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Update message for our Patreons …

Posted by Dave Bull on May 16, 2021 [Permalink]

[This is being cross-posted ... here, and also on our Patreon page]

This is Dave Bull, from Mokuhankan in Asakusa Tokyo, with a (very tardy) message updating our Patreons on our situation.

This is really - really - going to be too long, so for those who would prefer, here's a tl;dr; version:

  • We’re OK!
    • orders are (very) strong … we have waiting lists for many popular items
    • our people are hard at work … nobody has been let go ...
  • Social Media:
    • Twitch: steady at three streams per week; viewership has grown to an embarrassing level …
    • YouTube: Dave is struggling to keep this on track - but two/three 'scripts' are under way ...
  • Shop:
    • the Asakusa shop has been dark for 14 months now
    • we (still) hope this will be temporary
    • Patreon support has been critical here, in allowing us to hold on
  • Projects:
    • 8 Views of Cats: very slow; production has to take a back seat to our subscription work; not abandoned!
    • Tools: progress here is also slow; we are step-by-step working through the process of bringing a complicated new product to market.
  • Problems:
    • we have 'temporarily' lost 1/2 of our in-house printing staff
    • we have 'temporarily' lost most of our external printing staff
    • our production capability has been severely curtailed, just at the time when we should be building inventory for the coming autumn/gift season.
    • our waiting lists are growing far faster than our production capability … :-(
  • Wrapup:
    • other countries seem to be returning to stable life; Japan is very much struggling
    • can’t foresee/schedule our own 'return' to previous situation
    • just keep plugging away …

OK, that’s the rough outline; let me now spend some time here this evening, filling you in on our situation as well as I can. If you're interested, maybe grab a cup of something, and let's dig in ...

Overall, how are we doing?

Three graphs will serve to give you the overall outline: 2019 (the last 'normal' year), and then through 2020 into 2021.

Purple - the Asakusa shop. The shop was of course a hugely important part of our affairs. It was sometimes difficult to manage, being strongly seasonal, depending heavily on highly-trained staff (for the Print Parties), and having high expenses, but was the main 'public' face of our business. Some years back, we were mostly known for our part in the creation of the Ukiyo-e Heroes parody prints, but more recently, to speak of Mokuhankan is to speak of our Asakusa shop - it has become our 'brand'.

It is now of course completely silent. At the time of my writing this, the shop has been closed for 14 months, and there is absolutely no end in sight. Japan's borders are still tightly closed, and given the present very slow rate of vaccinations here, there is not the slightest possibility of them opening anytime soon.

Green - online sales of individual woodblock prints. This has grown slowly over the years, and to be honest, in the period preceding the pandemic, I had been kind of ignoring this. It was there in the background, but with my personal energies being mostly taken by the shop activities and staff planning (daily), production planning (almost daily), and Social Media (time wherever I could grab it), it did not get much attention. As you can see from the graphs, this changed dramatically in early 2020. With Japan's borders suddenly closed, online activities became our only way to survive. I made a very quick pivot, directed much more of my focus onto that area, and it has grown in consequence.

Light Brown - subscriptions. Our activity in this category has dramatically increased, due to a few factors. First among these is that we have clearly hit home runs with our most recent few print sets (Japan Journey, Woodblock Pilgrimage, and now the Scenes from Nature). These are interesting prints, clearly underpriced, and people are (literally) lining up to get them.

But another factor is that our back-catalogue of subscription prints has grown substantially over the years. The subscription revenue you see in the graph is not just from the newest work, but represents a combination of 'hits' and 'long tail'. As I myself learned personally over the past quarter-century, and am now having re-confirmed here at Mokuhankan, subscriptions are a very good way to run a print publishing business, one that provides excellent stability to the workers - a very key point (more about this a bit later).

So looking at the change in those graphs over three years, it would seem that we are well on the way to becoming a 'subscription service company'. Well, I don't know about that; I don't quite see our woodblock prints as fitting into the recent massive boom in 'subscription services'. Many of you reading this perhaps now have quite a number of subscription fees building up on your monthly card statements. Can Mokuhankan really compete with Netflix and Disney+ … I wonder …

How/Where are our prints getting made?

Not many of our fans/customers have been able to get up there to see it, but on the 3rd floor of our Asakusa building is a workroom for our printers. It is a pretty quiet place these days, for a couple of reasons. One obvious explanation is that traditional woodblock print work can be done in a very small space, does not require major equipment, and indeed even going right back over the centuries has been done at home by most practitioners. So when a lockdown hits, this does not stop our production at all; our staff of five 'in house' printers have spent the past year or so switching back and forth - sometimes working at home, sometimes here in Asakusa (the carvers have been at home all along …)

Another factor is that we are not completely dependent on Mokuhankan employees to do all our printing. Ever since the time of the massive Ukiyo-e Heroes Kickstarter campaign, when our organization exploded in popularity, I have called upon professional freelance printers to handle jobs for us. We have a 'stable' of three such professionals, and we have had so much work for them, they have become essentially full-time sub-contractors to Mokuhankan in the past couple of years.

Dave here sits in the middle of all this, deciding who gets what jobs, sizing and preparing paper for everybody, shipping woodblocks and supplies out, and checking all the prints that come back in, before sending them off to the Ome shipping center, where our (now three) shipping ladies are standing by to do their part.

More about this in a minute …

Social Media

As most of our Patreons are well aware, the most important social media for us in recent years has been video - on two platforms: YouTube and Twitch.

Twitch is 'easy'. I say that because people aren't expecting/demanding much. They know that simply Dave will slip behind the bench for 90 minutes, will work on whatever is there waiting for him, will chat a bit, and will (usually) show some kind of item from the growing Mokuhankan Collection of old woodblock items. Some sessions will be more interesting than others, but if it turns out to be a 'yawner', nobody is much bothered. The viewers enjoy the community - chatting back and forth with each other - even if I don't bring too much to the table on any given day.

That's the graph of viewers to the most recent session. It typically runs at that level, reaching around 500 or so viewers just about the time I sign off! :-) The stats on my Twitch account page show that this is made up of people coming and going; usually around 1,500 ~ 2,000 pass through during any given session. These are Goldilocks numbers. Less than this and it might not have traction; more than this would result in an unreadable chat window … it seems just about right. Where we go from here … who knows ...

YouTube is a different story. I absolutely 100% had not understood this when I started making videos on that platform - and still have trouble actually comprehending it - but the work we do on YouTube is turning out to be important ... and meaningful. Over the course of any given week, tens of thousands of people watch our videos. The average ratio of likes/dislikes for the channel as a whole is over 99%. The comments are overwhelmingly - embarrassingly - effusive and positive.

One upshot of this is that it becomes somewhat more difficult for me to make them. Now I know that it shouldn't matter; I do understand that. Just get the camera ready, sit down, and hit the red button … it's easy. But it is different when you know that hundreds of thousands of people are going to eagerly and carefully listen to the presentation! And in some cases … millions. I don't want to put out slapdash or careless stuff.

Now that's no excuse, and it's actually not the reason why I don't put up a new video 'every week'. I can be a kind of 'show-off' sometimes, so the wide viewership recently is very pleasing. I love making these, and have a zillion ideas on file here waiting to get produced. So why has the schedule been so erratic? I guess you know the answer …

I just. can. not. get a handle on my time management. I don't want to put here a big list of 'important stuff' always waiting on my desk - many of you reading this are probably in exactly the same situation. But yeah, trying to pause the 'fire-fighting' long enough to sit down and make a nice interesting meaty video, has been difficult.

But don't despair! We are actually moving forward; I've got my own next video pretty much planned out, and Cameron has already shown me a completed draft of his next one (this will be the first in a completely new series for us … very exciting!).

So stand by, please!

Other projects ...

Hands up, all of you who remember the 'Eight Views of Cats' series! :-) Some months back, we were receiving frequent emails asking about the progress of this series … these days, not so many. We are still moving forward, although obviously very very slowly. Two things have happened to slow down progress on this series, and it's a 'good news/bad news' situation. The good news you have already seen a moment ago - the massive increase in our subscription business. That has 'eaten' a huge percentage of the work that I allocate to the printing staff. Subscriptions - because of the monthly deadlines - have to come first. Slots in the printers' schedule are then filled with best-selling items from our catalogue, which we try to keep in stock at all time. Then, and only then, can I set aside a couple of days with one of the printers to work on proofing of the next image in the Eight Views. (the 'bad news' in a few minutes …)

The next two prints will be Evening Bell and Descending Geese, and they are both 'in production'. Evening Bell has had its initial proofing, and is now sitting on the desk next to me, waiting until I can prepare some supplementary colour separations for the next round. Descending Geese is at the stage of hanshita tracing, but the team member working on that has been 'side-tracked' by tracing on the subscription print for October. And so it goes …

Cameron also reports to me that he is receiving frequent emails asking when our upcoming set of Carving Tools will be ready. This too, is moving along, although this too, very slowly. Most of the work on this project is being handled by team member Aoyama-san, whom some of you may remember as being our 'handyman' - helping me with constructing the shop, and getting our woodblocks ready for the carvers. He has actually had to set up a new workstation here to handle that project. He now has special storage to try and control all different 'parts' of that project: sample paulownia cases from different suppliers, samples of all the different handle designs, the packaging for the sharpening stone that we will be including … any number of details that all have to be decided before we can put the set out into the world. A major problem for us is that the blades themselves are being made in the old traditional method (forged one by one by hand) and this results in quite a large discrepancy in the dimensions of each piece. But we can't possibly have the handles all produced one by one; these are being cut (very accurately) by woodworking tools. The result is that getting things to fit together properly is taking a lot of time … and we have to get that stage worked out more efficiently, or the final product would just be too expensive to make any sense.

Labour issues

OK, this is the tough one. I talked a moment ago about our printing staff, currently made up of five 'in-house' Mokuhankan employees, and three freelance people. That was 'yesterday'.

This spring we 'lost' two of our five in-house printers. They haven't 'quit', but they are gone for the foreseeable future. One of them has had a baby; she plans to be back one day, but that will be a couple of years down the road. The other young lady is dealing with a severe illness in a family member; she has left Japan to be with them, and it is not clear when she may be able to return.

And now, on top of this, I have learned that we have lost access to all three of our freelancers, for perhaps the next half-year or so. One of them - the more senior person - has taken on a major job involving a gallery commission from a contemporary artist for a series of woodblock prints. He cannot handle this by himself, so has 'called in' some younger printers he helped train over the years. And yes, both of our other two freelancers were indeed trained by this man. People here in Japan have a very high sense of obligation to their sensei, and when these two got the 'call' from him, there was no reply possible other than, "Yes sir!"

So I'm down to three out of eight. Panic? No … at least not yet. These three printers can handle our immediate obligations - the current subscription prints. But that's all. Last year at this time, in the early months of the pandemic, I made the decision to keep all the printers (in-house and freelancers) busy with work, even though it seemed like the bottom was about to fall out of our business. All summer long I kept paying them to make prints that we stacked on the shelves … I was determined not to lay anybody off.

That 'gamble' paid off big. As you see from the charts I included at the beginning of this presentation, both online sales and subscriptions took off towards the end of the year, and have remained strong. Those prints that we had stacked up? They flew off the shelves. It turned out to have been one of the best forward-looking decisions that I have ever made.

I had fully intended to do the same thing this year - print print print all summer long. Get the whip out, and print print print … As it happens, that is not going to be possible; the three of them are going to be working very hard just to keep up with the basic requirements. Our usual autumn and Christmas rush? Sorry, not this year.

It gets worse. Dave is sitting here thinking about how to find untapped parts of our activities to perhaps help make up for this approaching shortfall in newly-produced prints, and sees this:

Hmmm … look at that thin little 3% item … our 'Flea Market'. Once upon a time - back in 2019 - this was a very healthy section of our Asakusa shop - made up of 'antique' prints that we pick up in online and dealer auctions.

Over 21%! OK ... so now that the shop is closed, let's 'grow' the online version of this!

Now this isn't actually as easy as it sounds. Unlike our normal online catalogue, these are unique and 'one-off' items. For our normal prints, we prepare an online image and description, and then take orders over a period of years. For the antique prints, each and every one requires care and attention: photography, note any defects, prepare a careful description, research the kabuki scene depicted, etc. and etc. Now if the prints in that part of our shop were ranging in the thousands of dollars each, we could take the time to do that, but we are not experienced and licensed 'antique' dealers of that type. The items in our Flea Market are of a more casual nature - we have a mix of 20th century reproductions and a scattering of originals from the late Meiji era. Very few of them are 'expensive'. This is part of the attraction of our Flea Market - the prints are a very reasonable price. But when an item is priced at (say) $70.00 … we simply can't spend two hours getting it ready for the online catalogue. In the actual physical shop, none of this is a problem; customers pick it up, inspect it, chat with the staff, and then (perhaps) choose to buy it.

Anyway, even given this situation, we are moving ahead with the Flea Market; I have prepared a smooth and easy back-end for the staff members to get the prints 'processed' and online. All that's left is to hire somebody to do it. So I approached the young lady who has been coming in one or two days a week to do photography for our Mokuhankan Collection (that work of course is being sponsored by the Patreon revenues). She has done a very good job with this, so I had no hesitation in asking her if she would like to go 'full-time' with the Flea Market.

Her reply … which I knew in advance would almost certainly come … was that she would love to have the job, but couldn't accept it. Those of you who live in other countries are perhaps not going to believe this next part of the story, but it is true … Japanese tax law makes it impossible for a woman whose husband is a full-time company employee, to work more than two days a week. If she works more than that - crossing a certain limit per annum - rules kick in limiting certain deductions and increasing taxes in such a way that her effective pay rate is reduced to nothing more than a few hundred yen per hour. And this is exacerbated by a very common policy in place in most major companies, that if a wife crosses this limit, many of the husband's benefits (in her case, this includes a housing allowance), are withdrawn or reduced.

It was a system that (perhaps) made sense back in the immediate post-war period, to encourage housewives to stay at home and act as the 'support' for the samurai salarymen, in the combined effort to rebuild the country. And the giant companies still love the policy. They know that their salarymen are going to be backed up by a woman at home who will completely take care of the family, leaving him free to do their bidding. If women were allowed to flood into the work-force, those salarymen would be forced to start sharing child-care issues, etc. and etc. And the companies don't want the women around anyway (in career positions) because the men who run those organizations still believe that women can't properly function in anything but trivial jobs.

So corporate Japan is happy; the sclerotic government is happy; the tax bureaucrats just do as they are told … And down here on the ground, tens of thousands of small companies all across the country are desperate for workers, and women all across the country are frustrated because they are being forced to stay in the kitchen. In any other modern country, there would be crowds raging in the streets demonstrating against such discrimination … Here in Japan, it's just shoganai … it can't be helped. (And now you also know one of the major reasons for the plunging birthrate here; a woman would have to be nuts to get married in Japan. I can't understand why any of them still do it.)

Why does this matter to me? I said back at the beginning that our upstairs workroom is "… a pretty quiet place these days, for a couple of reasons …" Now you know why … two of my surviving three printers are married ladies, both working under this limit! They can only work two days a week, sometimes pushing three. (And although I might sometimes fantasize about doing it, we haven't (yet) put bars on the doors to keep them here, hard at it!)

How about our shipping center over in Ome? All three of those ladies work under this limit! Two of them have been pushing past recently because of our increased subscription shipping these days, and come November/December, they will be forced to simply book off and stay home, in order not to push their family income for the year over the limit …

Merry Xmas …

* * *

How does Patreon fit into all this?

Sorry this has taken so long! I started this tonight simply because I felt it was a bit too long since I kept the Patreon supporters updated on what we doing ... I didn't realize it would get so out of hand!

Here's a fabulous graph showing revenue from Patreon since we set it up exactly four years ago:

I'm astonished by this, in a number of ways. Firstly, how strongly it took off right at the beginning. Back in the spring of 2017, when I first made the 'pitch' about this, the situation was very vivid; I was completely swamped by the work, but the bank was empty. I asked for support to help me hire somebody to take over most of the desk work. The community responded as you can see … I hired Cameron-san, and for all of these four years he has done exactly what he was hired to do - controlling all the order processing and the back-and-forth with the collectors/subscribers/customers. Saved. My. Life.

He had no sooner got started, when things just exploded, as you can see from this revenue chart covering the next two years after starting the Patreon:

Mission Accomplished, indeed! That was fabulous, but when you start to think about it a bit deeper, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for a business to depend on Patreon donations to handle such a basic function. Like, what are we doing with all that revenue that's coming in? And indeed, with such an increase in our overall business taking place over those years, salaries here - Cameron included, of course - began to be paid from general revenue.

So I began to look at the Patreon revenue in a different way. I posted about this some time back … even though our business was indeed moving along well, there were things that I needed to do that were beyond our financial resources:

  • Wood. Over the past couple of years, Aoyama-san and I have hunted up logs of (very expensive) cherry-wood. We have had them sliced for drying, and now have chunks of the stuff scattered all over the place upstairs. Bit by bit, some 'samples' from this resource have made their way down to our carving benches, but it is clear - we have been using it too soon; the wood needs to dry longer. Patreon support is (and this is ongoing) putting wood into our 'wood savings account'.
  • Mulberry. There is a huge crisis approaching in the production of traditional paper. You've perhaps all heard about the decrease in the number of papermakers; that's not new. But the ramifications are now spreading wider, and mulberry suppliers are also leaving the business. This is a big one, and we are trying to buy some 'insurance' by purchasing and stocking the raw fibre (which will quite peacefully wait for years before processing, if need be). Patreon support has helped us do this.
  • Training. I have to be careful what I say here, because a bit of this is kind of private between me and people involved, but it makes up an important part of the Patreon revenue. Just in the past two months alone, I have been forced to reject three complete groups of prints being handed in by some of our printers. These people are paid by the piece, and know the rules - they get paid for the acceptable prints. But this is the 21st century, and I am not a monster, and they are trying to make a living, and we cannot follow that rule blindly. So in cases like this, where I feel that we cannot honestly sell those prints, we pay the printer on that job on a 'time spent' basis. They hand Cameron a time sheet, and he compensates them based on the time they spent, paying an hourly wage. The prints … and the beautiful and expensive washi … are a write-off. Patreon support gives me the complete freedom to do this, to try and find a good balance in the jobs that I send them, to try and help them grow by sometimes including 'difficult' work …

These things have been part of the Patreon 'mix', and will continue to be so as we move forward. But of course, the landscape over the past year has now completely changed. Those things I just mentioned - nice to have, but not perhaps vitally 'essential' - are still present, but the huge problem I have faced is how to deal with the Asakusa building during the pandemic. There is no rent 'holiday' here in Tokyo. Our landlady is not independently wealthy. We have been required to pay monthly rent, in an expensive district, on a shop that has been closed for over a year.

Some of you have heard me talk about this issue on our Twitch stream; perhaps some of you read blog posts I have made about this now and again during the past year. It has all come down to a simple choice:

A) Cut and run. Run away from our lease; return back to Ome; forget the idea of having a shop; disperse the workroom; switch over to using freelance printers; become an online organization.

B) Stick it out. Keep the building; keep the workroom and the team upstairs; keep the 'brand', etc. etc. Of course keep working on the printmaking, but for Asakusa … hold on. Just hold on. Believe that somewhere down the line, the borders will re-open, and Mokuhankan here in Asakusa can come back to life, ready for the fans coming in the door again …

Well as you all know by now, I went with the B) playbook. But it is absolutely and totally clear to us all, that this has only been possible because of the Patreon backstop. For many of you, I don't think this is what you 'signed on for' when you began to support our activities in this way, but that's where we stand now. The Patreon revenue is balancing our Asakusa costs, for all three of the leases we hold on this building, as well as the ancillary expenses.

A moment ago, I said I was astonished by the Patreon graph for a number of reasons. Look at how stable it has been! Every month a few people join … a few people leave … but that this has balanced out so well seems incredible to me. But then look at what happened starting just around a year ago, as the pandemic took hold. I was worried that the revenue would crash - after all, people were losing their jobs right and left, and of course would thus have to cancel their support of our activities. But no; instead of declining, it began to rise …

I really don't understand what is happening here. But it perhaps helps to think back to a conversation I had one day here in the shop 'back when' … The person was a long-time supporter, here in Japan for the first time, very very excited to be visiting us. I don't remember the exact words of our conversation, but when she mentioned that she was a Patreon supporter I must have thanked her, and perhaps said something like "I sometimes feel a bit guilty about taking money like this; I'm sure you must have many needs and requirements of your own …" She replied along the lines of, "Please don't worry about that. I can afford the few $ per month that I'm putting in. I understand the difficulty of this thing you are trying to do - to build a stable organization in such a ridiculous and hugely labour-intensive field as traditional woodblock printmaking. In our computerized world this just shouldn't be happening. But here it is …" - she gestured around the shop - " … and I am just so happy to feel like I am a part of it!"

And … I even got a 'free' hug … :-)


So that's where things stand, here as I write this for you this evening.

It has been a long day, and I am going to bed soon, to sleep very well! As always. Well, of course I sleep well ...

  • Debt? None. Liabilities? Zero.
  • Interesting work waiting tomorrow morning? Infinite!
  • Surrounded by co-workers who believe in what we are trying to build? Yes, indeed!
  • Are there people interested in what we are doing here? The flood of support and warmth and participation just goes on and on and on …
  • Are there people interested in obtaining some of our products? Hah hah hah hah hah hah …. … … (sob) …

Thank you again ... and goodnight for now!




Added by: J. Iseri on June 2, 2021

Thanks for the update Mr. Bull! Glad to see how Mokuhankan is 'holding on' during these troubling times. Love from Hawaii!

Added by: J. Iseri on June 2, 2021

Thanks for the update Mr. Bull! Glad to see how Mokuhankan is 'holding on' during these troubling times. Love from Hawaii!

Added by: Pierre Rose on June 3, 2021

Thank you for the comprehensive view of the businjess aspect of your art/craft. It is heartwarming to know thatyou and all involved are so far "OK". Saw a print tonight in the Flea market I think I must have!

Pierre Rose

Seattle, WA


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