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The newest venture - kakegami ...

Posted by Dave Bull on June 28, 2011 [Permalink]

OK, enough teasing ... let's see what the new bench is all about, and who it is for! Meet Mrs. Yasue Tsushima ...

And, to immediately answer your obvious question - Is she the new 'apprentice'? - I think the answer is 'not really'; at least not in the sense that she is here to learn how to be a professional printer. At this point, we're not thinking that far ahead.

Yesterday I posted about a recent visit to the local beauty shop, where I had chatted with Abe-san the hairdresser about Mokuhankan. She is basically familiar with my work (and has a display set of my prints in her shop), and I bent her ear about not being able to find printers.

She listened to me, and we started talking about what was involved in the work ... how difficult was it? She paused in her cutting, and showed me some of the decorations in her shop. The place is full of ornamental 'knick-knacks': artificial flowers, origami displays, hand-woven baskets, etc. etc. These had all been made by local ladies, women sitting at home while their husband and kids are out. I'm not sure what the situation is like in other countries, but here in modern Japan, unemployment is at historical highs, and there is a surplus of labour everywhere. And with large numbers of graduates being unable to find jobs, housewives are sort of expected to pull back from the market somewhat, to leave as many jobs as possible open for regular 'breadwinners'. So anyway, the point is that we have a situation where there is a vast pool of extremely competent people sitting around with nothing to do. These women don't want a full-time job, as they have family responsibilities to cover. But if there were a job available that: made use of their 'handy' skills, allowed them to fix their own working schedule, allowed them to stay home when the kid is suddenly sick from school, paid them a reasonable amount per hour, and etc. etc. ... they would be very interested.

OK ... that's one side of the equation, but we're not talking about artificial paper flowers here, we're talking about woodblock printmaking, one of the most difficult and highly trained jobs on the planet. Right?

On the face of it, that is indeed true. My own skills are very hard-won, and when you look over my entire output, you have to admit that this is not something that a 'housewife' can sit down and just pick up in a few minutes.

Heh-heh ...

Here she is again:

You can see scattered here and there among those two snapshots some small woodblocks (and there is a box of them on the desk just above her head). These are old blocks that I picked up in flea markets here and there. They were originally used to print kakegami, wrapping paper for Japanese gift confectionery. Here are a couple of images I just scooped with a Google search, showing modern papers of this type:


And here's a sample from my own collection of one from many years back, when they were still made by woodblock printing (you can see the faint fold marks where it was wrapped around the box of confectionery):

So you can see where we are going with this! Tsushima-san was here this morning for three hours in all. She has never touched a baren before. Here are some quick snaps of her results from a random few of these little blocks (none of these are complete 'pictures' by themselves, they are just single blocks from sets broken up long ago ...):



Clean. Smooth. Precise. After a bit of practice, I 'tested' her by asking her to print the same block twice - the 'ultimate' test of whether a printer is properly controlling the positioning of the paper in the registration marks.

No problem.

OK, this is all getting a bit long, so I'll try and tie it all up, in point form ...

  • presentation confectionery was once upon a time always wrapped in woodblock printed paper
  • over the years, the makers all switched to press-printed papers, obviously to keep costs down. The idea that we can somehow reverse the course of history would seem on the face of it not to make sense, but for a few other points ...
  • a woodblock printed wrapper would nowadays be a very special - and rare - item. It would add tremendously to the 'value' of the gift being presented.
  • We are thinking that X% of the purchasers of such confectionery - if given the option at the point of purchase to pay (say) an extra 100 yen to have it wrapped in a woodblock print - would do so.
  • 100 yen? Sell colour woodblock prints for 100 yen? Is that possible?
  • Well, in today's first 'test', Tsushima-san, who - as I mentioned - has never held a baren before, did impressions like the ones above in about 20 seconds. (She had no idea I was timing her, but after each little practice session, I asked her to do a 'run' of 5 copies, and quietly timed it.)
  • OK, let's be conservative and say 30 seconds each colour; giving around 120 impressions per hour. Let's be even more conservative and knock it down to 100 per hour.
  • At a pay rate of 1,000 yen per hour (which is about 300 yen more than the 'supermarket checker' rate common around here), that gives a base cost for us of 10 yen per colour per sheet.
  • Suppose we had a kakegami involving 5 colours; our 'factory cost' would then be 50 yen + 10 yen paper (a machine-made paper, of course) = 60 yen.
  • Hmmm ...

Something else important to mention. I had the webcam running during our practice session this morning, and just after we finished, and I said goodbye to Tsushima-san (and the friend who had accompanied her), I returned to the workshop to shut it down. As I did so I received a call from a long-time collector who had tuned-in to the last part of the session. (He may identify himself in the comments below ... we'll see!)

As it happens, it is this particular collector that I had been thinking of when mulling over whether or not to try this experiment this week. He owns a collection of quite spectacular woodblock prints of the early 20th century, and I was imagining him saying, "Dave, I kind of see the logic here, but why are you doing this? I thought Mokuhankan was going to produce top level stuff - some really wonderful prints! Why are you fooling around making wrapping paper for 100 yen?"

So when I saw his name on the computer screen, showing me who was calling, I swallowed a bit ... "OK, let's see what he has to say about this ..."

Well, as it turned out, I needn't have worried, as his reaction was not negative at all. I won't try and repeat here what he said, because he may well post something below, but I can encapsulate my thinking as I chatted with him. Something like this ...

"I'm stuck. I can't find printers to work for me - to produce the kind of prints I want to make. It has become completely clear that the only way forward is to get people in here and train them myself. But. The situation that we had in the 'old days' - where each workshop had plenty of work suitable for beginners (wrapping paper, accounting ledger sheets, envelopes, etc.) - is long gone. So I'm going to try to re-create that setup. No, Tsushima-san (probably) has no intention of becoming a pro printer. And Mokuhankan does not want to become a place specializing in such inexpensive stuff. But if this little idea actually does work, and we are able to build a little 'stable' of a half-dozen people to print, along with a bunch of confectionery shops willing to take the stuff, then there we are - we would have a structure in place where the 'would be' printer can fit in. He/she could sit here, get some simple training, join this crew and be 'productive' right away. Some such people may soon quit; some may be happy just making kakegami forever. But some - hopefully - will catch on fire, will dig in, and will develop the strong skill set needed for work on those 'spectacular' prints that we will produce ... one day!"




Added by: Tom Kristensen on June 28, 2011, 11:24 pm

Dave, I think this might be the smartest move yet in the mokuhankan venture. Cheap woodblock prints form the base of the pyramid that has to exist to produce top quality work. There is no shame in producing gift wrapping.

I think you might be surprised how well you can train someone to print to your own requirements, it might be easier, and cheaper, than getting a pro to deliver the prints you want. You will also get a lot of satisfaction by increasing the pool of skilled labour, plus you give someone a job. Good feelings all round!

Added by: Barbara Mason on June 28, 2011, 11:37 pm

I agree with Tom, this is an excellent idea...it might take time to get it going but in the end you will find a gem amongst your printing ladies.


Added by: Marc Kahn on June 29, 2011, 1:45 am

It was me who was watching the last part of Dave's session with Tsushima-san and then talked with Dave via Skype afterwards. I watched her pull a couple of impressions and was truly amazed at how professional her actions were. She was very careful, and took her time, spreading the pigment onto the block with the brush. She showed concentration and precision placing the paper into the kento indentations. She showed smoothness and power with the baren.

Either she's a natural, or Dave's a very good teacher, or both. I'm going with "or both".

If Dave is able to successfully market the low-end woodblock printed wrapping paper, this will be a great step forward in creating a viable Mokuhankan as an incubator for new craftspeople.

When I visited Japan in 2005, I was surprised by a lot of things, including the seriousness with which the Japanese present gifts. I saw a presentation cantaloupe for sale in a gift store in the Ome train station for the equivalent of $200.00 US. It was, of course, the perfect cantaloupe, blemish free and presumably delicious on the inside. But still, luxurious products, at luxurious prices, clearly have a place in modern Japanese culture.

The idea of woodblock printed wrapping paper for presentation gifts just sounds right to me.

I agree with Tom, that cheap prints have traditionally formed the base of a pyramid with the high-class prints at the top. It's a time-tested historical model, and I think that it very well may work today.

I'm all for it!

Added by: Diana Moll on June 29, 2011, 2:09 am

Love it!

Added by: Rowena on June 29, 2011, 12:48 pm

Very cool and enterprising... love the idea, maybe the start of something big!!

Added by: Jennifer on June 29, 2011, 7:33 pm

This is the most heart warming story I have heard in a very long time. I do hope this small seed will grow. Next you could ask your hairdresser friend to find you a marketing lady to promote the papers.

This should also solve your own isolation situation and put you firmly in the heart of a supportive community, with all parties helping each other.

I am reminded of my mother's generation who were expected to go back in the box to give the jobs to the men back from the war.

I just love your imaginative take on solving whatever is thrown at you. All the very best in this enterprise.

Added by: AEleen Frisch on June 30, 2011, 12:01 am

Thanks also Dave for introducing this custom to us in the west. What a great idea to make a gift special. Making gift paper is also a nice small project I think I'll do myself from time to time to relax!

Great idea for training printers. Best of luck with this venture if you go forward. I'm sure you'd sell some by Internet as well.

Added by: Michael Kohne on June 30, 2011, 5:16 am

Wonderful plan, Dave! If you can get the shops to buy the woodblock wrappings, I think you'll really have a nice little stream of printing work here.

Added by: Annie B on July 3, 2011, 3:46 am


Added by: Ken Morgan on April 6, 2012, 12:34 am

Following the beginnings of a new employee hired to learn to print woodblock prints has been an interesting journey. The results of this project are very positive.

I received my prints and must say the wait was worth it. Yasue Tsushima shows that this project

will allow you to expand your work in Mokuhankan.

She has a very nice touch of lightness that brings a new value to these prints. It is not necessary for excess color to be applied to make a quality print. I will be framing these and they will join my wall as quality art for all to enjoy.

Thank you Yasue Tsushima for your efforts and to Dave, Well Done


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