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A Visit to Mokuhankan - Part One

Posted by Dave Bull at 8:05 AM, November 12, 2010 [Permalink]

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, but we try to keep things 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.

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 15% 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 - and they then become Apprentices.

Guest: I don't quite understand the difference between a Trainee and an Apprentice.

Dave: Best way to explain that is to go and meet some of them. Let's head upstairs to the workroom!

(Part one of five. The series continues in part two.)


Following comment posted by: Barbara Mason on November 13, 2010 12:07 AM

This should be a reality...what a great idea

Following comment posted by: Marilynn Smith on November 13, 2010 12:44 AM

You are a vivid and talented writer. I can envision your dream shop! To move with age into the revered master with a shop that trains and passes on a tradition seems wonderful. You started the Baren list, you are indeed a man with vision.

Following comment posted by: Margaret on November 13, 2010 3:10 AM

I don't think the "trainee premium" is ridiculous. In fact, I think that concept could be expanded upon. People like to be patrons (or at least I do!) and that kind of premium is one way to be a patron at a relatively low cost.

Were I setting up this shop, I'd make it a non-profit (I have no idea if that's possible in Japan), and in addition to things like the optional "trainee premium," I'd actively solicit donations and sponsorship for things like trainee scholarships or classes for the general public. Creating an organization that could receive grants would help defray the costs of training, and would also enable more people to be involved than could be supported purely by the sale of goods.

Following comment posted by: Tom Kristensen on November 13, 2010 6:02 AM

The rolling cart made me smile - I am seeing premises the size of supermarket.

I take your anti-frame policy on board, but I doubt that we can keep frames out of the picture. After the print leaves home it will often hook up with a frame. No amount of parental advise can deter that which comes naturally, pictures will be framed.

I am not big on frames myself and yet I am often taking work to the framer, for various reasons; galleries won't hang work that isn't framed, friends who want to honour your work always ask for a frame. As a print collector I know that framing is like a gaol sentence for a print, with some luck a print may earn an early release but it will always bear scars around the edges. The paroled print can never have youth restored, and till the end of its days the pallid print will tell anyone who cares to listen "I was framed".

As a printmaker I think it is a little too precious to tell people what they should do with their prints. Nothing lasts for ever, some prints will molder in a damp drawer, while others will bleach on a wall. Prints are made in number and some will survive longer than others. Let a few innocents hang.

I do have one print hanging on the wall, a Saito that I bought on ebay and found that the framer had glued the entire print to both the mount and the mat. No release for this print, and I must say that it has been a constant inspiration. I look at it often and try to figure out how it was made. I admire the restraint of the design, the beautiful texture and the limited colour. But I doubt this print would reveal much under subdued light, this print was made to hang on a modernist wall. It is the best money I ever wasted on a print.

I also bought a little cat print by Inagaki Tomoo that came in a clever little Japanese frame. It was probably forty years old, so perhaps they are no longer made. This frame was made for the purpose of being able to easily change the print. The plywood backing was held in place by two timber battens that swiveled into grooves in the frame. By releasing the battens the picture comes apart. This is a nice compromise for the print buyer who wants to hang art on the wall - for a short time.

Following comment posted by: Dave on November 13, 2010 11:34 AM

make it a non-profit (I have no idea if that's possible in Japan)

Very difficult indeed, and perhaps impossible for a 'private person' like myself. The Adachi people have a Foundation, and I assume this is basically to get some kind of tax-exempt status, although I don't really know the details behind it all. Tax deductions for donations are pretty much unknown here. But we start to move towards territory that I will not enter; I was going to include a bit in this posting where there was a sign above the front door that said, "No government money was harmed in the production of any of our prints!" But I think I'll keep quiet about it for now, and fight that battle later!

But yes, including 'normal people' in sponsorship and support will have to be very much a part of the picture I think. All purely voluntary, with (hopefully) good value given in return.

The rolling cart made me smile ...

I had to restrain myself actually; I started to get a bit carried away, and originally wrote it as a little robotic cart that would then make its own way back to the shipping/receiving area with all the prints on board. I do tend to let myself get side-tracked by irrelevant stuff sometimes ...

a clever little Japanese frame ...

Openable and reusable frames are indeed very common here, available in every art supply shop. The idea to take it down and change it for something else is well understood. At times in the past, I have 'considered' (not very seriously) supplying something like that with my own sets, but once I came up with the idea for the display/storage boxes for my Treasure Chests, I put that thought to bed forever!

Following comment posted by: Barbara Mason on November 16, 2010 11:24 PM

The unframed work is something every artist likes to see, I just facilitated an exchange show with New Zealand and Northwest printmakers and we hung all the work mounted with photo corners and unframed on black foam core. I might not have even known this would work if not for seeing Dave do it over the years. People attending the exhibit seem to appreciate being able to see the work without glass, almost unheard of in the USA.
When you get this going Dave, you have many friends that will contribute to help it move forward and there are international grant makers, I would do a little research on being a non-profit international company, you might have to incorporate in the USA or Canada to do so.

Following comment posted by: Dave on November 17, 2010 12:31 AM

being a non-profit international company ...

I'm now working on a set of spreadsheets, to try and work out just how much of what I 'proposed' in this exercise might actually be practical/possible. But one thing is non-negotiable - there will be no grants involved, and no subsidies. It will be very much a 'for profit' organization. If this thing can't stand on its own two feet, on the basis of an honest relationship between the producers and the consumers, then it's a non starter. This is the philosophy on which I have run my operations here right from the very first step. Many of the people buying my prints may indeed be doing so to 'try and help out'; I have no problem with that at all, and of course their support is very much appreciated. But that is a personal matter between they and I, and my venture 'pays its way' in society the same way as my neighbours do, by being subject to the (quite reasonable) taxes applied on our earnings.

Having said that, it may indeed turn out to be not possible to operate a business of the type that I have described. Back in the 'old days' of woodblock production here in Japan, circumstances were very different:

  • labour was very inexpensive
  • labour was very skilled
  • the yen was dirt cheap vis-a-vis the dollar (and other overseas currencies)
  • supplies were inexpensive (and of very high quality)

None of those things are now true. And not only are they not true - they are inverted! On the face of it, it is simply insane to even think about this kind of venture.

But I can't help thinking - based on my own experience over the past twenty years making prints for sale - that even though the economics are stacked against this sort of thing, there is still a way to make it happen. And I think that will involve the same 'Three Steps to Success'™ that I have followed in my own printmaking:

  • 1) Get good at what you do - and I mean good; world-class no question about it good!
  • 2) Be enthusiastic about what you do - again ... enthusiastic, over-the-top, no holds barred excited!
  • 3) Communicate that enthusiasm! Non-stop, gush-it-out, let them know how excited you are about what you do!

Will that be enough? Well, I think so. What the spreadsheets are telling me so far is that in order to carry anything like the kind of infrastructure I am proposing, there has to be a lot of sales volume, obviously. I think that given the size of the potential market - global - and the track record I have shown with my own very limited ventures so far, the consumer side of this should be possible. I think we could sell a lot of prints.

What I can't see anywhere near as clearly, is the production side. We're not talking about making widgets here, where you just 'dial up' more production as needed. I can't just pick up the phone and hire another printer; it simply doesn't work that way. It will have to begin very slowly, on a very small scale, and can only succeed if I am able to 'infect' a group of people with the same virus that I seem to have caught many years ago. People who will drink the Kool-aid, and let themselves be convinced that yes indeed, all these hours of work in the production of some coloured scraps of paper are actually 'worth it'. That the journey is the thing, and that the journey can be fun.

So far, it's been a 'solo' journey for me (speaking of the production side here). Do I really want to try it on a 'more the merrier' basis?

Well, that's just one of the questions that will need to be answered over this coming year, as the 再起動@60 date approaches ...

Following comment posted by: Tom Kristensen on November 17, 2010 8:08 AM

I feel there is a tension between the past and the future. Will your love of the woodblock past be sufficiently contagious to inspire all the Mokuhankan newbies? Will there be a continuation of your emphasis on Fukkoku, or will you be seeking designers to produce new work? Which direction is more likely to fire the imagination of the workers and the buying public? Its an old issue, but still it needs to be raised, is it more viable to create new art or re-create old art?

Will all the planter boxes bring fungus to the workplace?

Will the baren biscuits come with a licorice coil?

Following comment posted by: Dave on November 17, 2010 8:20 AM

fukkoku ... or new work?

For non-Japanese readers, 復刻 (the term Tom used) indicates 'reproductions' ...

This is certainly an important point, but it's interesting that although I mentioned in passing during the story that there would be both reproductions in the shop, as well as originals, I myself don't much care whether or not any one of these has priority - nor would have even brought it up!

This fits in with my own approach to prints, which treats them for the most part as beautiful 'objects', over and above the particular 'content' of the design. Hokusai reproduction, or Tom Kristensen original - it's all the same to me ...

But anyway, I did specifically discuss the inclusion of modern work, and I suspect that it would indeed become a very important part of such a venture.

fungus ...

Don't see any reason why such an environment should be any more unhealthy for prints that the one in which I live right now - which (given the leakiness of this Japanese house) is basically outdoors!

biscuits ... licorice

The design of these has not progressed beyond the concept inside Dave's head. Get into the kitchen, get some samples made up, and show us. If your design 'works', and I do eventually get this thing going, you'll get your royalties!

Following comment posted by: Tom Kristensen on November 17, 2010 9:11 AM

Hokusai reproduction, or Tom Kristensen original - it's all the same to me ...

Thanks Dave, but its not really all the same. The only edge I could have over any Hokusai design, original or reproduction, is that I am alive and I might do something new. A small advantage, but its the best I've got.

I recently bought myself a lovely Hokusai shunga print and it was so beautifully made that I felt sad looking at it. It can never really be reproduced. the paper will never be made again. The skill in the carving will never be equaled. Granted, a good reproduction is still a thing of great beauty, but it will always be competing with the original and this is a stigma that is hard to shift for many.

When I asked about original designs, I was thinking of the shin hanga publishers who commissioned painters to bring in appealing images. Then there were the modernist print makers who (arguably) made a virtue out of their limited skill set. As far as I can tell these are the two main groups that made money from woodblock prints in the last century. Both groups relying on an artist to produce new images.

In this internet era, it might work to open up some type of design competition.

Following comment posted by: Dave on November 17, 2010 9:28 AM

Well, to repeat, I did project that there would be plenty of new work included in the Mokuhankan catalogue.

But as a bit of extra info, I can share some history: during the production of my Surimono Album series, on three occasions I asked a designer to supply an image, offering a royalty. This was a big extra expense for me, because of course I need pay no royalties for the reproductions of old work.

The two Americans who I asked - John Amoss and Gary Luedtke - responded enthusiastically and agreed instantly. The Japanese designer I approached gave me a list of demands, including that the edition be limited, that the price be increased far above that of the other prints in the set, and that he maintain total control over the production (supervising printers, etc. etc) including power of rejection if it didn't look exactly as he expected.

Thanks but no thanks. End of discussion. So that is why the only modern artists represented in that series are foreigners (other than the ex-copyright Hiroshi Yoshida I included).

So who knows, perhaps the 'original' section in the future Mokuhankan shop will be mostly foreign work ... (Maybe including some Tom K.?)

Following comment posted by: Tom Kristensen on November 17, 2010 10:00 AM

I hear you Dave, and in fact I have had similar problems when proposing collaborations with other artists, you do the design, I'll make the prints, result; waiting, waiting... no design. The excitement of collaboration should bring an added synergy to the production of art, but it seems hard to bring a good team together.

So who knows, perhaps the 'original' section in the future Mokuhankan shop will be mostly foreign work ... (Maybe including some Tom K.?)

I am always easy to deal with.

Following comment posted by: Dale Evans on November 19, 2010 12:47 PM

I really like the whole concept of your 'imaginary' venture even though I suspect that only the setting is imaginary: you have already had small trials of most of the major themes and they obviously do work. When is the GRAND OPENING!?!

Following comment posted by: Kalle Pihlajasaari on November 19, 2010 3:26 PM

Hi Dave,

Wonderful virtual interview, interesting viewpoint for you as the writer.

I expect that you already know this, but should you go ahead with such or a similar plan you are almost sure to succeed. You have a dream, the skills, a plan and have visualised it in graphic details and I can see you have your positive emotions invested in it as well. The final step in realising goals is to start the process of implementation and I think you have subconsciously and/or surreptitiously already started this long ago, (who knows you may already have put in a option to purchase the property next door in a few years time, after all older houses in Japan are reasonably priced you mentioned elsewhere :-).

While I am not a wood block printer and have patience issues with pulling hand prints I also do relief prints, I also share your goal to preserve skills, history and tradition. I plan to convert my hot-metal typesetting shop into a working museum in time but my goals are not as clearly defined as yours yet.

Your ability and adaptability with the old and new world skills will also serve you well in this modern fast paced world where your biggest danger with attracting new customers and clients at first will be the need to pander to the need for instant gratification. I believe after many have purchased their first wood block print they will grow in patience and appreciate the time it takes to create the old crafts.

Your plan has all the details needed to be a success; an education program of some sort will give back to the youth in the community and gain future trainees.

Good fortune

Following comment posted by: Dave on November 19, 2010 6:27 PM

Thanks again for the comments that are coming in bit by bit for these stories. I'm happy that most people seem to think that this would be something worthwhile to undertake.

you have already had small trials of most of the major themes and they obviously do work ...

Yes indeed; there is nothing radical or revolutionary about anything that I proposed for Mokuhankan, and many of the component elements have been tested 'on the sly' as it were.

It is very easy to build castles in the air though, and 'having a dream, and visualizing it in graphic details' is also a lot of fun, but it is all to easy to forget that a castle in the air needs no foundation! A castle here on the ground most definitely does.

Dreams mean nothing in the light of cold hard facts. I expounded some of the 'negatives' in a comment above - the very difficult economic realities of the situation - and I have to tell you that the early versions of my spreadsheets don't look all that strong!

It comes down to a kind of bottom line calculation - how many people can be supported by the efforts of one printer? Or in other words, how many printers have to be working full-time to be able to support the kind of infrastructure and staff that I visualized? Well, based on typical printer throughputs, and typical printer costs, and typical retail shop margins, it turns out that a very efficient printer can probably support 1.5 other people, perhaps 2. And that is only assuming that sales volume can keep up with him - that we sell everything he makes.

Now it wasn't really clear just how many people were employed there at the wonderful world of Mokuhankan that I visualized in the stories, but it seemed to be around nine or ten, I guess (other than the craftsmen). So ... if there were six printers pumping away every day, and if the retailing was efficient enough to actually get their products out the door, we might have a chance.

But in one sense, it is perhaps not necessary to try and pin this down quite so strictly. I have no capital (speaking of actual money, not the other kind of capital that Marc mentioned in his comment), so there is never going to be a way that this place can be simply 'set up', in one go. There will be no 'Grand Opening' I'm afraid! It will have to grow from seed.

So - assuming for the moment that 1) the spreadsheets don't shoot it down completely, and 2) that I myself do decide that this is the kind of future I want (something that is not yet a given), the question then becomes, "How could we get there from here?"

And I think the best way to begin to answer that, will be with another imaginary post. Not Mokuhankan 2020, or whatever date that one was (I avoided pinning it down), but with Mokuhankan 2012 - what it might look like just a year or so from now. Let me think about this a bit ...

Following comment posted by: Marc Kahn on November 20, 2010 5:23 AM

On your Mokuhankan website front page, you've got a link to "The Concept". It seems to me that it would be a good idea to add a link to your 5-part series of the tour of future-Mokuhankan to your concept page.

[Done! ... thanks Marc!]

Following comment posted by: David Bellero_Shield on November 21, 2010 8:51 AM


Please dont' give up on the idea of enlisting the talents of contemporary Japanese designers/illustrators into the creative workflow of Mokuhankan's production.

It is indeed a shame that so many talented Japanese artists are limited by the output from software the likes of Sai or Photoshop. They simply have no idea what they are missing out on.

You have to seduce the contemporary Japanese talent by exposure to the voluptuous pleasures of the hand-cut/hand-printed/individually-determined colorways of a process their ancestors brought into this world for future generations to enjoy.

Inviting contemporary artists living in Japan for a cup of tea or lunch is a good way to start the process of re-introducing the gift into their lives.

Suggesting to a few that dipping their toes into the pool by making a commitment to do only one print to see how they like the experience knowing that they will be receiving a royalty payment into the future depending on how the work sells would be a win for all parties.

I wish I still lived in Japan.

Following comment posted by: Dave on November 21, 2010 8:58 AM

Please dont' give up on the idea of enlisting the talents of contemporary Japanese designers

I certainly haven't given up ... and in fact, collectors of the Mystique series - if some current discussions work out satisfactorily - will be getting a front-row seat ...

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