautiful prints are for a quiet and 'slow' enjoyment.
As they turn away from the display counter they move to an 'island' in the center of the room. At one end is a modern wide screen computer, showing images of - we assume - woodblock prints.
Dave: Here's another way that you can shop for our prints - online. This computer is showing our website, where all of the prints you see in this shop can be viewed at large scale and ordered. We ship all over the world. Luckily, woodblock prints aren't so heavy, even with secure packaging, so the prices remain reasonable.
They move around the island behind the computer station, to another group of browser bins. These contain smaller prints than those we have seen so far.
Dave: This section accounts for a great deal of our business. Right from the beginning we've made it a policy to have beautiful work available at a very wide range of prices, and these smaller prints are very popular. And please note that these postcard prints are not offset printing - everything you see here is an actual woodblock print. A lot of the prints in this section are pre-packaged as Gift Prints too, with special wrapping.
Just behind the place where they are standing, the displays are of a different type. Instead of the browser bins containing prints, a series of glassed-in shelves stand against the wall.
Dave: Here is another important part of our business - our line of printmaking tools - knives, brushes and barens. Over the years, I grew increasingly frustrated with the quality of the tools available to me - or lack of quality, I should say. In the ‘old days’ when there were hundreds of craftsmen working in this field, there was a concomitant number of tool suppliers - some poor, some average, some excellent. But that has pretty much all disappeared, and the stuff on the market these days can’t hold a candle to what was once available. We tried to push some of our suppliers to make products of a better quality, but eventually just gave up in frustration and began to make things ourselves. It started with sizing the printing paper, which I had to teach myself how to do. We then found a blacksmith who could supply us with good blades, with which we have created our own line of carving tools. A step at a time we have learned how to make most of the tools we need for ourselves, and have found of course that these have value to other people too. Would-be printmakers are now very lucky - they have available to them a range of high-quality tools that hasn’t been available for a great many years!
At this point they are interrupted by the young clerk from behind the counter. She is carrying some kind of printed out list, and is pulling prints from the bins and putting them in trays on a rolling cart she is pushing. She apologizes to them for getting in their way ...
Dave: (speaking to her) How are this morning's orders? Was there much activity in the online shop last night?
Clerk: Pretty much an average day, I think. It's the usual mix: a lot of these small Gift Prints, a scattering of medium prints, and a few of the larger ones.
Dave: How about the 'Trainee Premium'? What percent of the orders included that?
Clerk: About half, just as usual.
Dave: (turns back to the guest as the clerk resumes her work) I guess this is as good a time as any to suggest that you take a look at the price label for one of these prints. Not your typical price tag, I think!
The guest pulls a print from the browser bin in front of them, and turns it over to inspect the price label on the back. It is indeed 'different', being quite long. One's first impression is that it looks like one of those price 'labels' you see in the window of a new car in the showroom.
At the top is the price, in large type so that it is clearly visible to the shop customers. Below that, in list form, are figures showing the amount (and percentage) that will be paid to the various craftsmen who worked on this print, along with their names. This particular print has an entry for a carver, who is being paid 10% of the retail price, and a printer, who in this case is receiving 20%.
Another entry on the list shows the actual cost of the handmade paper, with the name of the craftsman family who supplied it. But it is a special section at the bottom of the label that catches the attention of Dave's guest - the 'Trainee Premium' that had come up in the previous conversation with the clerk.
Guest: (reading from the label) "Trainee Premium: If you agree, an amount of 150 yen (5%) will be added to the purchase price of this print at the register. Revenue from this (completely optional) surcharge will be added to the fund that Mokuhankan uses to support trainees in their earliest stages, before they become apprentices, and before they are capable of producing work that can be sold." OK, I think you are going to have to explain this a bit more ...
Dave: Sure. Way back in the old days, the woodblock printmaking technique was used all over society for all kinds of work, not just 'art' stuff. So in addition to the complex printing jobs done by the experienced men, there was always a lot of very simple work to do as well: decorative wrapping papers, fancy envelopes, etc.. Jobs like that were perfect for the beginners, and provided them both with training, and with income. But these days all that kind of work is done by mechanical means (printing presses), so the whole structure of the master/apprentice system has had the underpinnings kicked out. With no work available for beginners, how on earth can they be supported during the years that it takes to get good enough to do most of the work that you see around here? We 'solve' that problem in two ways: one, we ask our clients to help out by means of this surcharge, which - as you heard - about half of them are willing to pay, and two, we actually do put some of the trainees' work out on the market. Take a look at these items over here.
Dave moves over to a nearby browser bin, and pulls out some of the prints for inspection. They are all quite simple, with relatively few colours, but quite attractive. He also shows a package of paper with a pattern printed on it - woodblock printed letter paper. The section is full of varied items: place mats, book covers, block printed wall calendars, and other similar decorative items.
Dave: Look at the prices.
Guest: (doing so) These are incredibly cheap! Just 100 yen for that calendar? Surely the paper alone must have cost that much!
Dave: Yes, I'm sure it did, perhaps more. But this is the only way to get those people trained; keep them busy at the printing benches! They certainly aren't earning much money from these simple jobs - because the prices are so low - but they are learning, and at the same time getting satisfaction from producing something useful. The income from this work, combined with the revenue from the Trainee Premium surcharges, which we put toward their base salary, keeps them afloat. As time goes by, and they get more skilled, we start to assign them printing jobs for our normal products - working in tandem with experienced printers at first, and then on their own. Let's head upstairs to the workroom, and meet some of them!
Directly opposite the front entrance through which Dave and his guest had come is a wide staircase; they begin to go up. It leads to what the guest at first assumes is a mezzanine, but which opens out quite a long way back.
The workroom is very airy and spacious - skylit - and all the furnishings and structures are a light wood finish. There is greenery everywhere, with planters being 'built-in' around (and over!) many of the work areas. Music is playing - something with a light Brazilian beat. It is clear from the layout that there is a 'zone' where we are permitted to walk through the shop to observe the people at work - the workstations are set behind a low railing which defines how far we can approach. Some of the stations have a large mirror above them - just like the ones in TV cooking programs - to help us see what is going on.
Dave and his guest head over to the left side of the shop, where there are a couple of printing stations side-by-side. Each printer is seated on a slightly elevated platform, with a printing block on a slanted board in front at waist level. Mounted on the low railing between us and each of the workers is a panel with an image of the print this craftsman is working on, along with notes about the process. A message scribbled on a 'whiteboard' section of the panel gives information on what is going on this morning.
Each panel also has a 'flippable' sign. Dave shows the guest both sides: 'Please don't disturb' or 'It's OK to talk to me'. As it happens, both of these workers have the sign flipped to the 'don't disturb' side, so Dave simply nods a greeting to them, and turns to his guest.
Dave: You know, I encourage them to keep those signs flipped the other way as much as they can, but it's simply not always possible. A lot of this work needs pretty steady concentration, and they have to be allowed to work in peace. But a few of them (especially the girls, interestingly) have no problem communicating while they work, nor do I usually, so they make themselves available. And the customers usually respect the situation, and don't make a nuisance of themselves.
They turn and inspect the overall layout of the room. There are two more 'paired' printing stations, making six in all, but only four of them are in use this morning.
Dave: I think you can get the basic idea: there are stations for each person to do his own printing, and a common area for them all to share. Over there, where you see the sink and countertop - that's the 'wet zone' where pigments are mixed, brushes washed, etc. Next to it are the large glass cabinets full of pigments, glues, and all the other printing supplies. The large table in the central area is where they do such jobs as cutting and sizing paper, drying the finished prints, and other work that requires a wider space than the individual stations provide.
One of the stations - that one over there that isn't in use this morning - is specially outfitted with a hood and air extraction. That's used whenever anybody is printing with mica powder or metal dust; stuff that we don't want floating around in the air.
Guest: Is that a camera that I see mounted over the workstations?
Dave: Yes. Those are video cameras, and they are all 'live webcams', accessible through the website any time that somebody is working. 'Big Brother' is watching them, but of course they don't mind ...
Every five minutes or so a small musical tone is heard from somewhere in the background, followed by a small set of beeps, as though somebody in another room was using a touch-tone telephone for a moment. These are apparently being ignored by everybody, but on one of these occasions, the printers all look up after hearing the tone, and give a little cheer, apparently aiming this at one of their number, who looks both pleased and a bit sheepish.
Dave looks at the Guest to see if he understands, but the Guest has no idea, and simply looks quizzically back at him.
Dave: It's just for fun. Our computerized order system - tracking both the register at the counter downstairs and the online orders - gives out those little 'chimes' whenever orders are received. They mean nothing to the general person, but they are actually coded by tone, different for each craftsman, and are telling us what kind of prints were in the order. That last one was carrying the information that a sale has just been made of a full set of prints made by the printer over there ... a very nice order!
They move through a little gate in the railing, over to a table and chairs in the common area, where they take seats. They sit and talk while the work goes on around them - the four printers continuing with their rhythmic work, and two carvers, who we haven't 'met' yet, busy at their own stations across the room.
The faint bell tones continue to chime now and then in the background. Customers come up the stairs from the shop, and stroll around watching the work. Not all the craftsmen have the 'Do not Disturb' sign posted, and the visitors sometimes ask questions about what they are seeing.
The clerk from downstairs comes up and brings Dave and his guest a tea tray. They continue their conversation:
Dave: The printers here are all on a kind of 'ladder' system. We begin our training with people who come to us with very low, or zero, skills. These are nearly all quite young people, and they are not supporting a family. They are given work of the type you saw in that section of the shop downstairs, quite rudimentary, simple enough such that they will soon be able to produce saleable products. Just as with all the craftsmen in this building, they are paid a % of the retail price, although for them, this is quite low, because the products on which they work are sell for such low prices, as you saw. But they get by. They are kept very busy, but they get by. They cannot choose their own work, and all their jobs are assigned by the workshop manager, although they are free to stay and use the work stations after hours for their own projects, should they wish. None of the prints in the rest of the store - other than those in that special section you saw - were touched by beginner trainees.
But once their skills begin to develop, they begin to share in the normal Mokuhankan printing jobs, always working at first with somebody else on the same job. If they progress well, at some point they are good enough to leave behind the trainee-level work, and take their share in the normal work of the shop. As they move up the (imaginary) ladder, they get a chance to work on projects that will retail for a higher price, thus allowing them to earn more. Most of their work is still assigned by the managers in accordance with their skills, but they are also allowed to request to be included in suitable jobs from the list of pending projects that is on display in the workshop (we will see this later). At some point, they begin to work on projects completely by themselves. We of course, always monitor their work very closely.
The girl over there - the one who was the recipient of that little cheer for the sale of the prints - has progressed quite quickly up our ladder, and she is still so fresh at this game that it's still a bit of a thrill for her to hear that work she produced has sold.
After some years of work and practice, the printers who have developed a good all-round skill set - meaning they can work accurately and quickly - can earn quite good money here. At that level of course, they are free to make their own choice from the lists of jobs available at any given time.
An interesting aspect to this is the fact that all the percentages and numbers are out in the open for anybody to see and understand. The 'royalty' payments to the craftsmen are all printed on the price tags, as you have seen, and everybody knows how much everybody else is making. Have you visited that section of the Mokuhankan website where the craftsmen are introduced? Did you click through to the section that lists the jobs they have done, and the ones they are working on? You can even get a read-out of the royalty payments made to each person. We've actually got customers who watch our online catalogue for new work coming up by their favourite craftsmen here! Then they watch on the webcams while it gets printed ... these people have fans!
Guest: Well, that's certainly a different story from what I hear it was like back in the old days. I understand the craftsmen were never credited.
Dave: In the mid-20th century some of the publishers began to put carver and printer names on the prints, but back in Edo or Meiji it was basically unheard of. But from our point of view, these people deserve just as much credit as the designers, and on all the prints that are large enough for it, their names are embossed too.
Guest: You explained that the printers are paid at a kind of 'piece work' rate, but how does that work for the carvers who cut the blocks?
Dave: The standard procedure for print publishers has been to pay the carver a flat rate for a block set, based on how complicated and/or time consuming the particular job is. The publisher then owns the blocks, and can use them to make many many prints over the subsequent years. The carver receives no further payment. Cherry blocks are actually very strong, and will last for a long time if treated carefully. So a good block set for a popular print design is a real ‘gold mine’ for a publisher. But we do things a bit differently - although at first it was very difficult to get carvers to agree to it.
Our experienced carvers are paid like the designers - on a royalty basis, earning a percentage for each copy printed from blocks that they have carved. For every single print that leaves this shop, not only is the printer getting paid, but the carver is getting paid. (And if it’s a contemporary design, of course the designer is getting paid.)
In the case of the very inexperienced carvers, it’s a more difficult situation. Printers can be given simple jobs, ‘culling’ acceptable copies from the batch, but culling isn’t possible with a set of carved blocks - they are either usable, or they’re not. So beginner carvers are paid a base level hourly rate (with most of the money coming from the Trainee Premium we talked about earlier). Only when the blocks they have carved actually get into production, do they begin to earn royalty from them.
This kind of system is a bit of a plus/minus for carvers, which is why the older ones didn’t want to play along at first; they get less money up front at the completion of any particular job, because their first payment is based on the first batch of prints we pull, and that may only be a hundred copies or so. But the other side of the coin of course, is that when a design sells well and is reprinted, they are paid again at that time. And this never ends! We continue to pay them a percentage of every print pulled from that block set, no matter how many years have passed.
Guest: Why would you have set up such an arrangement? It must be costing Mokuhankan more overall for carving costs than under the traditional arrangement.
Dave: It is. And for popular items, it is costing us much more. But we just see it as the fairest way to handle the situation. And there is another factor lurking in the background here - carving is a much more difficult job than printing. Although they both need quite a lot of skill to do properly, it is an unavoidable fact that it takes a far longer time for a youngster to get 'good' at carving, than it does for printing. We are very concerned about our future supply of carvers, and in response to this - simple supply and demand, really - we up the ante, and pay them well.
Guest: So that's the system for the people making the prints; what about those who design them? You said you had contemporary work too ...
Dave: All of the people who contribute 'hands-on' to making these prints share in the proceeds when they sell. The same 'royalty' policy applies to designers, in the case of the contemporary work we have in our catalogue. None of them are paid flat fees for their designs; they too get a percentage for each copy printed. There are artists out there who will have nothing to do with us, either they won't work for a percentage, or they want us to limit the editions, something we absolutely will never do. Prints are for enjoying, not for investing.
And all these costs are listed on the price tag for every print in the shop, as you saw downstairs. We've found that people really enjoy seeing that their payment for a print is going directly to the people responsible for making it.
At this point in their conversation they are interrupted by a young woman who has come into the workroom and approached their table. Dave stands up, introduces her to his guest, and asks her to give a short overview of her work. It turns out that she is the manager of the workroom, responsible for ordering the paper and woodblocks (long in advance of need) along with all the other supplies, and also handles the assignments of jobs, distributing the work among the craftsmen in accordance with their skills (and their seniority). She observes the work as it progresses, and is ultimately responsible for the quality of the finished products.
She also works closely with the manager of the store downstairs, who studies inventory levels, considers seasonal factors, and decides when (and to what quantity) each design should be reprinted.
She then talks with Dave for a minute, about some business or other, but a voice comes over the building intercom system, paging her; she is wanted in the shop downstairs. After she leaves, the guest turns to Dave and laughs.
Guest: While the two of you were talking, I was just sitting here looking around and couldn't help but notice that sign hanging up there - the one on the panel facing the craftsmen, where customers can't see it. Is that for real?
Dave: Oh yes, but I do have to admit that when new craftsmen coming to join us first see it they certainly don't know what to think. It's not very 'Japanese' is it?
"It is the goal of every one of you to make me into the 'worst' craftsman in this building! And I'm not kidding. Dave."
Guest: But why would you say such a thing?
Dave: I really have no time for that tradition here of extreme respect for a sensei when it is carried to the point where there can't be the slightest criticism or challenge to his ideas. I'm very good at what I do, but I don't want these people to be intimidated by that, or to 'hang back' at all; I want them to step forward and challenge me with their skills, and with their ideas. It's difficult for them sometimes, and to help get the point across, I never let them call me 'sensei'. I'm Dave. And at the meeting this evening you'll see another facet of how we push them to push me!
Dave and his guest now go back out into the public area of the workshop, walking over to the carving stations. There are two people working in this area today; Dave greets them, and chats about their work for a short time. He then turns back to his guest.
Dave: It's not so apparent today, because they are both working on small detail at the moment, but this part of the shop is sometimes noisy. They use mallets and chisels to clear out wide areas of wood, and that can be quite bothersome for people nearby. That's why they are separated from the printers, and you perhaps hadn't noticed, but those planters there - the ones with the vertical slats - are positioned to act as a kind of sound barrier; when he is ready to do some vigorous hammer work he simply pulls down that lever at the side there, and the slats in the whole row all close, helping damp down the sound. We also make sure that they use chisels without steel handles, as those create too much noise.
Anyway, I think it's time we headed back downstairs. There is a lot more to show you, and I want to end up at our final stop before the lunch rush begins!
Dave and his guest go back down the stairs into the shop, which is now considerably busier than before. A number of people - including a group of chattering foreigners - have come out of a ‘back room’ somewhere in the building, and are now browsing in the shop. As two clerks tend to this group, the manager who had been called downstairs a few minutes ago is sitting in a small consultation area, talking with a couple of ladies. They are from a poetry study group that meets at a community center, and are here to place an order for the Mokuhankan craftsmen to create a custom surimono containing their poems, with illustrations being provided by a couple of the ladies in the group. This part of the business has been growing rapidly in recent years, and there has been talk in those circles of initiating a national competition for the best such surimono each year, but this is something that the Mokuhankan managers are not particularly enthusiastic about, as it would mean that all of their customers for these items would be commissioning them at the same time, an impossible burden for the craftsmen ...
Dave and his guest walk back through the shop, go behind the counter, and pass through a doorway that takes them into the company office area.
Dave: OK, here we are - behind the scenes! Looks pretty much like any other office, I guess.
This is a blatant lie. These offices are just as attractive as the workroom upstairs. Although we are in the lower level, and there are no skylights, this space also is open and airy, and there is greenery everywhere. There are no cubicles, but each person's personal space is defined by planted enclosures, allowing a balance between privacy and open communication.
Guest: Is it perhaps a bit silly to ask if you perhaps own shares in a garden shop?
Dave: No, not me ... And I myself don't have much to do with those plants. A green thumb I don't have! But yes, when I was putting together the design concepts for this place, I was very emphatic in my instructions to the space designer - I wanted the antithesis of the typical Japanese office, with its rows of steel grey desks facing each other. Who would possibly want to spend their days in an environment like that! I want our people to look forward to getting here every morning, not to feel like they are going to prison!
Anyway, what we have here is quite an 'inter-disciplinary' office. Because we are such a small outfit, nearly everybody here does a number of different jobs. So there is no separate 'Accounting Department', or 'Graphics Department' for example. And who wants to be stuck in front of a computer screen looking at spreadsheets all day, anyway? So we mix it all up; the staff here has a meeting every morning, the day's tasks are laid out, and they and the office manager work out a basic schedule for the day. And do you know, some days it even works!
And there's another major benefit to that kind of job-sharing system; because they all overlap with each other's jobs, it means that the company 'knowledge' is shared around, and they are able to take proper holidays, something that is not possible at most Japanese organizations. We want our people to enjoy working here, and an important part of that is making sure that they can get away from it!
Guest: So what different kinds of jobs are done here?
Dave: I'm perhaps the best person to be answering that question. All I have to do is think back to the days before I set this all up - when I was still working alone - and remember what made up a typical day for me then! Of course, there is basic stuff like bookkeeping, invoicing, inventory control, etc. We have a very comprehensive computer system that ties all those things together. We were laughing about the 'chimes' you heard up in the workroom whenever an order came in, well that's just the tip of it; absolutely everything that happens here is covered by our system, and the managers can tell you exactly what is happening, and what they need to be doing to keep the work running smoothly.
So with that part of our job mostly automated, the people here spend the bulk of their time on two other things: creating content, and letting the world know about what we do. In other words, production and sales!
What you are looking at here is actually a publishing company. Of course you have already seen the woodblock print 'publishing' part of it - that's the visible face of our organization - but there is much more. We are a book publisher too, of books in paper form and as eBooks. We began with my own works on printmaking techniques, and followed that with collections of my prints in book form. At one time I used to have a quarterly newsletter - just a little homemade affair - but once Mokuhankan got up and running, that transformed into our own magazine on prints and printmaking, which now has a few thousand subscribers (mostly to the eBook version aimed at tablet computers).
The series of books we publish to accompany each of our Museum exhibitions do very nicely too, and believe it or not, even my own story collections need reprinting every now and then!
We do all our own design and layout, getting everything 'press-ready' right here. And those same skills are used in other places around the company: displays out in the shop, design of our website, the catalogues for our wholesale division ... and these people even work with the carvers upstairs to prepare the tracings to guide the carving!
Guest: Did you say 'wholesale division'?
Dave: Absolutely! We do very well selling our prints ourselves, but we actually do a steady wholesale business too. Interior decorators all over the world love our little display boxes, and art shops are of course good customers for our 'Classic Ukiyo-e' prints. As it happens, later this afternoon we're expecting a Skype call from France, where one of our young printers is on holiday. She's combining a bit of business with her personal time off (in return for an air ticket!) and is trying to find a few new galleries/shops to carry our stuff. We're hoping she's found some good new partners for us!
But there is also good business to be had a lot closer to home ... in fact we got a new client right across the street just a few weeks ago. One of our people had been in a shop over there picking up some 'gift' sweets to take for a present for somebody she was visiting, and got chatting with the owner about his wrapping paper. His sweets are of course packaged in commercially printed boxes and wrappers, but she talked to him about the idea of using a hand-made block-printed paper as the final outer wrapping. He just laughed at her at first, but she brought him over here, and they had a look at some of our Trainee stuff - the things you saw in the shop earlier.
They worked out a plan where we would make a custom wrapping paper for him, and he would offer it as an option to his customers. For example a box of sweets that would sell for 1200 yen could be wrapped in the hand-printed paper for 50 yen extra, if the customer wanted it. A couple of our trainees got together and ran up a sample batch, we made a sign for his shop, and he tried it out. They sold out the first day ... everybody was willing to pay for the special option! It made the sweets much more attractive as a gift of course. Our problem now is that we need more trainees!
Speaking of new trainees ... we hope that we might pick up a couple from the current crop of students attending classes ... here.
(Dave says this as he opens the door to the ‘classroom’, the place where the Mokuhankan printmaking classes are held.)
Dave: This is the place where that group of foreigners you saw in the shop just now have been spending the past hour. They were having a Print Party - a session with one of our staff members during which they not only learned a bit about how woodblock prints are made, they actually made one for themselves! They used the blocks and tools laid out on this row of tables here. Of course in a one-hour session there is no way to carve one’s own blocks, but by using this set-up they are able to walk away with a print that they have pulled themselves. These sessions are extremely popular with foreigners travelling in Tokyo, and there are more such sessions scheduled all through this afternoon and into the evening.
Many of the people attending made their reservation long in advance - even before leaving their home country. But we also get plenty of people who learn about this from a hotel pamphlet or something they have seen, and use their smartphone to pick their spot in our schedule and make their registration. We have also arranged a tieup with the Hato Bus people; Mokuhankan has become a regular stop on many tourist’s itinerary!
We also use this room for more ‘normal’ printmaking classes. Back when Mokuhankan was just getting started up, we partnered with a man who was running a small ‘hanga kyoshitsu’, and over time, this has grown to be quite an important way to keep people coming in the door. Woodblock printmaking as a hobby has a very long tradition in Japan, and it turns out that there a lot of people who - without having any professional aspirations - do want to learn to do it ‘right’. And this is where they learn.
We need more space though; the classes and the Print Parties could take over this whole building, if we let them!
(Dave looks at the clock, and sees that they are running way behind schedule.) OK, we had really better get moving. If we're late I'll lose my table for lunch! Let's just take a quick peek through the rest of this area, and then get over to next door.
They make a quick tour of the rest of the 'back room' section of Mokuhankan. Dave shows the main storeroom - carefully climate controlled - where the inventory of finished prints is kept. Most of the space though, is taken up with the sets of carved blocks, stacked to the ceiling on strong steel shelves, each bundle carefully wrapped and labelled.
There are also wide flat packages of paper waiting to be turned into prints, and a collection of smoothly planed blank blocks. All the shelves have bar-coded markings, and the overall impression is of perfect order and control.
Leaving the storeroom, they move towards the rear of the building, where there is a shipping/receiving desk. The rolling cart that we saw earlier in use by the shop clerk has made its way here, and a young man is busy preparing the items for shipping. After each one receives its final wrapping and a shipping label, he momentarily places it under a camera stand and taps a key on his nearby computer keyboard. This will send an automatic email to the waiting customer, along with a photo of the package, letting them know that their print has 'left the building'.
Dave and his guest then return to the front of the building, coming back into the shop, then upstairs again into the workroom. They walk across the open public portion of the room, and pass through an archway into a completely different space.
Dave: We’re now in the building next door actually, up on the second floor. A couple of years ago we finally got the resources to go ahead with this project, and were lucky that at about the same time, the space next door became available. It also has its own separate entrance from the street, as you may have noticed when you arrived here this morning.
Dave and his guest are now in the lobby area of the Mokuhankan Gallery/Museum. For the benefit of English-language readers, a few words about the name Mokuhankan might be in order.
Han (plank, block) can be combined with Ga (picture, image) to form the compound Hanga, meaning 'print'. When prefaced with the character for 'wood', which can be pronounced Moku, we get Moku Hanga (woodblock print, woodblock printing).
The character Kan, which has its roots in describing castle buildings, means 'hall' by itself, but is usually seen in such combinations as Toshokan (Hall of Books ... or Library), and Bijutsukan (Hall of Arts ... or Art Museum). So our creation of the new combination Mokuhankan implies that this building is 'the' place for woodblock prints. As it indeed is!
Dave goes up to the counter, speaks to the woman there for a moment, and is given a ticket and a pamphlet, which he passes to the guest.
Dave: Here's your entrance ticket and a kind of 'guide' pamphlet. On the house! (grins ...)
Guest: Thank you!
They pass through the entrance - touching their tickets to the sensor pad on the gate - and move into the facility itself.
Dave: We've got three major areas to see here; let's take the usual 'route' through, starting with the Mokuhankan Collection.
The room they now move into is quite different from the bright and airy shop and workroom they saw earlier. This area is much more dimly lit, as one would expect in a museum displaying old prints. In a bit of a change from typical museum displays, the prints are not framed and hung on the walls, but are placed on slanted 'viewing stands' with soft lighting angled down onto them - quite similar to what we saw back in the shop. They are protected by clear glass, but as there are no open lights on the ceiling, no reflections bother the viewers, and the prints are perfectly clear.
Dave: OK, I'm not going to take you by the hand and guide you around the whole place; you can come back and spend time later if you wish. Just let me give you an overview of what we have here. Almost none of the prints in this room (or in our collection, actually), are the rare and expensive kind that you see in many museums - you know, old original Utamaros, or other works like that. Those kind of prints are beyond our resources to obtain, and honestly speaking, pretty much all the good stuff was long ago scooped into the major collections, and there really isn't much available any more.
We focus on prints from the Meiji era up to the present, particularly genres of prints that have been ignored up to now. We have a very nice collection of kuchi-e - the book and magazine frontispieces, a strong group of early 20th century decorative books and prints, any number of prints from the smaller genres - senshafuda, pochi bukuro, etc., and we have a collection of early Showa ukiyo-e reproductions that always surprises people, who simply can't believe the quality of the work they contain.
The current exhibition is of two sets of seasonal views published by the Meiji-era print house Daikoku-ya, a name I am sure you have never heard before, but after an hour of browsing these astonishing images, I think you will probably never forget!
Our focus is on the woodblock print as a beautiful object, not on the print as an artifact produced by somebody with a big name. A wonderful 'side effect' of that philosophy is that we don't do our shopping at Sotheby's, but in the bookshops and dealer's auctions instead! We are finding recently though, that our own efforts to publicize prints like this is resulting in higher prices out there in the market; perhaps we should 'keep quiet' and keep it all to ourselves!
A couple of people in the room - recognizing Dave - come over to speak to him about the prints on display, and he spends the next few minutes giving them and his guest a 'mini guided tour' of the exhibits. He then excuses himself from them, and he and his guest move out and into the next area.
Dave: It's like that every time I come in here - it is a lot of fun showing these things to people! And something else that is quite gratifying is that we get a lot of repeat visitors; we put up a new exhibition in that room once every three months, announcing it of course to all our 'members', and many of them don't miss a single one!
And that reminds me, please take a look at the 'small print' on your entrance ticket. Look at the part where it says 'Valid until: ...'
Guest: (reads aloud) Valid until ... (reads a date one year in the future). What? This is a one year ticket? For multiple entrances?
Dave: Yes, they can use it as any times as they wish, for one year. We want to encourage people to come back and see some more of the exhibitions. There may be some slight loss of revenue by letting them in 'free' next time, but we're just happy to have them back!
Guest: But what if they were to pass this on to a friend? There's no name or anything printed on it ...
Dave: Suits me fine! Spread the word! The more people who learn about how interesting this place is, the better! And as it happens, people rarely come alone anyway, so there will likely be somebody purchasing a ticket during each visit. And of course they are all potential customers of the shop ...
They move into the next display area, which is quite similar to the first room: soft lighting, and prints on display in similar showcases. Dave doesn't explain anything to his guest, but simply gestures him forward into the room. The guest strolls around for a minute or two, and then comes back to Dave.
Guest: OK, wait a minute. You're not joking about this, are you?
Dave: (laughs) Of course not! What better way could there be to 'make the point'?
Guest: But the prints on display in this room are just items from over in your shop - even though they are all beautifully arranged, and have explanatory panels with them, they all look brand new! This is supposed to be a museum!
Dave: Well actually, it's a Gallery/Museum, but the particular definition is irrelevant. And what do you mean by using the word 'just'? Aren't they beautiful? (He is of course laughing at his guest ...)
Guest: I didn't mean to imply anything negative; I guess I'm used to thinking of things in museum displays as being 'old'; it's a bit of a surprise to see brand new prints here. But yes, I do see your point - that there is no real difference between the items in that previous exhibition room and the prints in your shop. They are indeed, all beautiful enough to be 'museum pieces'.
Dave: Indeed! And this room is also important to our young craftsmen. When they see prints that they themselves made, become part of a beautiful exhibition like this, side-by-side with that wonderful Meiji work, I think it has a very good influence on the way that they see themselves, and the value of their work.
Guest: Yes, I can imagine it must.
Dave: But let's move through to the last of the three major parts of this place - the 'Library'. This one I'm particularly proud of, and people are very much enjoying it.
They enter the Library, which looks like ... a library. (And does it need to be mentioned ... greenery everywhere!) One wall is covered with bookshelves, in front of which are tables and comfortable chairs where the books can be studied. But it is the other side of the room to which Dave steers his guest, to a row of what at first glance seem to be a half-dozen study carrels. Each one has two chairs, and the two of them take their places at one of the 'stations'. A young woman on the other side comes towards them, but Dave asks her to wait a minute, and she returns to her desk.
Dave: Some years back, when the iPad first came out, I was so excited! I had been waiting for quite some time for technology like that to arrive, and when it finally became available, knew that I had to make use of it here.
Guest: I see; so this is going to be a 'virtual library'? We will be looking at prints on the screen here?
Dave: Yes and no. Of course, our complete collection is available for such on screen viewing, and in fact, it's all on the internet too, so for that part of it, you don't need to come down here, you can view it all at home. But anyway, go ahead and use the app on the iPad to browse a bit - it's all pretty self-explanatory.
As Dave mentioned, there is an iPad built-in to the desk unit. The guest begins using it, tapping the screen now and then as he begins browsing through the menu selections available. He ends up with one of the prints from the collection on the screen, where it is accompanied by some text explanation. Dave points out a 'button' on the screen: 'See the real print'. The guest takes the hint and presses it. A chime sounds somewhere, and the girl we met a moment ago comes to their station, asks the guest to wait just a moment, and then moves to the storage cabinets that line the wall behind her.
She finds the particular item, and brings it back to them. Opening the package to expose a print in its mat, she slides it under the clear glass surface of the desk at which they sit, then flips a switch to turn on the illumination. The print looks fantastic under the proper lighting, and they can see every tiny detail.
Dave: There you have it - the real print itself, carefully protected from potential damage, but clearly visible, and the iPad with all the information about it. If you have questions, the young lady would be glad to help you, and of course she is there ready to bring you whatever other items from the collection you would like to see. You are welcome to sit here all day if you choose. Personal access to museum quality prints, right there under your nose. It just doesn't get any better than this!
Guest: I can ask for anything in the collection, and she will just bring it to me?
Dave: Well, anything that will fit in the viewing window. The station at the end of the row down there has a special large window; you will need to use that one for some of the larger items we own. And for things like books, for which this system is not practical, you will be asked to view the item at the table next to her desk, and 'normal' museum rules apply: no briefcase, bags, pens, etc. We do have a responsibility to protect ourselves and these items, but as much as possible we want to have 'open access' to the collection.
Any museum-type institution has two major functions, and these are sometimes in conflict. We have to preserve and protect the items in our care, and yet we have to make them available for research and display. Most institutions here in Japan emphasize the former over the latter, and it is extremely difficult for a person without the proper 'academic credentials' to get access to the materials. I can understand this, but have personally found it extremely frustrating sometimes. So when it came time to formulate the philosophy on which our own organization would operate, I tried - as far as practically possible - to go the other way.
This part of our library had its genesis in the eBook materials I began to create some years ago - the ones in the David's Choice collection. They were very well received by viewers, and I found myself - whenever people were visiting my home after having read one of those books - pulling out the same prints to show them. At their request, I mean. Having seen the digital renditions, they really had a strong desire to see the real thing. And this is why we aren't afraid to have our entire stock of prints from the shop up on the internet in high resolution. Perhaps you've noticed what it says somewhere on the site: "The digital versions are free. Help yourself to as many as you can carry! For the analog versions, we look forward to receiving your order ..."
But I see that we are now cutting it very fine with our schedule. When we arranged this visit today, I asked that you keep the lunch hour open; have you ... (he lets the sentence hang ...)
Guest: I did as you asked, and have no plans. But I don't want to impose on your hospitality any further ...
Dave: Please don't worry; we're not done yet! It's just that the next stop on our little 'tour' here will be ... But again, rather than have me try to explain, let's just go see!
Dave gets up from the study desk, and calls a ‘thank you’ to the clerk, who comes over to pick up the print they had been viewing. They make their way back out to the lobby area, then down a circular staircase to the first floor. Here too, everything is light-coloured wood, and greenery. They are now standing at the entrance to ...
Dave: Well, here we are - the Mokuhankan Café. What's a Gallery/Museum without a pleasant café to sit and think about what you have seen ... And we're right bang in the middle of the lunch time rush!
It's ... a café. Wide windows face the main street, the overall appearance is bright and airy, and the entire space is crowded with tables where people sit eating and chatting.
Dave: I see that they've kept 'my' little table over there open for me, so we're OK. (There are a few little advantages about being the 'top guy', you know!)
As they make their way in, a young lady passes them coming outwards, pushing a low cart.
Dave: That's the lunch cart heading over to the workshop and offices. Everybody put their orders in earlier this morning (online, of course).
The café operates cafeteria-style, and they take their place at the end of the line, each taking a tray. They select their items, and as they approach the register, Dave reaches over and picks up a couple of large cookies, and places them on his guest's tray.
Dave: Here, put these into your bag for later. Some of the people back at your office might like to try them. They are a 'speciality of the house' here. I'll explain when we get to our seats.
At the checkout, David 'pays' for them both with his employee card, which he touches to the sensor, and the guest notices that some other people also have cards, which they produce along with their money.
Guest: The cards those other people are using are Mokuhankan Member Cards, I presume?
Dave: Yes of course. People who are members get discounts here in the café and the print shop, open entrance to the museum, a subscription to our quarterly magazine, and a hand-made New Year card. We used to also include entrance to our PD events, but those have become so popular that entrance is now by lottery among the members. But let's get seated first ...
They move over to a small table partially hidden behind some plantings, where the busboy removes the 'Reserved' sign for them, and they take their seats, and enjoy lunch while continuing their conversation.
Dave: Most of these customers are actually not here because it's Mokuhankan; they are either passers-by, or people who live/work in the area. They mostly come in through the main street doors, not through the museum lobby, and for them, this is just another café.
Our menu is kind of different from other places around here. There are those who don't care for this type of food, but there are plenty who do - enough to make this one of the most profitable parts of our business!
I have to admit right up front that the only reason this is all here is personal selfishness. I got kind of frustrated not having a comfortable place to enjoy the kinds of food that I would like to eat, but I don't much enjoy preparing food, and was getting sick of eating convenience store stuff, so I kept badgering our managers about the idea until they finally gave in and gave me my head. An architect friend of mine from Canada designed the room and decor, and the menu is mostly Canadian too (whatever that means).
Guest: This is Canadian food?
Dave: Well, I don't really think there is any such thing as 'Canadian' food per se. Remember, that's an immigrant country, so you find pretty much anything there. One of the main things I missed through living here in Japan was the ready access to light, healthy, interesting food of many different ethnic origins that I used to have back in Vancouver. Sure Tokyo has ethnic restaurants, but to get to one is a major expedition because it's on the other side of town, and it's going to be expensive, and you have to 'go the whole hog'. I want to have interesting food as part of daily life, and without being capable of preparing it myself, this was the only solution I could see ...
Most of the main items on the menu are based on recipes that I collected from friends back in Canada - you see their names and photos on the menu sheets up there (and yes, they get 'royalties'!) The rest is put together by our staff here, based on photos and descriptions I bring back each time I go over there to see my family. For the most part it's fairly 'light' food, with a lot of seasonal variation to keep things interesting.
And I'm very proud that one of our most popular items are the 'bilingual' muffins, which are based on a recipe our own family used back when my kids were still small.
Guest: I was going to ask about that. 'Bilingual'? They talk?
Dave: We're just having fun with that. It's a very simple concept, originally created by my kids' mother, actually. We had been having muffins made from some kind of North American mix, but they were just too heavy and dense, yet when we switched to a Japanese mix that we got from our local baker (good friends of ours), the result was too 'cakelike', and way too sweet. Her solution was to use a blend of the two, and they turned out very well. We're not using blended commercial mixes for our muffins here, but that's the origin, so 'bilingual' seems to fit! And how about those 'baren' cookies?! (Dave is proud of these, and is 'disappointed' that his guest hasn't asked about them ...)
Guest: Actually, you didn't give me a chance to explain back there in line, but the people in our office have already tried these, I'm sorry! In fact, that was one of the motivations behind my calling you to ask for the interview. My manager's wife had received a box of them as a chu-gen gift from somebody. He thought they were interesting, read a bit about Mokuhankan in the enclosed pamphlet, and gave me this assignment! Are they your own idea?
Dave: Well, who else? (smiles) Yes, they are something that I thought about for many years. And a long time ago, I actually tried making some myself, even though I have no cooking skills. I tried making a circular chocolate cookie, and that wasn't so difficult, but creating the outer covering - making it look like an actual baren wrapping - was beyond my culinary abilities. But once this café was running, I gave the idea to our cooks here as a challenge, promising them a royalty on any successful design, and they came up with the one you see now. The biscuit portion inside has just the right amount of 'bite', and the wrapper part is firm enough to hang together, yet flexible enough to allow the proper 'folding'. They look just like a real printer's baren, yet are edible! And when you bite into one, you find the coiled 'cord' inside, just like the real thing! We've got them in a few sizes, from bite-size up to 'natural size'.
But it was chaos at first, back when we were still trying to make them in house. They were just taking over. You know how it is in Japan when some kind of food or snack item becomes popular - everybody wants it. For a while. But one of our guys decided that he would take the leap into business for himself, and he offered to split off and open his own bake shop, making these for us under contract. He's actually quite successful now, making all kinds of creations for other places, not just us. The orders for the baren cookies come into our website, and the data is passed to his company, which ships them fresh, directly to our customers.
Dave pauses to eat some of his lunch ...
Guest: You started to tell me something about P ... was it P.D.?
Dave: Yes, we have to talk about that, and today is the day! But that won't be happening until this evening, and I really do have to get back to my own work once we're done with lunch, so what I'll do is give you your pass now (he takes another card from his wallet, and passes it to his guest), and ask you to meet me back here sometime just before six. Do you know anything about these meetings?
Guest: Only that you have some kind of monthly staff meeting, which is sometimes attended by a few people from outside also.
Dave: Well, they're not monthly, but bi-weekly; every second Thursday evening (except around year-end, New Year, etc.). And we refer to them around here as PD meetings, which originally meant Professional Development, but somewhere along the line seemed to morph into Public Day, I'm not quite sure how.
The original idea was simple, and came out of my own experience as an independent craftsman. Our kind of work - in common with many other crafts, I suppose - has a kind of inbuilt paradox: to be able to do it well, you have to be both smart and dumb.
It is a complex and deep craft, and the people who do it best are those who can be analytical, who can figure out why something is going wrong when it does, and who are capable of thinking about how to do it 'better'. You have to be critical of your own work, and - above everything - you have to be 'handy', the kind of person who can solve problems and adapt their methods to situations that arise. You have to be smart!
But it is undeniable that the job of making a stack of 200 woodblock prints also involves a great deal of mind-numbing repetitive work. One colour on one sheet. On another sheet. And another. Then the next colour. And the next colour. And etc. and etc. and etc. And you do this all day every day. To an outside observer it can seem like the most boring work imaginable, and honestly speaking, it sometimes is. To maintain proper focus on the block and paper ... to keep the output at the proper level of quality ... these things can be very difficult. I know this from my own personal experience with all these jobs.
Now back in the old days, nobody thought about things like 'job satisfaction'. You had a job - you did it. But in more modern times, young people want to have work that is personally satisfying, not just 'a job' to get money. I feel, as manager here, that it is my responsibility to create an environment where there is enough of a balance between the different parts of our work that our people are challenged enough to keep themselves 'sharp' and interested, but neither stressed by the intensity of the quality control, nor numbed by the repetition.
So the overall design of our workshop, the 'vibe' in the building, and the workflow itself - how the kids are assigned jobs, and how they progress up through the craft - are all designed to help keep them in good 'intellectual' shape, and to mitigate the more boring aspects of the job. We had one young girl join us a while back who had already done some training with another print publisher. Once she saw our system she thought she had died and gone to heaven; back in the other place they worked in a scruffy dirty room, in silence - 'no talking', they had no say in the work they were assigned, the deadlines meant lots of overtime, and they had to speak to their 'superiors' in the 'appropriate' way. Here, we are ... I know this might sound a bit 'corny', but it's true ... here we are much more of a team, working together. It's a fun place to be, and these kids are eager to get here in the mornings!
But to tie this back to the PD thing; having 'fun' at work is all very well, but there is more to the job than that, as I mentioned. I want these kids to be - or to become - interesting people! And you don't get to be an interesting person by keeping your nose on a woodblock eight hours a day, just working away like a robot. Now keeping that in mind as our first point for a moment, let me toss a few other things into the mix. (Dave tabulates these 'points' on his fingers ...)
- in the years after coming to Japan, the more that I met traditional carvers and printers, the more I was surprised to find how little they knew of the history and traditions of the work they were doing. They knew the overall outlines of Japanese print history, and of course could recognize the big name stuff, but that's about the extent of it. Time and again I would mention some kind of work that I respected, but would be met with nothing more than a blank stare. These guys were just not interested. They saw themselves as being inheritors of this tradition, but were actually very short-sighted. And one side effect of this was that because their only knowledge came from what they learned in the workshop where they had been trained, each succeeding generation lost a little bit, as the older guys passed away. Over the course of the 20th century, the overall skill level, and the level of knowledge about this art/craft, dropped in a steady line, down and down and down. And when you combine this with the always-present pressure from the publishers to try and keep costs down (in a misguided effort to keep prices down, thinking that this would help them survive), the inevitable result was that by the end of the century, the general level of work on the market was nothing short of embarrassing. I've got a folder of prints back in my office that we sometimes take out and study - stuff I bought in shops that should never have seen the light of day ... work that we study to remind ourselves how not to make prints! Anyway, long story short, the kids working here need teaching and guidance on this 'big picture' aspect of their job.
- OK, another thing to toss in, and this one is admittedly completely selfish, is related to another part of my daily life that changed after coming to Japan (other than the food thing I mentioned.) When I lived in Canada and had a job in a small company, it would be very common to get together with friends or co-workers a few times each week. Maybe I would just bring somebody home for dinner, or we would arrange to meet people in a restaurant, or sometimes on occasion we might be part of a kind of 'dinner party'. Now I'm not much of a socialite at all, and this wasn't shmoozing or networking, this was just friends getting together for food, and - usually - interesting conversation. Now that sort of thing utterly disappeared from my life after coming to Tokyo. As you know, 'entertaining' at home is simply not a part of life here. The original reason for this is supposedly due to the uncomfortable and cramped nature of the housing, but it's not just that; it goes deeper into general cultural traditions and relationships between people. But the funny thing is that when you talk to Japanese who have some experience of living overseas - in Europe or North America - they frequently speak of this same thing, of how 'easy' social life was over there, and of how cumbersome it is here in Japan.
OK, do you see where these threads are going, and how we are going to tie them together?
Guest: You decided to start inviting the young craftsmen for dinner, and things expanded from there?
Dave: Well, close. I didn't actually have to experiment with this, because I had been thinking about it for years before I got the chance to try it. Right from the beginning of our workshop, when I decided to turn Mokuhankan into an actual 'going concern' and hired the first two young trainees, we started having these meetings - just the three of us at first. We started simply, with me sitting down together with them, showing some prints from my little collection, and learning together. But I didn't want it to be a teacher/student relationship, so I made it a rule that we would take turns being the 'presenter'. One week I would pick a theme, select some prints to illustrate it, and make my presentation. For the next meeting, somebody else would have to do the same thing. To anybody who grew up in the kind of school I went to, this will be very familiar - we called it 'Show & Tell'. Maybe Japanese kids do it in school too, I don't know.
We didn't make any of this into a big production, just had our little presentation/discussion, and had some coffee and a snack. As new people joined Mokuhankan, they of course took part in these meetings, and things started to change a bit. The main 'agenda' was the initial presentation and follow-up discussion, but it became clear that the group had wider interests than just things related to our printmaking work. So I began to stretch it out - we would have our presentation, take a little break, and I would then bring up a topic from current affairs, toss it out to the group, and we would go at it. Some of them had never been in an environment where they were expected to 'have opinions', so this was difficult for them, but we kept it all low key and without any kind of stress to 'perform'.
And we found that without even trying to push it that way - the thing began to expand. People would start to bring boyfriends/partners along, and I would occasionally invite some guest or other. And then one day, I did something that would have major consequences: I wrote a story in the members' newsletter about our meetings. Well, you can guess what happened. We got a ton of requests from people who wanted to join in. We weren't sure whether or not to let this happen, because I was really worried about putting extra stress on the younger craftsmen who were making presentations - but after talking it over at one of the meetings (it 'ate' the entire evening's discussion, as you may imagine) we decided to give it a try.
Now at first, we thought we had made a mistake by allowing this, because these 'new members' didn't understand our format, and kind of just sat there watching, rather than participating, but we learned how to 'pull them in', and bit by bit we arrived at our current format. We've learned that we need a good representation of 'regular' attendees present, and only one or two 'newbies' at any given time, to give them a chance to learn how things work. We usually follow the original pattern of a print-related presentation first, then a break, then a general discussion, but sometimes the girl who manages the meetings (that's the young lady you saw plucking orders back in the shop this morning) sets up an agenda with something different, to keep things interesting. We use the Library over there in the museum for the meetings, and it's of course very convenient having the collection so handy, and the café people handle the drinks and stuff.
I for one, very much look forward to these affairs, and they are one of the highlights of my life here at Mokuhankan. And I think I'm not alone in that feeling!
Guest: Well I must say, the more I hear about this place, the more it sounds attractive. I wonder if my own boss would consider something like that?
Dave: Don't wait for him to 'allow' it ... just get some people together, and start it up yourself!
But I must say now, although I have enjoyed talking with you today, and showing you around, I really do have a lot of things waiting on my bench, and I should be getting back to it. You're welcome to 'hang around' as long as you wish; everybody knows why you are here, and you can talk to any of them for material for your story, although please be reasonable in the amount of time you take with anybody.
Guest: Oh, I won't be bothering them; I have everything I need to put together an interesting story - you've made sure of that! Thank you very much for being so generous with your time. This has been very much appreciated.
Dave: Not at all. It's kind of my 'job' here to handle this kind of thing. And honestly speaking, I think the rest of them here would be happiest if I did this every day, and just kept out of their way. We have such an enthusiastic and skilled crew here now, that there is very little that I can contribute to the mix.
They walk out back into the shop, where Dave takes his leave and heads for one of the workbenches, where he will spend the remainder of the afternoon carving - something that he _can_ indeed still contribute. His guest will wander a bit longer, taking some photos to accompany his story, and will then head back to his own office. But he will be back for the evening meeting, to round out his overview of this interesting place. And in the morning, he will sit at his desk to write his own story of ... a Day at Mokuhankan.
Thank you for following along with this 'fantasy' (an earlier version of which was published over on the Woodblock RoundTable blog, where it received quite a few comments). We look forward to hearing your own comments, ideas, and suggestions here - please feel free to use the space below ...
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