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A Visit to Mokuhankan - Part Two

Posted by Dave Bull at 8:09 AM, November 13, 2010 [Permalink]

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

Directly opposite the front entrance through which Dave and his guest had come is a wide staircase; they begin to go up. It leads to what the guest at first assumes is a mezzanine, but which opens out quite a long way back.

The workroom is very airy and spacious - skylit - and all the furnishings and structures are a light wood finish. There is greenery everywhere, with planters being 'built-in' around (and over!) many of the work areas. Music is playing - something with a light Brazilian beat. It is clear from the layout that there is a 'zone' where we are permitted to walk through the shop to observe the people at work - the workstations are set behind a low railing which defines how far we can approach. Some of the stations have a large mirror above them - just like the ones in TV cooking programs - to help us see what is going on.

Dave and his guest head over to the left side of the shop, where there are a couple of printing stations side-by-side. Each printer is seated on a slightly elevated platform, with a printing block on a slanted board in front at waist level. Mounted on the low railing between us and each of the workers is a panel with an image of the print this craftsman is working on, along with notes about the process. A message scribbled on a 'whiteboard' section of the panel gives information on what is going on this morning.

Each panel also has a 'flippable' sign. Dave shows the guest both sides: 'Please don't disturb' or 'It's OK to talk to me'. As it happens, both of these workers have the sign flipped to the 'don't disturb' side, so Dave simply nods a greeting to them, and turns to his guest.

Dave: You know, I encourage them to keep those signs flipped the other way as much as they can, but it's simply not always possible. A lot of this work needs pretty steady concentration, and they have to be allowed to work in peace. But a few of them (especially the girls, interestingly) have no problem communicating while they work, nor do I usually, so they make themselves available. And the customers usually respect the situation, and don't make a nuisance of themselves.

They turn and inspect the overall layout of the room. There are two more 'paired' printing stations, making six in all, but only four of them are in use this morning.

Dave: I think you can get the basic idea: there are stations for each person to do his own printing, and a common area for them all to share. Over there, where you see the sink and countertop - that's the 'wet zone' where pigments are mixed, brushes washed, etc. Next to it are the large glass cabinets full of pigments, glues, and all the other printing supplies. The large table in the central area is where they do such jobs as cutting paper, drying the finished prints, and other work that requires a wider space than the individual stations provide.

One of the stations - that one over there that isn't in use this morning - is specially outfitted with a hood and air extraction. That's used whenever anybody is printing with mica powder or metal dust; stuff that we don't want floating around in the air.

Guest: Is that a camera that I see mounted over the workstations?

Dave: Yes. Those are video cameras, and they are all 'live webcams', accessible through the website any time that somebody is working. 'Big Brother' is watching them, but of course they don't mind ...

Every five minutes or so a small musical tone is heard from somewhere in the background, followed by a small set of beeps, as though somebody in another room was using a touch-tone telephone for a moment. These are apparently being ignored by everybody, but on one of these occasions, the printers all look up after hearing the tone, and give a little cheer, apparently aiming this at one of their number, who looks both pleased and a bit sheepish.

Dave looks at the Guest to see if he understands, but the Guest has no idea, and simply looks quizzically back at him.

Dave: It's just for fun. Our computerized order system - tracking both the register at the counter downstairs and the online orders - gives out those little 'chimes' whenever orders are received. They mean nothing to the general person, but they are actually coded by tone, different for each craftsman, and are telling us what kind of prints were in the order. That last one was carrying the information that a sale has just been made of a full set of prints made by the printer over there ... a very nice order!

Guest: So is she going to get a bonus for this? And you were going to explain about Trainees and Apprentices ....

Dave: Yes, I got a bit sidetracked, sorry. Let's go over here and sit for a while.

They move through a little gate in the railing, over to a table and chairs in the common area, where they take seats. They sit and talk while the work goes on around them - the four printers continuing with their rhythmic work, and two carvers, who we haven't 'met' yet, busy at their own stations across the room.

The faint bell tones continue to chime now and then in the background. Customers come up the stairs from the shop, and stroll around watching the work. Not all the craftsmen have the 'Do not Disturb' sign posted, and the visitors sometimes ask questions about what they are seeing.

The clerk from downstairs comes up and brings Dave and his guest a tea tray. They continue their conversation:

Dave: We have three 'levels' of craftsmen here. First are the Trainees, the people who come to us with very low, or zero, skills. If we decide to take them on, they become employees, and are given a guaranteed base salary, but just barely enough to live on. These are nearly all quite young people, and they are not supporting a family. They are given work of the type you saw in that section of the shop downstairs, quite rudimentary, simple enough such that they will soon be able to produce saleable products. Just as with all the craftsmen in this building, they are paid a % of the retail price, although for them, this is quite low. They get by. They are kept very busy, but they get by. They cannot choose their own work, and all their jobs are assigned by the workshop manager, although they are free to stay and use the work stations after hours for their own projects, should they wish. None of the prints in the rest of the store - other than those in that special section you saw - were touched by beginner trainees.

But as I mentioned, once their skills begin to develop, they begin to share in the normal Mokuhankan printing jobs, always working at first with somebody else on the same job. If they progress well, at some point they are good enough to leave behind the trainee-level work, and take their share in the normal work of the shop. They are promoted to the position of Apprentice, and still receive that base salary, but now earn a higher % of the retail price. Most of their work is still assigned by the managers in accordance with their skills, but they are also allowed to request to be included in suitable jobs from the list of pending projects that is on display in the workshop (we will see this later). At some point, they begin to work on projects completely by themselves. We of course, always monitor their work very closely.

The girl over there - the one who was the recipient of that little cheer for the sale of the prints - is one of our Apprentices, and although she has already received payment for that job (we pay them monthly, for work completed that month), she's still gratified to hear that it has sold.

Apprentices can remain in that status for as long as they wish, and we have a few who have been like this for quite some time. But some of them at some point decide to take the next step, and ask us to make them Freemen. This request is always initiated by them, not by us.

We will only allow this with those people who we feel have developed a very good all-round skill set, and this will only happen after some years have passed. The Freemen are no longer our employees, and they lose their base salary completely. The 'promotion' to Freeman actually means they are being 'fired', as it were. They become self-employed craftsmen, who have permission to use our facilities. But their % of the selling price of any print is double that of an Apprentice, so when one of the workers here is making his/her calculation about whether to take that step, they have to balance the loss of their base salary against the gain in their % income. They have to be a good, and fast, printer. Freemen are completely free to choose from any of the jobs posted on the list, and - being self-employed - are free to go and do outside work if they wish. Some of them don't work here every day. But in order to 'hold' their work station here, and to keep their privileges for selecting jobs, they must give us at least 15 days of work in any given month.

Guest: It all sounds quite complicated!

Dave: Not at all; it's actually a very straight-forward and simple system, once you get used to it. And all the percentages and numbers are out in the open for anybody to see and understand. The 'royalty' payments to the craftsmen are all printed on the price tags, as you have seen, and everybody knows how much everybody else is making. Have you visited that section of the Mokuhankan website where the craftsmen are introduced? Did you click through to the section that lists the jobs they have done, and the ones they are working on? You can even get a read-out of the royalty payments made to each person. We've actually got customers who watch our online catalogue for new work coming up by their favourite craftsmen here! Then they watch on the webcams while it gets printed ... these people have fans!

Guest: Well, that's certainly a different story from what I hear it was like back in the old days. I understand the craftsmen were never credited.

Dave: In the mid-20th century some of the publishers began to put carver and printer names on the prints, but back in Edo or Meiji it was basically unheard of. But from our point of view, these people deserve just as much credit as the designers, and on all the prints that are large enough for it, their names are embossed too.

Guest: You explained that the printers are paid at a kind of 'piece work' rate, but how does that work for the carvers who cut the blocks?

Dave: The standard procedure for print publishers has been to pay the carver a flat rate for a block set, based on how complicated and/or time consuming the particular job is. The publisher then owns the blocks, and can use them to make many many prints over the subsequent years. Cherry blocks are actually very strong, and will last for a long time if treated carefully. So a good block set for a popular print design is a real 'gold mine' for a publisher. But we do things a bit differently - although at first it was very difficult to get carvers to agree to it.

We don't pay the carver that flat rate; we pay him a royalty based on a % of each copy printed from them, much like we do for printers. It's a bit of a plus/minus for them, which is why the older carvers didn't want to play along; they get less money up front at the completion of any particular job, because their first payment is based on the first batch of prints we pull, and that may only be a hundred copies or so. But the other side of the coin of course, is that when a design sells well and is reprinted, they are paid again at that time. And this never ends! We continue to pay them a percentage of every print pulled from that block set, no matter how many years have passed.

Guest: Why would you have set up such an arrangement? It must be costing Mokuhankan more overall for carving costs than under the traditional arrangement.

Dave: It is. And for popular items, it is costing us much more. But we just see it as the fairest way to handle the situation. And there is another factor lurking in the background here - carving is a much more difficult job than printing. Although they both need quite a lot of skill to do properly, it is an unavoidable fact that it takes a far longer time for a youngster to get 'good' at carving, than it does for printing. We are very concerned about our future supply of carvers, and in response to this - simple supply and demand, really - we up the ante, and pay them well.

Guest: So that's the system for the people making the prints; what about those who design them? You said you had contemporary work too ...

Dave: All of the people who contribute 'hands-on' to making these prints share in the proceeds when they sell. The same 'royalty' policy applies to designers, in the case of the contemporary work we have in our catalogue. None of them are paid flat fees for their designs; they too get a percentage for each copy printed. There are artists out there who will have nothing to do with us, either they won't work for a percentage, or they want us to limit the editions, something we absolutely will never do. Prints are for enjoying, not for investing.

And all these costs are listed on the price tag for every print in the shop, as you saw downstairs. We've found that people really enjoy seeing that their payment for a print is going directly to the people responsible for making it.

At this point in their conversation they are interrupted by a young woman who has come into the workroom and approached their table. Dave stands up, introduces her to his guest, and asks her to give a short overview of her work. It turns out that she is the manager of the workroom, responsible for ordering the paper and woodblocks (long in advance of need) along with all the other supplies, and also handles the assignments of jobs, distributing the work among the craftsmen in accordance with their skills (and their seniority). She observes the work as it progresses, and is ultimately responsible for the quality of the finished products.

She also works closely with the manager of the store downstairs, who studies inventory levels, considers seasonal factors, and decides when (and to what quantity) each design should be reprinted.

She then talks with Dave for a minute, about some business or other, but a voice comes over the building intercom system, paging her; she is wanted in the shop downstairs. After she leaves, the guest turns to Dave and laughs.

Guest: While the two of you were talking, I was just sitting here looking around and couldn't help but notice that sign hanging up there - the one on the panel facing the craftsmen, where customers can't see it. Is that for real?

Dave: Oh yes, but I do have to admit that when new craftsmen coming to join us first see it they certainly don't know what to think. It's not very 'Japanese' is it?

"It is the goal of every one of you to make me into the 'worst' craftsman in this building! And I'm not kidding. Dave."

Guest: But why would you say such a thing?

Dave: I really have no time for that tradition here of extreme respect for a sensei when it is carried to the point where there can't be the slightest criticism or challenge to his ideas. I'm very good at what I do, but I don't want these people to be intimidated by that, or to 'hang back' at all; I want them to step forward and challenge me with their skills, and with their ideas. It's difficult for them sometimes, and to help get the point across, I never let them call me 'sensei'. I'm Dave. And at the meeting this evening you'll see another facet of how we push them to push me!

Dave and his guest now go back out into the public area of the workshop, walking over to the carving stations. There are two people working in this area today; Dave greets them, and chats about their work for a short time. He then turns back to his guest.

Dave: It's not so apparent today, because they are both working on small detail at the moment, but this part of the shop is sometimes noisy. They use mallets and chisels to clear out wide areas of wood, and that can be quite bothersome for people nearby. That's why they are separated from the printers, and you perhaps hadn't noticed, but those planters there - the ones with the vertical slats - are positioned to act as a kind of sound barrier; when he is ready to do some vigorous hammer work he simply pulls down that lever at the side there, and the slats in the whole row all close, helping damp down the sound. We also make sure that they use chisels without steel handles, as those create too much noise.

Anyway, I think it's time we headed back downstairs. There is a lot more to show you, and I want to end up at our final stop before the lunch rush begins!

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

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


Following comment posted by: Marilynn Smith on November 14, 2010 4:00 AM

Passing down skills traditions and even items comes with age. I got a call from my daughter this morning asking me where to find some special items one would use when serving traditional holiday meals to family. She wanted a "pretty" pie plate, a nice gravy boat and a turkey platter. (I think it was a "hint", mom can you pass some things down to me?) I have them all and it made me realize it was time to pass them down. Being 60 or more years of age does indeed put us in a position to pass down skills, knowledge and family heirlooms. Your dream shop would pass down and create something very special. The only fear I would have is starting something that might be a financial risk when facing senior years. Than again if you don't move to the next stage in life will you have financial security in your senior years?

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