« A Visit to Mokuhankan - Part Two | Main | A Visit to Mokuhankan - Part Four »

A Visit to Mokuhankan - Part Three

Posted by Dave Bull at 8:12 AM, November 14, 2010 [Permalink]

This thread about Mokuhankan is continued from Part Two, and the series was introduced here.

Dave and his guest go back down the stairs into the shop, which is now considerably busier than before. Two clerks are behind the counter tending to customers, and 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!

(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 administrative 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. They walk the length of the room and pass through an archway into a completely different space.

(Part three of five. The series continues in part four.)

[Comments for any of the five parts can be left back on the page for Part One]

Back to the Main Page