Visit to ... Matsuyoshi Pigment Shop
Mr. Kazuyuki Matsuyoshi
I was looking forward to my visit this time, out gathering information for my 'Hyaku-nin Issho' newsletter, because it took me to my favourite part of Tokyo, an area to which I return time and time again, whenever I have a chance. No, not Asakusa, where many of the woodblock craftsmen live and work, although of course I also love going there, but this time to the Kanda and Jimbocho district. It's that stretch of Yasukuni-dori from Kudanshita along to Ogawamachi that is the magnet for me ... the dozens and dozens of second-hand bookshops all in a long row. Usually, once I get started browsing through these shops, I can pretty much forget about getting anything else done for the rest of the day, but this time, when I came out from the Jimbocho subway station and headed eastwards, I had to steel myself to walk right by all the beckoning mountains of books. Today's mission was different, a visit to the shop of Mr. Kazuyuki Matsuyoshi, dealer in pigments of every description, and the place where I obtain the ganryo, the colours with which I make my prints.
Not too long ago, I would have found his store in an old brown wooden building, but the pressure from the real estate developers put an end to that, and the shop now occupies the ground floor space in a tall modern building. Similar steel and concrete buildings crowd around on both sides, as the old wooden buildings of this block, which narrowly escaped the fires during the war, have all since fallen to less dramatic, but just as effective, forms of destruction. But once inside the shop, such thoughts become irrelevant, as one is surrounded by shelf after shelf, row upon row, of jars of coloured pigments ... stacked from floor to ceiling, up far higher than I can reach. You would like some green pigment? On a few shelves just inside the door stand 92 jars of green, each one different from its neighbour. How about some yellow? More than 50 choices. What about some white? What choice can there be for white? But here I see more than four dozen different white shades standing ready for your choice! And these are all just one particular type of pigment. Similar selection of other types surround on every side. Here on Mr. Matsuyoshi's shelves, and down in his storerooms, are hundreds and thousands of different pigments, made from materials from all parts of the world, waiting for use by all types of artists.
The shop has been here for about 60 years, and was set up by Mr. Matsuyoshi's father, originally as an offshoot of a family business in Kyoto. I had guessed that it would have been a desire to be near artists and book publishers that led him to choose this area for his business, but it seems that this was not the case. Rather it was the proximity to businesses involved in making clothing, who needed various dyes and pigments, and who were once common in this area, that dictated the choice. Times have changed though, and Mr. Matsuyoshi's clientele is no longer purely 'local' in scope. It now includes not only people working with fabric dyeing, but woodblock printmakers like myself, 'kamban' (sign) designers, and of course the Japanese 'nihonga' painters for whom those 92 jars of green are waiting ... His customers are found all over Japan, and the shop even makes some shipments overseas, although Matsuyoshi-san admits that unless he improves his English, this will necessarily remain a minor part of his business ...
There have been some exciting times. Matsuyoshi-san was only a young boy, and thus shipped out to the countryside during the wartime years, but he certainly remembers the time about fifteen years ago when they had a disastrous fire in their storehouse. He has vivid memories of the firemen coming out of the building in their 'new' multi-coloured uniforms. Spraying water over mountains of coloured pigments may seem funny in retrospect, but the clouds of smoke coming from burning toxic materials was probably anything but funny at the time ...
Most of the products in the shop are now sold in a prepared 'ready-to-use' form, but a small row of jars across the top of a cabinet gives testimony as to how the business has changed down the years. In these jars is a collection of some of the raw materials from which various traditional colours are made: flower petals, seeds, cones, etc. Reading the labels ('benibana', 'yamamomo', 'yashiyadama', 'ukon' ...) brings up memories of a vocabulary not often heard nowadays ... as the dust on the jars can testify. But I should not leave the impression that this is a dessicated old shop. During the couple of hours that I sit chatting with Mr. Matsuyoshi, the telephone and fax work continuously. His assistants wrap and pack a number of large boxes to be shipped out, and there is a general hum of activity.
I am not a very good customer of this shop, as I don't make very many prints, and each small packet of inexpensive pigment that I buy lasts me for years on end, but hopefully most of his clients are more productive than I, and his business will be able to survive well into the future. I certainly hope so, because it is an important link in the chain of craftsmen and suppliers without whom I could not continue my work. But of course, I shouldn't say that, because all of those links are vital, none more important than any another. If any one of them were to break, the entire process of making my prints would come to a halt. Matsuyoshi-san, thank you for keeping up your business when all around you are giving up and selling out to those giant sports shops that are taking over your district. I promise to try and get my nose out of the bookshops, and come and visit a bit more often!