Woman with Umbrella

Our year of back-and-forth 'time travel' ends in the mid-Meiji period, with this print from Tomioka Eisen. It is of the type known as kuchi-e (literally: 'mouth picture') - prints which were produced to be inserts in magazines. This was the period when presses were taking over the commercial printing business in Japan, replacing the labour-intensive traditional methods, and making it possible for periodicals to enjoy wide circulation. One such magazine was the 'Bungei Kurabu', and our print was an insert to one of the monthly issues. I do not know whether it was intended to represent a particular scene from one of the stories in the magazine, or was just a 'generic' design, but I found it quite attractive when I first saw it some years ago, and have been waiting since then for a chance to make my reproduction.

But what an incredible thing that was - for a publisher to include a print like this as a 'freebie' with each copy of a monthly magazine! And this is no 'knock-off' job; although the print seems quite simple in appearance, there are nearly 20 printing impressions! Many printers must have worked together in teams in order to produce the tens of thousands of copies that were needed each month. Whenever I speak to some of the older printers about the production of Meiji-era kuchi-e, they always shake their heads ... "Those guys could print! If you had a chance to watch one of them, you wouldn't believe what you were seeing - just a blur of motion ... and all day long, hundreds of sheets at a time ..."

Well, that they must have been fast I certainly can believe, but what is more surprising to me is the level of quality they maintained even when working at such high production speeds. The registration is usually perfect, and the impressions are smooth and even. I don't know if they were well paid for their work or not, but the fact that the prints were tossed aside so easily would tend to make us suspect that they were produced very cheaply. And tossed aside they were ... and are. I'm not quite sure if I should tell you this next part ... because I know a 'secret', and the fewer people I tell, the better it is for me!

We have to go back in time a bit further, to the end of Edo and the opening up of Japan to the world - to the days of the Black Ships. Foreigners coming into 'exotic' Japan found many things of interest here of course, and among them were the ukiyo-e prints. They bought up as many as they could carry home, and the Japanese of the day were quite happy to sell them, as they were considered to be of little value. As a consequence of this, museums around the world are now stuffed with vast collections of those old prints, and very little good material remains here in its country of origin. Now we've all heard about this, and perhaps we now say to ourselves, "Oh, if only I could go back in time, and pick up some of those Sharaku or Utamaro masterpieces for just a couple of dollars!"

But you can! That's the secret I mentioned! You don't need to go 'back in time' ... you are already there! We are now going through exactly the same situation with these kuchi-e prints that we did with ukiyo-e all those years ago. There are stacks of them in the bookshops here in Tokyo, but who wants them? Only the 'silly' foreigners - the foreigners who don't understand that they are 'low-class' woodblock prints, and not 'high-class' art. Each time I buy a few of these prints down in Kanda, as the shop door closes behind me as I leave, two people break out laughing ... the shop owner laughs and thinks, "What a fool he is, to pay me money for those things!" ... and outside the shop I too am laughing, "What a fool he is, to let me take these things for some mere money!"

We're both happy, so of course there is no problem. But I'd like to make you a little bet, that come a hundred years into the future, I know who will still be laughing, and who will be crying ...

Now if you will please excuse me, I think I'd better go and jump on a train for Kanda ... I've got a bit of shopping to do!


February 2001