Tom on Japan
Japan’s Fascinating Past
Ukiyo - Japan In the Floating World
The year 1600 not only marked a pivotal juncture in Japan’s history but was the start of an era which was to see the birth of Japanese picture prints. That year, after more than a century of brutal warfare among feudal domains intent on expanding territory and power, and unconstrained by any powerful central government, a peace emerged which was to last more than two and a half centuries. A succession of three “great unifiers” had fought bloody battles for nearly 30 years, culminating in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. In that battle the third of those unifiers,Tokugawa Ieyasu, decisively defeated remaining opposition and began to impose his rule over the entire country. Thus began the Tokugawa Shogunate (officially in the year 1603), which chose to locate its capital in what had been the diminutive fishing village of Edo. Today that fishing village is known to the world as Tokyo, the name having changed in 1868 as the centuries-old Tokugawa Shogunate came to an end. (“Edo,” by the way, is pronounced eh-dough)
Daimyo and Compulsory Attendance in Edo
Right from the new shogunate’s start Japan’s emperor remained at the Kyoto-based court which had been home to 800 years of his predecessors, though now only as a figurehead. Real power was to reside in Edo, not Kyoto. Maintaining that power was a critical concern for the shogun. As a result, early Tokugawa shoguns established a variety of mandates and institutions designed to secure their rule. The institution best known even today was alternate year attendance at the Edo capital. Feudal lords (daimyo) with their private samurai militias were a potential threat, particularly those who had opposed Tokugawa Ieyasu in battle but were allowed to keep their heads. To diminish that threat shoguns required daimyo to spend alternate years at the capital—away from their domains where they might otherwise plot and organize resistance. For added insurance shoguns required daimyo who were about to leave Edo for their home domains to keep a close family member behind in the capital, effectively as a hostage.
As an aside, there’s an interesting parallel here to the court of Louis XIV in Versailles during the same general era. Louis required the great French nobles to reside at Versailles for two quarters of each year. His reasons were essentially the same as those of the Shogun. Since Louis’s attendance mandate came after that imposed by the Tokugawa Shogunate it’s reasonable to speculate as to whether Louis got the idea from Edo. The connecting link would have been European traders based in Japan—most likely the Dutch, who were the only Europeans remaining in Japan after 1639. (The Portuguese and Spanish were expelled because the Shogun saw Catholicism as a threat to his rule. The English left of their own accord because they had better trading opportunities elsewhere, though the Shogun wasn’t sorry to see another Christian nation’s traders leave Japan.)
But to return to Edo, there were significant compensations for the daimyo, their families, and the samurai who accompanied them on their biannual journeys. Daimyo from wealthy domains built palatial estates on well-situated lands set aside for them by the shogun. They entertained and held court, much as in their home domain. Cultural opportunities such as the courtly Noh theatre were legion, and unavailable back in the domains, or at the level of quality found in Edo.
For samurai especially, culture became a necessity. Military skill counted for little in an era of peace, hence swordsmanship lost its value as a way to maintain self-esteem or garner the respect of ones peers. Swordsmanship thus gave way to poetry writing, calligraphy, and the teachings of Confucius. Eventually many samurai were called upon to help run the sprawling bureaucracy of the late 19th Century Meiji era. For them the profession of warrior metamorphosed into the calling of bureaucratic manager.
Alternate year attendance, intended as an antidote to potential daimyo revolt, was to have an unanticipated impact on Edo’s economy. Daimyo traveled with retinues of hundreds, or even thousands. Often their heirs, even those not left behind as hostages, made Edo their permanent residence. Life there was too good, and future daimyo became accustomed to the big city’s many attractions. It wasn’t unusual for daimyo-in-waiting to be strangers to their own domains until coming into their inheritance. In Edo daimyo wealth commanded the finest quality goods and objets d’art, and so helped attract ambitious merchants and highly skilled artisans to the capital. Daimyo families, servants and hangers-on, along with the many businesses and trades they attracted, were one factor in Edo’s rapid growth into one of the world’s largest cities. Some estimates put Edo’s population at 1 million within a century and a half after the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, which as we’ve seen led to Japan’s unification and the establishment of Edo as its capital.
But daimyo aside, the growing population of Edo would require a huge number and variety of goods and services at all levels of quality—something which was no problem, however. A business opportunity that big attracted merchants and artisans of all stripes. It wasn’t long before many of these people became prosperous, even wealthy. Mitsui and Sumitomo - two of Japan’s largest corporations today—date their humble origins all the way back to the 17th Century Tokugawa Shogunate.
Entertainments and the Budding Woodblock Print Trade
How did those who were newly prosperous spend their money? Entertainments such as kabuki theater, teahouses, wrestling matches, and brothels put sizable dents in many a net worth. Highly ranked courtesans commanded princely fees, and were the ruin of more than a few addicted merchants—who may have consulted courtesan guides marketed along the lines of today’s big-city restaurant guides. Kabuki actors and courtesans of great note were lionized much like today’s Hollywood screen actors. Many were immortalized in the newly developed trade of single-sheet woodblock picture prints, which originated in the second half of the 17th Century. (Woodblock printing technique had been around for eons but was employed primarily for printing books and religious texts.)
The thing about these new single-sheet woodblock prints (also known as “woodcuts”) is that they were unbelievably cheap. You could buy a print for the price of a bowl of noodles—or for pennies in our own parlance. Such a print today if somehow well-preserved might fetch considerably more than $100,000 at auction. These prints were snapped up by actor and courtesan fans much as aficionados might buy Hollywood fan magazines today. In the coming decades and centuries the trade of woodblock printmaking for the masses would document everyday life under the Tokugawa shoguns.
The Floating World
The 17th to mid-19th Century milieu in which all this money was made and spent often is referred to as the “Floating World” (Ukiyo), originally a Buddhist term for the ephemeral nature of the material world. But in the free-spending world of Tokugawa-era merchants and artisans that meaning was turned on its head. (NOTE: “Edo era” is often used in lieu of “Tokugawa era.” They mean the same thing.) If the material world is fleeting why not make the most of it by taking advantage of every pleasure one can afford. Often those pleasures were to be had in stockaded “Pleasure Districts” set up in major population centers by order of the shoguns—to impose some degree of control on carousing and the like. The most famous was the Yoshiwara in Edo. There men could while away leisure hours at teahouses and brothels, or be entertained by highly ranked courtesans skilled in a variety of arts unrelated to sex. By the mid-18th Century this particular class of courtesans had become less adept at artistic skills, resulting in a ripe business opportunity for women who adopted the term geisha, the appellation for males who entertained brothel customers waiting their turn. The newly-designated female geisha were available to entertain men individually or in groups at teahouse or restaurant parties. (NOTE: Women’s lives were highly restricted in this era. A married woman stayed home and obeyed her mother-in-law. Contemporary mores dictated that wives keep house and procreate. Men sought pleasure elsewhere.)
It was not unusual for financially desperate farmers to sell their young daughters to houses which provided years of rigorous training in the courtesan, and later geisha, arts. Such “sales” were really more like loans, which honorable daughters eventually would repay from their earnings—or which could be repaid by a patron (danna) willing to redeem the debt. Trainees worked long hours to become skilled in the arts of music, dancing, calligraphy, poetry improvisation, and conversation.
In Kyoto, the preeminent location for geisha training and sophistication, experienced trainees were apprenticed as maiko to full-fledged working geisha, whom they accompanied to get a first-hand look at interaction with clients—and maybe perform under the watchful eye of their “older sister” geisha (onesan). Kyoto was so special in the “flower and willow world” of geisha (karyukai) that it had its own term for the profession—geiko, instead of geisha. Maiko saw for themselves how polished, experienced geiko parlayed a diverse skill set into repeat business among a well-off clientele.
Japan in the Floating World was very much a class-based society. At the apex of the social pyramid was the military—from the shogun on down to local samurai (or “retainers”) who served the lords of their domains. Next were farmers, high on the pyramid because they fed the country. Then came the numerous trades—among them roofers, plasterers, stonemasons, coopers, lacquerers, papermakers, silversmiths, and blacksmiths—whose skills included world-beating sword-making for the samurai. Next were the merchants, less respected in Tokugawa Japan than farmers or craftsmen because the services they provided did not involve tangible creations. Those outside these four primary class divisions included priests, doctors, courtesans, actors, and beggars.
Several interesting points about this class system—first, whatever your class you were expected to remain there—largely to preserve the order and social structure laid out in Confucian thought. You were part of the fixed “chain of being” of Eastern (as well as Western) philosophy and custom. Japanese below the level of warlord in Tokugawa and earlier times well understood their place and had little thought of revolt, at least until much later in the Tokugawa era. Shoguns had a decided interest in preserving this order rather than risk accommodating ambition which might evolve into revolution. So farmers could not aspire to become samurai nor samurai farmers.
The second point is that whatever your family trade, you inherited it. If your father was a farmer that was your future. If an actor you were headed to the stage. If your ancestors were brilliant actors you even inherited their name, which became a stage name. If there were no heir a tradesman could adopt a son to carry on his name, and hopefully his reputation. The great later Edo era print designer Hiroshige provides a famous example of this practice. Hiroshige adopted one of his students, who married his daughter Otatsu and is known to the print world as Hiroshige II. (When this son-in-law later abandoned the marriage another Hiroshige student married Otatsu - we call that student Hiroshige III.) But Hiroshige also provides an exception to the era's rigid social structure. His father was a member of the “fire-police” (firemen), and after losing his wife passed the position on to his son. The son was more interested in art however, and soon left the fire police to embark on the study of art. This act probably was facilitated by someone who recognized Hiroshige’s enormous artistic promise.
Another point about the Tokugawa Shogunate—its watchword was control. Edicts from Edo penetrated deep into the populace, going so far as to regulate materials for farmers’ clothing along with their diet. Even daimyo weren’t immune, needing shogunal approval before marrying. And roadside signs admonished against improper behavior (examples of these signs can be found in Hiroshige’s famous print series, 53 Stations of the Tokaido).
Surpassing Importance of Rice
The key economic unit in this period was rice, sometimes expressed as the rice-producing potential of land. Land was valued in terms of annual koku production, with one koku amounting to 5 bushels of rice—the quantity then deemed necessary to feed one person for a year. Accordingly, relevant land measurement was the kokudaka—annual koku yield, rather than anything akin to the acreage measurement we use today. Economic power and prestige came from rice, and the shoguns saw to it that the most productive land went to loyal daimyo and family. As one measure of the importance of koku production land surveys were undertaken so that rice productivity could be documented. These enormous, time-consuming efforts would serve to remove guesswork from tax assessments—and facilitate shogunal attempts to reward or punish as deemed necessary.
This then is a description of the Floating World and how it came about. If you watch the Floating World in Multimedia Print Presentation, you will see courtesans, a stockaded pleasure district (print by Hiroshige), and scenes from everyday life in 17th to mid-19th Century Japan. We’ve devoted an entire separate presentation to actors, who were central to Edo period culture. Music which accompanies this presentation is Rokudan no Shirabe, a famous koto piece from the 17th Century.
© 2016 Tom Silver
Onnagata and Three Centuries of Actor Prints
Many of us may think of Kabuki theater as a dramatic form long positioned at or near the apex of Japanese culture. That’s undoubtedly where it resides today but its origin tells a different story. Kabuki is generally thought to have begun in 1603 essentially as a marketing device to procure male customers, initially for a woman named Izumo no Okuni who danced up a storm along the Kamo River in Kyoto. Other women (and men) latched on to the idea and soon the dancing turned into multi-actor plays performed on makeshift stages, though the plays were hardly sophisticated. Plots often were thinly disguised invitations to hire, and actors of both genders were available to interested onlookers.
This new entertainment soon spread beyond Kyoto, and carried in its wake rowdy devotees given to conduct and morality highly distasteful to the government (the Tokugawa shogunate). Women players were considered ultimately responsible, and by 1629 the shogunate had had enough and barred women from kabuki performance. (The English definition of kabuki is a combination of “song,” “dance” and “behavior well outside social norms.”)
Since female roles didn’t vanish from the stage along with female actors who was going to take their place? The initial solution was to substitute young boys. Their voices and bodies weren’t yet fully formed and so could be adapted to female roles more easily than those of men. But before long the original problem resurfaced, this time in solicitations to the boys. In 1652 the issue was resolved permanently—female roles were to be the sole province of men, regardless of performance issues such as their ability to portray women convincingly.
But performance issues couldn’t be exorcised by state diktat, so this shift led to the rise of onnagata, male actors who would devote their lives to specializing in female roles. Exceptionally talented onnagata were to become cultural icons as kabuki came together as an art form and began to abandon its humble origins. Onnagata playing the highest ranked courtesan classification (tayu) were especially prized by kabuki fans, who snapped up inexpensive woodblock print “souvenirs” commemorating both performer and role.
Think of the difficulties inherent in this art. Men needed to sound like women, look like women (in costume and hairstyle), and act like women in bearing and manner. On stage onnagata had to be so convincing that no one would think in terms of what a great job they were doing in their transgender role. To audiences they were women.
In fact both in their stage roles and as depicted in woodblock prints onnagata had an outsized influence on women’s fashion. Particularly beautiful kimono costume designs along with attention-grabbing coiffure were assiduously copied in the non-theatrical world. Many women looked to onnagata as role models—perhaps as many men looked to James Bond in the Bond film heyday. So onnagata are important to any attempt to understand Japanese culture.
Many of the actor prints in our Multimedia Print Presentations in fact depict onnagata. Words just won’t adequately portray what woodblock prints can: the excitement—even awe—elicited by kabuki’s sometimes extreme makeup and wild facial expressions, all of which are true to kabuki’s original meaning on those Kyoto stages 400 years ago.
More about Kabuki
After its early obsession with sex kabuki began to expand its repertoire. One popular new theme was dramatization of scandal, such as double suicides by lovers. Another amounted to defiance of authority—a daring trend which needed to be mindful of strict censorship. Contemporary events were forbidden subject matter, as was anything critical of the government. Woodblock print publishers faced the same problem, needing the censor’s imprimatur on their print product. Both solved this problem in an identical way, which was to adapt roles, events, or woodblock print subjects to long-ago history or tales, each well known to their merchant class patrons who were sure to get the message. This fact leads one to wonder whether censors were culturally unsophisticated, paid for looking the other way, aware of the subterfuge but uninterested in following up, or perhaps in some cases too meek to do anything about it—particularly when dealing with strong personalities in the theatrical and print worlds. Regardless, pliable censors may have had a serviceable excuse in the thin veneer of the past masking the present.
Here’s something else interesting about kabuki actors: As we pointed out in a previous article, Japanese society was segmented by class during the rise of kabuki in the Tokugawa shogunate. Trades within a class were hereditary, meaning that you did what your father did—whether it was farming, fighting fires—or acting. And if you or someone else in the broader family inherited a brilliant acting talent from an ancestral line of brilliant actors, you (or your talented relative) inherited what had become a family stage name. If there were no talented heir in a particular generation one would be sought from outside the family, and adopted or married into it. The great actor line of Ichikawa Danjūrō is a well known example. The first Ichikawa Danjūrō dates back to the late 17th Century, and that stage name has continued on into our century. (Ichikawa Danjūrō XII died in 2013) Over the course of those three centuries there were three actor adoptions and one actor marriage into that famous family.
The Multimedia Presentation
As you look at the actor prints you’ll see examples spanning the 17th and 20th Centuries. A number display riveting facial expressions or makeup—sometimes both. For those interested in following stylistic changes over time we’ve placed the prints in approximate chronological order. The final two images however are not prints at all, but paintings in the traditional Ukiyo-e style of actor prints. The artist was Yoshitoshi Mori, who is known for his work in kabuki prints beginning mid-20th Century.
Noh and the Puppet Theater
Kabuki is the focus here not only for its huge following over four centuries, but also because it was responsible for the largest body of actor prints in the Japanese print genre. Print publishers had little interest in big-time pursuit of the two other major dramatic forms, Noh (or Nō) and Bunraku (puppet) theater, presumably because neither could match the box office draw of kabuki—or therefore the profit potential offered by kabuki prints. But kabuki is indebted to each for the plot ideas it borrowed.
Unlike kabuki, which had been entertainment for the masses for much of its existence, noh was serious, sophisticated theater of the Court, patronized almost exclusively by the upper echelons of Japanese society. It consists of music and highly stylized acting and dance. Costumes and masks are wonderful beyond the power of words to describe. (Use of masks in major roles is one difference between noh and kabuki.) Noh performances are rare today but you can watch excerpts online. Far better to watch those excerpts than rely solely on a lengthy written description of noh performance, which simply cannot substitute for experiencing it directly.
Great noh prints just aren’t easy to find, for the reason stated. But there was one print artist who is known for his brilliant noh output, and collectors can find examples on the market by checking online dealer listings periodically. That artist’s name is Tsukioka Kogyo (1869 - 1927), who was a student of, and was adopted by, the great print master Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. (This is one of many examples of Japanese artists taking the name or partial name of their teachers.) Kogyo’s prints use strikingly beautiful colors and do a wonderful job with the masks, as you’ll see in the “Actor” presentation. Costume elegance makes it clear that noh was particularly intended for the court. Three Kogyo prints launch the Actor presentation, and are followed entirely by kabuki prints. This order is appropriate because noh in its classic form preceded kabuki by several centuries.
As for Puppet theater (bunraku), we couldn’t find high quality prints to include in the presentation. But don’t ignore bunraku on that account. There is nothing of similar scale which is comparable in Western culture. What makes bunraku unique is the intense dramatic effect it achieves using large “puppet” figures controlled not by manipulating strings—but by one or two people holding fast to the doll-like figure and moving it about the stage. There also are levers which control mouth, eyes and other body features for dramatic effect. Here again you can find performance excerpts online. Bunraku is just amazing, and like noh is far better experienced directly than by reading written accounts.
Kabuki in the American Political Lexicon
On the kabuki stage actors, costumes, makeup and music take precedence over plot and denouement, each of which is known to the audience even before entering the theater. What’s important is totality of the sensory experience, with examples again available online. Back in the 1950s in the period following the Pacific War it was those predetermined endings that caught the attention of American political observers, who may have been stationed in Japan. So, for example, legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress to please a particular constituency—but which had no chance of passage—sometimes was labeled a “kabuki dance”—going through the motions to no practical effect. It’s very likely that many Americans first heard the word “kabuki” when reading such commentary in the newspaper or hearing it on television.
Hope you enjoy the “Actor” presentation!
© 2016 Tom Silver
Letters From Iwo Jima in History - A Film Review
Once when I was doing some research on Japanese war medals I came across this unexpected fact: in 2009 Clint Eastwood was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun (3rd Class), bestowed by Japan’s Emperor Akihito. My immediate reaction was, Huh? What was that all about?
Turns out Eastwood was being honored for his highly regarded film, Letters From Iwo Jima (2006), which he directed – and co-produced with Steven Spielberg and Robert Lorenz. It seems that way back in 1875 Japan’s Meiji government created the Rising Sun medal to recognize exemplary deeds whether military or civilian.
But the 1945 Iwo Jima battle was a devastating defeat for Japan. So why would a Japanese emperor honor Eastwood for creating a film which proved the point?
Iwo Jima is an island in the western Pacific located 760 miles southeast of Tokyo. It’s tiny – measuring only about 8 square miles. Iwo Jima’s distinguishing natural features are its black volcanic sand and Mt. Suribachi, a small mountain which played a pivotal role in the Japanese defense plan. The horrific battle for which the island will forever be known was fought from Feb 19 to Mar 26, 1945. During those 35 days of sheer hell, 6,800 Americans in the attacking force and most of the 21,000 Japanese defenders lost their lives.
America was determined to capture Iwo Jima. Japanese warplanes based there had been attacking American bombers on their round trip to the Japanese home islands, along with their bases in the Marianas. Also important, Iwo Jima would provide an emergency air field for American bombers in distress. This was no incidental matter, as Iwo Jima’s air field saved the lives of 24,000 American airmen according to one estimate.
Letters From Iwo Jima is based on actual letters from Japanese forces on Iwo Jima to their families back home. Flashbacks to revealing incidents in their past play an equally important role. Excerpts from island commander Tadamichi Kuribayashi down to the lowliest soldier are incorporated in the script. These excerpts and flashbacks present the Japanese soldier in a completely different light from the typical Hollywood stereotype.
A great example is Kuribayashi’s letters, which reveal a dedicated husband and father – a gentle human being utterly unlike the ruthless warrior you’d expect to command a desperate battle. In one letter written en route to his new command on Iwo Jima, Kuribayashi apologizes to his wife for not having had time to attend to the kitchen floor, and tells her the problem really should be addressed. This in the face of almost certain death in the impending battle.
Another example, this time by way of a flashback, comes from way down in the ranks. An Iwo Jima soldier by the name of Shimizu recounts an experience involving his superior officer back home. They were patrolling a residential neighborhood together when they encounter a dog belonging to a mother and her two small children. The animal is barking behind a small fence adjacent to the family’s residence. Sensing an opportunity to test Shimizu’s obedience, the officer orders him to shoot the dog on the pretext that barking might disturb army communications in the area.
Shimizu has the dog taken out back. But decency prevails once Shimizu is out of the officer’s sight. He unholsters his gun and shoots into the air, hoping his pistol’s report will fool the officer. The story ends badly for both dog and Shimizu but the takeaway is more Shimizu’s humanity than his superior’s want of it.
If you see this picture you will meet Saigo, another sympathetic, low-ranking soldier on Iwo Jima. Saigo had been a humble baker back home in Japan. In another of the film’s many revealing flashbacks the local draft committee shows up at his door. A draft notice is thrust forward. Saigo is stunned. His pregnant wife Hanako is distraught. A woman on the committee who seems in charge is furious at their reaction. Every family has given a husband or son to the cause. Hanako should welcome the prospect of her husband dying for the emperor. “At least you will have a little one to carry on your name” the woman says angrily, looking down at Hanako’s belly. Later when Hanako is alone with her husband she cannot let go her anguish: “None of the men ever come back” she says with great emotion.
On Iwo Jima, Saigo is a nearly constant presence in the film. But victory isn’t his purpose. Let the Americans have the island, he tells a buddy. Better than breaking your back digging trenches in the sand and digging caves out of volcanic rock. Saigo’s only goal is to come home alive – a solemn promise to his unborn child.
Saigo is one of the key characters in this picture. Another is Saigo’s unit commander, Captain Tanida. Tanida is contemptuous of Saigo, who he sees as unpatriotic and unfit. Saigo's lack of interest in the war is transparent, and he can’t shoot worth a damn. Early on we see Tanida beating Saigo for that unpatriotic comment about letting the Americans have Iwo Jima without a fight. The beating stops only when Kuribayashi happens by and admonishes Tanida for beating soldiers when there are few enough as it is. Much later in the film, when the Japanese force on Iwo Jima is all but annihilated, top commander Kuribayashi has formed a bond with foot soldier Saigo. Several chance encounters explain this otherwise implausible development, which ends up saving Saigo’s life when Kuribayashi keeps him out of the final banzai charge. If it had been up to Tanida, Saigo would have led the charge – with certain death.
These key characters play off each other right to the final scene. By film’s end, each has become an archetype of his respective character. Saigo is the innocent civilian drafted into a war he doesn’t understand or believe in. Tanida is the consummate warrior, and Kuribayashi stands somewhere in the middle – more on them below.
From the Japanese government’s perspective, Clint Eastwood’s medal was well deserved. His film dramatized letters that few would ever know about, and turned them into proof that not every Japanese soldier was a Hollywood-style monster. That, the government concluded, was a solid contribution to Japanese-American relations.
But was that the entire substance of Letters From Iwo Jima? Eastwood’s film did show that there were Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima who did not fit the Hollywood stereotype. But the story is a little more complex than that. There is another flashback involving Kuribayashi, years earlier in California. We see him in full dress uniform as guest of honor at a military dinner party. After friendly conversation and smiles all around, the host’s wife shatters the bonhomie with a tricky question: what would Kuribayashi do if the United States and Japan ever went to war against each other? Would he follow his own convictions – or those of his country? "Are they not the same?" was Kuribayashi’s immediate reply. So, there’s another side to the loving husband and compassionate commander.
Kuribayashi's unexpected answer had been hard wired into Japanese warriors for over 800 years. It came straight from the samurai code of honor known in modern times as “bushido,” or way of the warrior. Loyalty, bravery, self-sacrifice (literally), and obedience to one’s lord and master were its core.
For two millennia leading up to the 1940s, Japan’s ultimate lord and master was the emperor, * a divinity descended from the Sun goddess Amaterasu, according to Japanese belief. Kuribayashi’s reply to his American friends at that dinner party reflected absolute loyalty and obedience to Emperor Hirohito, in whose name Japan fought the Pacific War.
In a different scene Kuribayashi provides another example of bushido. A subordinate officer questions his tunnel-digging strategy in the caves as futile. Kuribayashi is livid. Maybe so. Maybe the entire defense of Iwo Jima is futile. Maybe the entire war is futile. But if the children back home in Japan can live in safety one more day, it’s worth the sacrifice of every soldier on Iwo Jima.
However, it’s clear that if the epic Pacific struggle produced samurai-like warriors Kuribayashi is not the best example. It is Captain Tanida who best fits that role. He is the unforgiving commander who would unsheathe his sword without hesitation and decapitate a soldier under his command for the slightest offense. In their day samurai could do the same, even with civilians. Tanida is most persuasive as samurai when he commits the classic act of ritual suicide known as seppuku after it is apparent Iwo Jima is lost to the Americans. But he kills himself 20th century style – with a gun to the head instead of a blade to the belly.
Kuribayashi and Tanida each fulfill the bushido imperative of self-sacrifice differently. For Tanida, the honorable way out was to die by his own hand. For Kuribayashi it was to die by way of an act which served the emperor in an identifiable way. That was accomplished when he led the final banzai charge, which at least held out the prospect of taking some of the enemy with him.
After Japan’s defeat on Iwo Jima it would have been clear to all but the most fanatical militarists that the war could not be won. It seemed Japan’s only hope of repelling the coming American invasion (before anyone knew of the atomic bomb) was to turn its population into a suicidal kamikaze force. If vast numbers of civilians were willing to die for their emperor, they might inflict unacceptably high casualties on American forces. American public opinion might then compel an end to the Pacific War with Japan retaining its sovereignty. But that was not to be.
In San Francisco on September 8,1951, six years after its formal surrender on the U.S. Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Japan signed a peace treaty with the United States and most of the Allied powers. There were a few holdouts, the most important of which was the former Soviet Union, now Russia. To this day Japan and Russia have not signed a treaty formally ending their state of belligerency in World War II. **
I doubt Eastwood's Order of the Rising Sun medal came as a complete surprise to him. On balance the film presents the Iwo Jima battle from a Japanese perspective, which would have impressed the Japanese government. Soldiers like Saigo who just want to go home have great appeal in the west, and Saigo's role certainly would have been a plus for Japanese-American relations. But if you’re a Japanese who respects traditional warrior ideals like loyalty and self-sacrifice, you might see the Japanese “villains” on Iwo Jima like Captain Tanida as the real heroes.
Those opposing perspectives are one of the things which makes this picture so interesting. The soldiers who committed seppuku on Iwo Jima did so because in their view it honorably upheld their age-old warrior heritage. In that sense the film is as much about an asymmetrical clash of cultures – ancient east vs. modern west – as it is about anything else.
* The list of Japanese emperors includes “legendary” emperors, beginning with Emperor Jimmu in 660 B.C.E. The current emperor (as of 2017) is Akihito, who ascended to the Chrysanthemum throne in 1989 on the death of his father, Emperor Hirohito. After Japan’s defeat in 1945 Hirohito renounced the emperor’s divine status forever. There were periods of Japanese history when emperors were reduced to a figurehead role, with real power held by a shogun (“generalissimo”). But by the 1940s the shogun was a distant memory, the last one having relinquished power in 1867.
** Stalin declared war on Japan on August 8, 1945, two days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and one week before Japan’s surrender. The obstacle to a formal peace treaty between the two nations is disputed territory – control over four islands each claim as its own.
© 2017 Tom Silver
Collecting Japanese Prints
So what’s a guitarist doing writing about Japanese woodblock prints!? Simple—they’re beautiful, fascinating, enigmatic, intriguing, compelling, decorative (if you want), collectible and affordable. For history buffs they provide an inside look at Japan from mighty warriors and great battles—to the everyday lives of peasant, “middle-class” merchant, and courtesan. They are time travel in art, from our century in Japan going back well over 300 years.
For lovers of expansive landscapes or seascapes, moonscapes, arching wooden bridges of timeless architecture, flowers and birds, mountains or valleys, majestic volcanos bathed in the red glow of dawn—or a Great Wave towering over hapless boatmen—these prints must be seen to be believed.
One of the great things about Japanese prints is that they can be afforded and collected by far more people than can afford Western art of comparable quality. Most great Western art (we’re talking painting here) consists of uniquely created works which weren’t intended for replication. Anyone fortunate enough to purchase a Renoir owns an original work of art which nobody else can own simultaneously.
Not so Japanese prints, which were intended for replication. And here I need to clarify something. By “replication” I am not talking about art posters mass-produced from a printing press. There is no photo-engraving here. Instead, the print you buy was one of a number manually pressed against a hand-carved block of wood, typically cherry. In many cases the carver’s work required just as much skill as that of the artist who created the original design.
In fact, until modern times in Japan a finished print was really the end product of a team, again very much unlike the Western tradition. The Japanese artist/designer worked with a publisher, who hired expert carvers and printers to complete the job—and then took on the task of marketing the finished prints.
It was the role of the publisher which fundamentally differentiated Japanese print art from its Western counterparts. That’s because at least earlier in Japanese print history it was typically the publisher who came up with ideas for print designs—and hired artists to bring those ideas to fruition. There were exceptions to be sure, but nothing can be more contrary to the Western ideal of the artist as free spirit than this system.
Reprints vs. Originals
You will probably find that often what you are purchasing is a “reprint” (or “re-strike”) rather than an original (variously defined as a print which was pressed onto originally-carved wood blocks during the artist’s lifetime—“lifetime print”—or onto those original blocks after his lifetime (there were very few women print designers). Or sometimes from original, re-carved blocks for special posthumous editions.
“Reprints,” as commonly understood, come from newly carved blocks based on copies of the original design. Because they lack the cachet of original, lifetime prints, and often are produced in far larger quantities than the originals on which they are based, reprints typically sell at a small fraction of what original prints fetch. That’s what makes them so affordable.
Sometimes you can find reprints created with such artistic flair that their quality rivals the original. Those that do tend to sell at a premium price to those that do not.
What determines the price of any particular print? The main factors are rarity (or lack of same) in the market, star power of the artist-designer, print condition (anywhere from terrible to pristine), fineness of detail in the design, market interest in the design, quality of execution in the subject matter, and quality of the impression (made when paper was pressed against the inked wood block to create the finished print). A poor impression may have small breaks in borderlines or inconsistent application of color, to take just two examples.
Learning About Prints
What’s the best way to learn about Japanese prints? Attend special museum exhibitions if available in your area. Read books and online articles about them. But there is a more immediate way of digging into this subject matter—and that’s to locate dealers online, look at photos of their print offerings, and read whatever descriptive or historical and artistic background material they offer along with each print. Some dealers let the prints speak for themselves and provide little written background information, on the assumption that viewers already are familiar with them. Other dealers make no assumptions about your familiarity with Japanese prints and see it as part of their job to help you educate yourself about this art form. By the way, note that many dealers sell online only these days, though there still are walk-in shops in a number of large cities.
One thing is for sure—the more you look the more you will become familiar with the major print artists and their styles. After a while you’ll see a beautiful 19th Century landscape listed on a dealer site, and recognize it immediately as a Hiroshige, or a Hokusai—to name two of the best-known and greatest Japanese print designers.
In our next article on this fascinating subject we’re going to talk about how to buy these prints. We’ll talk about the different types of dealers, and how they work. For those who want to start looking without waiting, we’ve listed some online dealers on the “Helpful Info” page of this website. [NOTE: we have no financial relationship with any firm listed on that page. Businesses are listed for information purposes only as a convenience to our readers.]
© 2014 Tom Silver
In our previous article we talked about Japanese woodblock prints generally. Now we are going to discuss how to go about buying them. (NOTE: In the Japanese print lexicon the terms “artist” and “designer” are used almost interchangeably. We make use of each term in this series of articles.)
You could try estate sales or sales of Asian art at the large international auction houses, but price and selection probably are going to be more to your liking at specialty Japanese print dealers. Some dealers, mostly located in major cities, cater to walk-in as well as online clients. If you live in or around one of those cities, go in and have a look. But most people probably will find themselves buying from established dealers online.
Dealers usually fall into one of two categories when it comes to their predominant sales method—sale by online auction, or sale by fixed, perset price. You’ll find dealers in the dealer sampling we’ve provided on the Helpful Info page. (NOTE: we have no financial interest in listing these dealers, but have been satisfied in our dealings with each of them. Their quality websites are well worth a look for anyone wishing to become familiar with Japanese prints.)
Purchasing prints online is fairly simple, with only a brief learning curve. Whether or not you end up buying it’s easy to become immersed in these dealer sites because they are the easiest and quickest way to get a good foundation in Japanese prints. You then can start to supplement your burgeoning print education with widely-available general interest books on the subject, and online articles which reflect your interest in more specific topics.
As you look through various dealer sites you’ll quickly become familiar with their general price levels. While the range of prices will vary greatly at individual dealers, the successful ones have figured out who their market is—and so carry print inventory which for the most part reflects what their typical customer wants and can afford.
So now is a good time to talk about the different kinds of Japanese prints out there, and how they are priced. The low-end, for starters, provides many kinds of choices. One is reprints produced in large quantities, typically from the post-World War II era, and therefore seldom in short supply. Colors can be flat rather than vibrant, and so not compelling as in better quality prints. If the original print had lots of sophisticated detail, some of it may be lost in an inexpensive reprint.
But there are exceptions, and as you develop an eye for Japanese prints you may be able to spot them. Sometimes the dealer will point out why a particular print or group of prints is an exceptional value. Maybe the dealer was able to buy advantageously at an estate sale or liquidation of a large collection, and can pass on some of the price advantage. As a general rule however this type of low-end print is not a good choice for investment, if that’s your goal, but is perfectly acceptable if you want to build a collection on a relatively tight budget. Remember from our last article, you still are buying genuine prints—not mass-produced art posters. Prints of this type often can be had in the $35-$50 price range.
Those low end reprints are only one possibility at this price level. Another is original prints by lesser known artists, though these aren’t always available in the marketplace. But the best value at this price point may be original flower and bird prints. Rare first edition flower and bird originals by top designers in this category (“kacho-e”), and in really great condition, can run $200 to $300 apiece, or sometimes in pairs (diptychs) at that price point. But you also can find non-rare later edition examples in the $40-$50 range. Obviously if a particular print can be had for $40 or $300 something must explain the difference, and the explanation is multiple markets for this—or any—print category. Some people are in the market for rarity, top condition and/or investment, others not. So shop around and decide what best fits your own collecting goals and budget.
Another type of low-end print is one which was higher quality at one time but since has fallen on hard times—with condition issues of one kind or another. Maybe it’s faded or stained, or has creases, folds or holes or tears. But don’t reject these prints out of hand. Classic Japanese prints or reprints can go back one or more centuries—and so are very likely to have some sort of condition issue. The rare few that don’t usually fetch much higher prices.
That condition issue, however, might be your opportunity. If you can live with the condition—and many experienced collectors do just that on a case-by-case basis—you may be able to purchase a wonderful print on handmade paper for a bargain price. It’s very difficult to generalize here because of the huge range of possible condition issues and print rarity, but $50-$300 is a fair approximation for the kind of prints we’re talking about. That $300 print might have been worth over $1000 if it was in better condition. You can also find $5000 prints selling for under $2000 because of condition issues.
For prints without major condition issues the next tier up might be $75-$500. You’ll notice some overlap in the price ranges but categorizing in this way is highly subjective—so there will be overlap when you’re considering purchasing across different print categories.
In this price range you can find many original prints in reasonably good to excellent condition, by second or third tier artists (by first tier flower and bird artists), but still attractive prints which can be well worth owning. Also here you’ll find a huge number of high-quality reprints of designs by first tier artists, such as the great 19th Century landscape print designers Hokusai and Hiroshige, or 20th Century landscape print designer Kawase Hasui. You can easily assemble a very nice collection just by staying in the price ranges discussed so far.
While not every dealer stocks prints in quantity at lower price points, many do carry prints in the next range up, which we’ll arbitrarily call $500-$1500. Here you will find many wonderful, original prints by well-known 19th and 20th Century designers. You can also find some beautiful posthumous reprints from arguably the two greatest 20th Century Japanese print designers—Hashiguchi Goyo and Torii Kotondo, both portraitists of the first water. But even reprints (rather than originals) of their work don’t grow on trees. You have to be on the lookout as they pop up in the market from time to time.
If you can afford to buy in this price range at least occasionally, or perhaps hint at one of these prints as a desirable gift from time to time, then together with quality lower-priced prints you’ll have an enormous range of choices in originals or reprints across the entire spectrum of available Japanese prints.
Beyond this range are high quality originals by first tier 19th and 20th Century masters, and rare originals by 18th Century greats—but that’s beyond the scope of these articles. Suffice it to say that prints in excellent condition and of exquisite beauty, historical significance and extraordinary rarity come on the market periodically—for as much as tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Last point, and it’s an important one. Japanese prints are such extraordinary art that it’s easy to come under their spell and virtually become addicted to them. So many of these gems can be had for such relatively small sums that you may not notice the dollars adding up to budget-busting levels. So be warned!
© 2014 Tom Silver
Before we get started there are a few preliminary points worth making. First, Japanese woodblock prints can be highly addictive—no joke. So if you’re going to collect, have some kind of budget ceiling in mind, at least initially. You can always expand your budget later, maybe at the expense of something else. But it’s hard to establish a meaningful budget unless you have some idea of exactly what you’re budgeting for. So spend some time looking at Japanese print dealer websites and take in the huge variety of their offerings. No amount of words can ever substitute for seeing the real thing. We’ve provided a brief listing of reputable dealers on the “Helpful Info” page, but you can expand on that list as much as you like by looking up Japanese print dealers online. (As we said in a previous article, we have no financial interest in recommending any particular dealers.)
Next, before you can decide what to buy you have to know how to buy. So have a look at the preceding article on this subject—“Buying Japanese Prints”—it should be helpful.
Finally, you may find your collection growing beyond the point where all of it can be displayed on your walls, even assuming you take the special precautions necessary to protect your prints from exposure to light (a subject we’ll discuss in a later article). So you’ll probably need to store at least some portion of the collection where it is safe and provided long-term protection from light and the elements.
Since this art is printed on paper rather than painted on canvas or wood, that often means storage in “archival” boxes as protection from fading and other problems which can afflict prints. The prints are placed between “interleaving” sheets of archival paper (acid and lignin-free) or in archival folders. This point is so central to the longevity of your prints and quality of the viewing experience over time that we’ll come back to it later in a separate article of its own. Suffice it to say here that the necessary archival protective materials are readily available online, and at reasonable cost.
Cost of Collecting
So how much does it take to assemble a worthwhile collection? Depends on what you mean by “worthwhile,” but what’s important is what’s worthwhile to you, not to someone else. You can build an enjoyable collection for as little as $1000-$2000, maybe even less. But first know what you’re buying so you can stretch your dollars as far as they’ll go. If you develop a real passion for Japanese prints you may start thinking about growing your collection’s size and quality over the years. Collections worth $25,000-$50,000 or much more are not at all unusual among aficionados. There are people who started out on a shoestring and ended up with major collections by the time they retired.
Approaches to Collecting
How you go about collecting probably will reflect the kind of person you are. If you‘re a methodical, highly organized person you might choose to collect in well-defined categories. Here’s an example of how specific you can get with Japanese prints. If you prefer antique over modern prints you could limit yourself to collecting from the 19th Century. And if you like landscapes you could focus on 19th Century landscapes. The two major 19th Century Japanese landscape print artists (“designers”) are Katsushika Hokusai and Ando Hiroshige. [NOTE: You’ll find that many Japanese print designers used different names over the course of their artistic lifetimes. So be prepared to come across variations.] Say you decide to focus on Hiroshige. You could decide to narrow it further and collect from his first series of landscape prints which were based on the route from Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto—known as 53 Stations of the Tokaido.
[NOTE: not only was the Tokaido a hugely important route in early 19th Century Japan, but it figures large in the history of 19th Century Japanese landscape prints. The modern equivalent of these “stations” might be rest stops along a major highway, offering gas, food, lodging, and a variety of supplies useful to a traveler.]
This first Hiroshige Tokaido series (there were a number of different series) often is referred to as the Hoeido Tokaido, named for the publisher who brought out the first edition of these prints in the early 1830s. So to summarize this example of collecting by category, your initial focus could be Hiroshige’s Hoeido Tokaido prints (actually reprints—the original series in reasonably good condition would cost a small fortune, assuming you could even find a seller for the entire original lifetime set, or assemble each original print individually.)
So that’s one way to collect. But if method isn’t your method and you’re a free spirit, your preferred approach may be to collect whatever strikes your fancy, regardless of category. For example you might purchase compelling landscapes, flower and bird prints, portraits, historical scenes, and kabuki actor prints.
Regardless, anyone interested in this subject should become familiar with the major categories, if only to navigate dealer websites. Often you will find dealers organizing and displaying their prints by category, before listing artists by name. In the next few articles we’ll discuss key categories—with some historical context—together with a handful of top representative artists in each category.
Series, Wormholes, and More
But first we’d like to close this article with a couple of points worth knowing. If you read dealer explanatory material carefully you’ll quickly notice the huge number of Japanese prints that do not stand on their own, but are parts of a series. We just mentioned one of the Hiroshige Tokaido series. There are also series of animal and nature subjects, bridges, waterfalls, beautiful women, historical and literary subjects, and more. So if you do like the idea of collecting in categories you can be sure of plenty from which to choose.
And our last point is this—if and when you decide to start buying Japanese prints be aware that many print photographs you see online are a general representation of what the prints actually look like in person. Photography usually doesn’t capture every detail. This is particularly true of older prints, which invariably have condition issues of one kind or another—unless you’re prepared to spend a lot of money for an unusually well-preserved print. One hundred years ago and even more recently little thought was given to preserving the original, pristine look of a brand new print. Even if a print buyer had thought about preservation, the knowledge just wasn’t there back then. Today we know all about problems which bedevil works of art on paper, and how to prevent those problems—or at least keep them from getting worse.
But if you choose to collect older prints without spending a fortune you’re going to have to live with issues like “toning,” “mat burn,” soiling, creasing, repaired wormholes, or other issues we‘ll discuss in a separate, later article—together with how to care for your prints over time. Just be aware that experienced collectors look through these often superficial issues to the underlying quality and beauty of the artist’s work itself. And there are excellent print restorers who do quite a nice job cleaning up older prints, though some argue that prints should show their age in most or even every respect. Signs of age are part of their history and character, some say. After you put some experience behind yourself, you can decide that question for yourself. But now it’s time to move on to the prints themselves.
© 2014 Tom Silver
When you begin looking at Japanese woodblock prints it’s going to be helpful to understand how dealers organize and present their offerings. Most of the time you’ll find dealers follow one of three approaches. The first is to categorize prints by Japanese historical eras, from the late 17th/early 18th centuries up to our times. The second is to categorize by print subject matter—landscapes, “beauties,” nature or historical subjects are some examples—and the third is to list offerings by the artists (“designers”) who created them, in strict alphabetical order regardless of category.
In this article we‘ll take a look at the first historical era, which covers Japanese prints from their beginnings over 300 years ago through the mid-19th Century.
Edo (today’s Tokyo) was just a village when it was selected as the seat of government by the ruling military (Shogun) not long before the English Pilgrims settled in Plymouth, Mass. (to provide a little historical perspective). As the new seat Edo became an economic powerhouse, enriching local merchants while attracting many more to this rapidly growing economy. The wealth created gave rise to leisure pursuits, including collecting—which was accommodated by the “modern” stand-alone Japanese print in the second half of the 17th Century. (Previously the main function of Japanese woodblocks was printing of entire books—both text and illustrations.) At first these prints were monochromatic (black) but before long color was added by hand, and later via the woodblocks themselves.
Edo Era Prints
You can find nice, inexpensive reprints of these very early Edo-era prints at some dealers. One reason you might want to collect a few, even aside from their artistic merit, is so you can follow the development of the Japanese print over time starting right from the beginning—within your own collection.
A representative sampling of artists you may want to know from this earlier Edo print period (1700s) are Masanobu, Harunobo, Kiyonaga, Shunso, and Koryusai. These artists produced wonderful prints showing people in a variety of settings, though not so much as real-life individuals with psychological depth. That kind of portrayal within a substantial body of work came soon afterward with the masterful prints of Kitagawa Utamaro (c. 1753-1806). If you compare Utamaro’s prints with a selection from the five designers just mentioned, you’ll immediately see Utamaro’s more sophisticated treatment of people. By way of contrast, people in the others’ prints can tend to be stylized “types”. An admittedly imprecise comparison might be to Greek and Roman sculpture. Greek busts are known for their “idealized” people—heroic archetypes you seldom meet in everyday life. But often people portrayed in Roman busts are so lifelike you almost expect them to speak.
Utamaro is one of the giants of Japanese woodblock print portraiture and was an enormous influence on those who followed, right into the early 20th Century. Be sure to look up examples from his enormous output of “beauty” prints—women from many walks of life portrayed in a variety of activities, from preparing meals to having a smoke to relaxing in a boat under a bridge to diving for shellfish—to just being portrayed as themselves, dressed in kimonos of exquisite beauty and finely wrought detail.
And while we’re on the subject of portraits, be sure to look up Sharaku, a late 18th Century artist about whom little is known but who is world famous for his print designs of kabuki actors. You’ll probably recognize some of his images but not remember from where.
A general price range for early Edo-era reprints is $40 to $75. Single-panel Utamaro reprints often are in the same range but his triptych reprints (3 panel prints which provide an expansive scene) are more like $250 to $400. Sharaku reprints (single panel) generally fetch $60 to $125. If you’re interested in original prints by any of these artists, be prepared to pay a whole lot more. How much more will depend mostly on scarcity and condition, but there have been cases of individual early Edo-era prints which sold well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars—highly atypical but gives you an idea of Japanese prints’ collectibility.
Hokusai and Hiroshige
Moving well into the Edo period—the first half of the 19th Century—we come to two more giants of Japanese prints—Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) each of whom was mentioned in previous articles. They are known for their landscapes but each also worked in other genres as part of their enormous lifetime print output, which consisted of many thousands of print designs. It’s probably safe to say that their work (along with the Sharaku kabuki actor prints mentioned above) are the most recognizable Japanese prints worldwide.
And it’s no wonder. As is true of the great Western artists their work is more than just wonderful art, though it’s certainly that. Their many landscape series, as well as seascapes, re-create the captivating natural beauty of 19th Century Japan—along with its people and their day to day activities, modes of dress, class structure—even their residential and commercial buildings—all before Westernization took hold later that Century.
For Hokusai, look up his “36 Views of Mt. Fuji” (really 46 views, the publisher added 10 to the initial 36). Take a look at “Red Fuji” in particular, a spectacular depiction of nature and one of the most striking Japanese print designs you’ll ever see. Same for Hokusai’s “The Great Wave,” the most famous and immediately recognizable Japanese print ever, and a world-class contribution to art which illustrates the eternal struggle of humankind with nature. Both prints are part of this Hokusai series.
For Hiroshige, check out his “53 Stations of the Tokaido,” mentioned in an earlier article. Like Hokusai’s “36 Views of Mt. Fuji” this series is iconic in the Japanese woodblock print genre. The breadth of scenes and scenery in this series are, well, breathtaking. For a 21st Century Westerner this series is a leap into the world of Japanese life almost 200 years ago. You’ll know exactly what I mean when you start browsing through these prints. The Tokaido, by the way, was a route connecting Edo (now Tokyo), seat of the shogunate government, to Kyoto, home of Japan’s emperors for 800 years prior to founding of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603. It was also one of five major routes throughout Japan developed by the shogunate to help secure its control over the country.
Other Edo Artists
Of course there are many other Edo-era print designers on dealer websites well worth your attention, so don’t stop with the ones we’re discussing here. One particularly interesting designer from the later Edo period is Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861). Kuniyoshi worked in many of the major print genres, but have a look at his samurai battle scenes—to expand the range of genres from what we’ve been discussing so far. Historical and mythological subjects in Japanese prints can be quite violent and bloody, so if you find that kind of material difficult to look at, be prepared. That said, those looking to have a comprehensive understanding of the range of Japanese print subject matter should have at least a passing familiarity with these prints. Many depict scenes central to Japanese history and literature, and have been a key component of major donations to Asian art collections in museums around the world.
Publishers and Reprints
As we’ve noted, unless you’re prepared to invest heavily in a collection you’ll probably buy more reprints than originals. First edition originals which came out during an artist’s lifetime were published by a single firm, but this was not true of most reprints, which may have had many publishers over the course of a century or more.
Each publisher hired its own wood carvers and printers to create reprints based on original prints. But since not all publishers produced equal quality work there can be something of a publisher “name” value to any particular reprint or reprint series. How could one publisher be better than another? Remember, Japanese prints were entirely hand-created, not mass-manufactured. So publishers who were fanatical about quality and could attract the best carvers and printers had a decided leg up on the competition.
Two such highly-regarded reprint publishers in the 20th Century were the Takamizawa and Adachi firms. Reprints published by either of these names can sell today at a premium to reprints by lesser-known or lesser-quality publishers, although we’re not talking about a substantial cost difference here. But Takamizawa reprints in particular may have even more name value if you find examples which were published early in the 20th Century, when the firm was founded (in 1911). Some consider Takamizawa Taisho-era reprints (1912-1926) to be among the finest reprints ever produced.
You may also find 19th Century reprints of Edo-era subjects selling at premium prices. These are sometimes known as “Meiji-era” (later 19th to early 20th Century reprints), which were a lucrative business back then due to Western demand. Japanese prints have been collected by Westerners going back nearly 200 years. By the late 19th Century so many extant originals had been snapped up by the West that there was a wonderful business opportunity in Japan for reprint publication.
Not only do these 19th Century reprints have antique, historical value but in some cases they were published by the same firm—or descendants of the same firm—which published the original, lifetime prints. Remember the Hoeido publisher original edition of Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tokaido we discussed in an earlier article? Well, 19th-Century descendants of that firm used a combination of original blocks they had inherited—as well as altered and newly-carved blocks as necessary—to bring out a new, complete edition of this series. If you can find prints from this later Hoeido edition, consider acquiring a few. They’ll typically run a couple of hundred dollars apiece but they do have investment value where ordinary, everyday Tokaido reprints have none. And as with all antiques, there’s something to be said for holding a piece of history in your hands and dreaming of long ago.
A final point, for those who are wondering if Japanese prints, like many Western prints, are available in limited, numbered editions. Until modern times, the answer almost always is no. The Japanese didn’t think in those terms, investment-type terms. Quite the opposite. In the late 19th Century most sophisticated Japanese art lovers admired Western painting, which was created as unique, individual canvases—and looked down on their own tradition of large multi-copy print runs, which they didn’t consider as rising to the level of “art.” Of course the great irony here was the simultaneous Western love affair with Japanese woodblock prints, something the Japanese themselves were hard-pressed to understand. Just one of those little ironies of history.
In the next article we’ll continue the story of Japanese woodblock prints during an era of historic change for Japan.
© 2014 Tom Silver
MEIJI ERA (1868-1912)
In 1868 the era of rule by the shogunate military government formally came to an end and the era of the Emperor began anew—the Meiji Restoration. (“Meiji”—meaning “enlightened rule”). During the Edo era discussed in the last article successors to Japan’s long line of emperors hadn’t disappeared, but existed as figureheads while shoguns held the real power, nominally ruling in the name of the era’s emperors.
Under the shoguns Japan had been largely isolated from the West, except for a small Dutch trading area permitted on a tiny island in Nagasaki since the 17th Century. But all that began to change with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry’s squadron of “black ships” in Japan in 1853. That arrival marked the start of what was to become enormous internal upheaval in Japan along with huge Western influence on many aspects of Japanese life—from its military and politics to it’s clothing and art.
One aspect of that influence was the introduction of photography to Japan. Another was lithography, which allowed for far larger and more economical print runs than the traditional method of doing every step by hand. And so with this sudden introduction of modern methods to Meiji-era Japan traditional Japanese print-making began a decline that was not to be reversed until early in the 20th Century. A great many people who had made their living in printmaking began to find themselves out of work. By the turn of the 20th Century traditional Japanese woodblock printmaking was a mere shadow of its former existence.
But this decline was more quantitative than qualitative as some of the greatest prints in the history of the genre are in fact Meiji-era prints. This brings us to Yoshu Chikanobu (1838-1912) and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), each of whom represented a completely different style of print.
Chikanobu produced a number of stunningly beautiful triptychs (three-panel prints) featuring women wearing finely detailed kimonos in a variety of indoor and outdoor settings. Words can’t begin to describe these striking triptychs so we won’t even try. Suffice it to say that they are unforgettable, and for many Western viewers will be the Japan of their imaginations. Most dealers in Japanese prints keep at least a handful of Chikanobu triptychs in inventory, so you should have no difficulty finding examples of his work. A beautiful triptych in great condition and with fine detail in the subject matter—in the women’s kimono designs for example—typically will sell for $600 or more. Prints in lesser condition or with less popular or less detailed subjects can be had in the low hundreds of dollars.
Yoshitoshi was an artist of immense skill and creativity, known in large part for his dynamic prints based on Japanese historical and mythological subject matter—and for his ghosts. His best prints are as unforgettable as those of Chikanobu, though in a completely different way—as will be immediately apparent when you have a look. Sample prints from his 100 Aspects of the Moon series, and his triptych Fujiwara Playing the Flute By Moonlight—incredible masterpieces which grab and yank you right into the subject. The Moon prints in reasonably good condition typically run $600 or more. The dozen or so most popular prints from this series and in excellent condition run in the thousands of dollars. And Fujiwara?—well, $10,000 in okay condition and $18,000 or higher in excellent condition. But without question a sublime masterpiece.
Also have a look at examples from Yoshitoshi’s series 32 Aspects of Women, fine portraits of bijin-ga (beautiful women) across social classes and portrayed in a variety of everyday activities. These portrayals are rendered with exquisite detail, beautiful color, and captivating humanity and personality in the subjects. Unfortunately, most of the time there are very few of these portraits on the market, and when you do find them they aren’t cheap. In excellent condition they easily can sell for $1000 to $2000 and higher.
Finally, have a look at some of Yoshitoshi’s prints based on Japanese historical and literary themes. Many of those prints, like those of Kuniyoshi discussed in the last article, are brilliant masterpieces.
But they, along with his other works mentioned, assure Yoshitoshi’s place in the pantheon of the Japanese woodblock print genre. His work taken as a whole arguably makes him a culminating figure in the history of the genre—at least prior to the 20th Century. Figures of comparable significance in the West might be Michelangelo in the Italian Renaissance, and Johann Sebastian Bach in the Baroque period of European Music.
Other Meiji Artists
Here are a couple more artists you might like. Ogata Gekko (1859-1920) and Mizuno Toshikata (1866-1908) each produced highly romanticized print series evocative of traditional Japan. Gekko’s series Comparison of Beauties and Flowers and Toshikata’s Thirty-six Selected Beauties frequently portray women in settings with nature featured prominently. Toshikata’s prints in his series go a step further by showing women across a variety of Japanese historical eras.
Some of the Gekko prints in Beauties and Flowers are particularly interesting in that they suggest subjects immortalized in French Impressionism. Take a look at Gekko’s Yellow Mountain Rose (Yamabuki) and see if Renoir floral and garden subjects don’t come to mind.
Each of these artists produced beautiful work, available today as original prints which are affordable. Your budding collection might include examples in the $75-$250 range, with specific price depending on subject matter and condition.
Before moving on to the next article, we need to introduce the most important Japanese print term of all. It’s going to have a lot more meaning now that you have some background than it would have in the first article.
You’ll often see the term Ukiyo-e (pronounced ooo-key-oh-eh) used synonymously with the generic term “Japanese Prints.” Sometimes you’ll see it as a catch-all phrase for the Edo and Meiji eras combined. But technically speaking it refers only to the Edo-era prints we discussed in the last article. The term translates to “Pictures of the Floating World.” “Ukiyo” goes back a long way in Japanese history, when it had a completely different meaning from how it came to be applied to Japanese prints of the Edo period (17th through mid-19th centuries). Originally a spiritual (Buddhist) term referring to the impermanence of our worldly existence, Ukiyo in the 17th Century turned that meaning on its head by saying in effect, if life is short why not make the most of it—in a material sense.
One way for the prospering 17th and 18th Century merchant class to do just that was to collect the new, inexpensive prints, which were a reminder of all life has to offer, materially. And life did have a lot to offer—from entertainments like the kabuki theater, teahouses and sumo wrestling—to brothels and,later, pleasure trips (touring). The shogunate sought to keep things from getting out of hand, and so set up “pleasure” districts where these entertainments could be concentrated and controlled.
Pleasure districts played an important role in the developing woodblock print industry, and only partly because they were a focal point for a number of landscape and city-view prints. (See Hokusai’s Mount Fuji Seen From the Senju Pleasure Quarter, as one example.) Prints featuring pleasures—such as well-known kabuki actors, courtesans and geishas—were appreciated much like Hollywood fan magazines in modern times in America. And like other magazines which found favor in the modern world, there was an entire genre of print devoted to sex (“Shunga” prints).
So that’s “Ukiyo-e”—pictures of the Floating (impermanent) World. You’ll see that term a lot. (The suffix “-e” means “pictures”—or prints—you’ll often see it following the Japanese word for the subject of any particular print genre—such as “kacho-e,” flower and bird prints.)
In the next two articles we’re going to talk about how to care for your prints so you can enjoy them for a long time, and maybe pass them on in great condition to the next generation.
© 2014 Tom Silver
Caring for works of art on paper like Japanese prints presents more challenges than most other kinds of art. When you own a beautiful oil painting the natural tendency is to frame and hang it on a wall so you can continually enjoy it. But oil paintings and prints don’t have the same physical characteristics. Prints are highly susceptible to fading in normal home lighting conditions. This is especially true of older, Edo-era Japanese prints with their vegetable and mineral dyes. And a dimly lit environment defeats the purpose since you won’t be able to see the print in much detail, or fully enjoy it’s colors. Of course you would never permanently display a print in a brilliantly sunlit room. Or even temporarily, for that matter.
But there’s another school of thought which argues that prints can be displayed on walls out of direct sunlight provided you take proper precautions, which usually means having an experienced print framer do the job. That job means using archival quality matting and UV-protected glass or plastic. Others take issue here, arguing that typical UV products do not really provide complete, long-term protection from fading.
If you’ve ever seen an old print afflicted with browning along it’s perimeter and maybe into the subject itself, that probably was “mat burn,” caused by acidic content of the wood-based matting which surrounded the print for many years. But this is not a UV issue and poses no problem today with the use of modern archival matting materials.
Fortunately, wall display may not be an entirely do or don’t decision. If you have at least a small collection of prints you can display one or a few on walls for weeks or months and then trade off with others from your collection—“recycle” your print displays. One experienced collector I know has a different solution. There is one print which he particularly loves and must have on his wall. So he keeps it in a room with no direct sunlight, and with the light switches off most of the day while he’s at work. When he travels he drapes a heavy cloth over the frame to keep out light.
And then there is a third solution, which is to buy a non-print reproduction and hang it on your wall while keeping the real print safely protected from fading as we discuss below. Obviously not every print is available for sale this way though many famous prints in fact are available as reproductions. If yours isn’t, have a reproduction made for yourself. Today’s technology makes that easy, I’m told.
While only this third solution may afford real long-term protection from fading, nevertheless as a practical matter for collectors—rather than for one-off print buyers—the issue of wall display or no is of limited consequence. If your intent is to build a sizable collection over time you’ll probably run out of wall space long before you run out of prints. So you need a workable solution for protecting an entire collection of prints—from fading and from other problems discussed below.
Luckily that solution is easy, relatively inexpensive—and doesn’t take up a lot of space. Art supply shops with good breadth of inventory carry what are known as archival storage boxes. These boxes, like the archival matting discussed above, are made of acid- and lignin-free materials with acid-free adhesives in the boxes’ construction. Because of the wood acid problem, archival boxes are far superior to placing a bunch of prints in wooden drawers.
So are metal drawers a better solution? No drawers which house loose prints are a good solution. That’s because to view the prints you first must grab a bunch of them in the drawer, and then remove and place them on a table which for any number of reasons may be ill-suited even as a temporary backing for prints. Every time you touch a print you run a risk of one kind or another—including soiling, rubbing marks, creasing and tearing. So the goal is to minimize the number of times a print must be touched in order to be enjoyed (which is one argument for displaying prints on walls, though again, that won’t work for a sizable collection).
Some argue for lint-free archival gloves. But others, including some museum curators, point out that these gloves only add bulk to your fingers and easily can result in your rough-handling the prints. Gloves just may not give you a good grip on the delicate paper. Creasing, unintended folding, or even tearing can be the unfortunate consequences. So a better choice may be simplest—frequent hand-washing when spending time with your prints. You may be surprised how quickly natural oils build up on your fingers after you wash your hands. Those oils when transferred to your prints easily retain dust and free-floating pollutants. The result can be soiling or unsightly spots, either of which will only devalue your prints.
The best solution for storage and display combined may be use of archival clamshell boxes, where the top when opened lies flat rather than angled on a table or desk. So when you’re finished viewing a print resting in the bottom portion of the box, you carefully turn it over face-down onto the top portion. The box therefore does double duty—as protected storage and as convenient display. All you need do is take the box off a shelf, swing the top down onto a flat surface, and enjoy your print.
In the next article we’ll continue with this subject.
© 2014 Tom Silver
In the last article we ended by introducing the idea of using archival clamshell boxes for storing and displaying your Japanese prints. We’ll continue that discussion here by giving you lots of very specific, usable ideas.
Choosing and Using Archival Boxes
Archival boxes come in a variety of sizes to accommodate the broad range of print sizes. The box most likely to fit the lion’s share of your print sizes comfortably is 16" x 20". Manufacturers typically add a fraction of an inch to surface dimensions to insure against a little overage in print size. So a 20" length may really be more like 20 3/8". Choosing between the standard options of a 1" or 2" box height depends on the number of prints you have or will store in each box. And by the way, choose boxes which lie flat, horizontally. You don’t want prints standing vertically and bowing out within a box.
Another thing you don’t want is a box laden with so many prints that the load bearing down on bottom prints affects paper and pigment integrity. Since the quality and thickness of Japanese print paper varies, there is no standard as to how many prints—and their folder housing discussed below—should go into a single box. If a stack of prints feels too heavy, it probably is too heavy. So err on the side of caution.
In addition to that 16" x 20" box, you also might buy 9" x 12" and 20" x 24" boxes to accommodate both small and oversized prints, respectively. Japanese prints in triptych (three panel prints) typically come unattached at the seams—meaning that each panel is a separate and distinct print, and so may be stored apart from the other two in a normal size archival box. Triptychs which are attached at the seams normally come folded in thirds, and therefore also will fit in a normal size box. But for these triptychs you should place archival paper (see below) or archival tissue paper in the folds to prevent panels from rubbing against, and possibly damaging, each other.
I highly recommend that when you shop for archival boxes you not go for a bargain–priced box. Such boxes may not have been processed for true long-term protection from acids, and thus don’t really deserve to be called “archival,” although advertised as such. A serviceable 16" x 20" x 2" box should sell in the $50-$100 range. So shop around.
Making Archival Folders
But a good archival box is not the end of the matter. You don’t want a pile of prints lying loose in a box one on top of another where friction can remove pieces of pigment. The solution here is to purchase archival–quality file folders—or better still, sheets of archival-quality paper which you can convert into your own folders. Not only are paper folders less expensive than purchased folders, but they take up less room in the box—which may mean fewer required boxes and therefore more money available for prints! Efficiency matters.
This archival paper sometimes is referred to as “interleaving sheets.” You may find this paper sold in sheets too large for your archival boxes even when the sheets are folded over. So first they must be cut down to size and only then folded, resulting in paper folders into which your prints will fit snug and protected from rubbing against each other. The proper folder size for a 16" x 20" box is approximately 15.5" x 19.5", which will keep your folders from bulking up within the box. This means cutting an oversize interleaving sheet down to 31" x 19.5". The 31 inches when folded gets you to 15-1/2 inches, while the 19-1/2 inch length stays as is.
If you have many prints it’s a pain in the neck to have to cut each individual sheet—or even two or three sheets at a time—to proper size. So consider taking the whole stack of paper to a shop which will do the job for you using automated equipment. Just be sure you give the right dimensions—or you may find yourself buying a whole new stack of interleaving paper. Make a hand-cut template before going to the shop so you can be sure they’ll have the right size.
As a convenience to our readers we’ve included links here to a selection of well-known dealers in these materials. You’ll find them in the Japanese Prints section of “Helpful Info.” As with all listings there, we have no financial interest in, or financial relationship with any of them.
Making Archival Booklets
Back to those paper folders. You may remember from an earlier article that a huge number of Japanese prints do not stand on their own but are parts of a series. (In a previous article we cited Ogata Gekko’s Comparison of Beauties and Flowers, a 24-print series.) Many collectors make a point of staying within series which interest them for at least some of their print purchases. If you too decide to collect prints at least partly within series why not make a booklet to house them, rather than use a separate folder for each individual print?
It’s simple to do. Just nest one folder within another until you have sufficient page separations for each print you own within a particular series. You may choose to leave room in the booklet for future purchases within that series. I wouldn’t staple or bind the booklet’s pages in any way because you may want flexibility for even more pages than planned if you add prints down the road. Staples in particular could damage the prints. By using this booklet idea you can conveniently house and view your print series without wasting interleaving paper sheets—which is what would happen if you use a separate folder for every print within a series. And you’ll have the satisfaction of superb organization.
But a word of caution. Too many nested folders in a single archival box may cause one or more booklets to bulk up, which in turn may prevent prints within from lying perfectly flat. You definitely don’t want prints with a permanent curvature. Not only would that be unsightly but it would have a decidedly negative effect on market value should you ever decide to sell. Depending on print dimensions and paper thickness, you probably should limit each booklet to a maximum of 6 to 10 prints. Eyeball the booklet and feel it’s bulk to determine when enough is enough. If you gently place each print closer to the booklet’s opening than to where all of the folds meet in the center (and have a tendency to bulk up), you will further ensure that your prints lie flat.
Proper Humidity for Print Storage
A piece of paper is a paltry thing. Too much dampness on a regular basis can cause fungal growth, resulting in brownish spots known as “foxing.” Rare book collectors are very familiar with this common condition issue in older books. Japanese prints can suffer from it as well. And there’s nothing like a damp pile of prints in a dark, closed box to attract silverfish, which can badly damage your prints.
The first rule is to use common sense. Keep your prints out of bathrooms, attics and basements—where humidity can be high and varying. A relative humidity range of 40 to 65% should not cause a problem. Obviously an unair-conditioned summer home near water is no place to store or display Japanese prints. But if you continually run much below 40% you could have the opposite problem—excessively dry, brittle paper.
Margins, Trimming and Touching
One last point. Many older prints and reprints have little or nothing in the way of margins surrounding the print subject matter itself. It was common to trim margins to make the print fit “right” for display—on walls, “pillars,” or in albums. But if your print does have margins, use them for picking up the print and moving it around. Use both hands to do this. No knowledgeable collector today would even think of trimming margins, which are a definite plus and usually add to a print’s value.
© 2014 Tom Silver
Should you buy Japanese prints for investment? The answer almost invariably is—don’t do it. If you buy Japanese prints because you love them rather than expect to make money, it’s hard to see how you can lose—assuming you’ve done at least a little research before buying. Hopefully these articles will help on that score.
Even assuming you buy prints in reasonably good condition with both interesting subject matter and a good print impression taken from the inked woodblock—and you work exclusively with reputable dealers—the odds of making a profit are poor. That’s true even if you have the means and dealer relationships often necessary to purchase high–quality, hard-to-find prints—although here the odds improve from awful to merely not great. There are meaningful exceptions to this viewpoint to be sure, and we’ll discuss them, but first let’s look at the main reason for doing your investing in some other sphere.
The Dealer Markup Hurdle
That reason can be expressed in two words— dealer markup. If you buy stocks, bonds, or non-numismatic gold or silver coins, the difference between what you pay for the investment and what you get if you turn around and sell it back to the dealer typically is a few percentage points at most. You can easily overcome that cost differential if the trend runs your way and you don’t need to sell tomorrow. But purchasing collectibles is a very different story.
Dealers in collectibles like Japanese prints—or rare books antique furniture, old clocks—bear special risks which don’t normally apply to commodity items like blue-chip stocks or American Eagle gold coins. For one thing dealers may have to hold onto any particular item for a while before it sells. That entails risk which can’t always be mitigated with insurance. Physical deterioration of objects with the passage of time, handling–related accidents within the shop, changing taste in the marketplace, market oversupply due to liquidation of a large estate—particularly with respect to somewhat rare or unusual items—must be factored into dealer prices.
Then there are the financial costs of holding print inventory—such as insurance, interest on financed inventory, and rent on office or other space necessary to keep sufficient supplies of inventory on hand. Not to mention all the other costs required to run a business. And of course let’s not forget dealer profit margin, which makes staying in business worthwhile and puts bread on the table. Clearly dealer prices must reflect a whole lot more than the prints’ purely intrinsic value.
To put it in practical terms, every dollar spent on prints may return only twenty-five to forty cents or less if they’re turned around for resale to a dealer shortly after purchase. By way of contrast a dollar invested in stocks or bonds may return ninety-eight or ninety-nine cents if immediately sold back to the dealer firm. Of course you’re not going to do this, but we mention it to demonstrate the illiquid nature of collectible markets.
Another thing. Reputable dealers have a huge contact network which assures first look at highly desirable prints. They’re invited to bid at substantial estate auctions you’ll never hear about.
Your Investment Risks
And if all this isn’t enough consider your own risks, which in some cases are the same as the dealers’. Prints you own also are subject to risk of physical deterioration with passage of time, insurance costs, and changing market fashions. Plus, and a lot more so than with dealers, you’re going to look at and handle your prints as well as show them to family and friends. So depending on how often you do this, they’ll be exposed to excessive light if you’re not careful—and to rubbing, soiling, creasing and tearing risks. (Read our articles on “Protecting and Displaying Prints.”)
So you can see what you’re up against if you hope to make a profit investing in prints.
But now let’s take a contrary view and see if we can poke some holes in the foregoing’s overall conclusion. First, please understand that what’s written here is general commentary only, none of which is intended as formal investment advice. For that you’ll need a professional investment advisor to look at your own personal situation and help you determine your own financial capabilities and capacity for risk taking, or you’ll need to take those burdens upon yourself.
At least in theory, and despite everything we’ve said so far, it is possible to make money investing in prints. Problem is, any gain is unlikely to happen quickly, and may need to wait for future generations if it ever happens at all. This in fact is mostly due to the factors discussed above. But it is possible that the dealer markup might be overcome given enough time.
Key Investment Considerations with Prints
If you’re going to have even a remote chance at eventual investment success consider these points:
Inexpensive, abundantly available reprints from the post-World War II era are unlikely to appreciate much, if at all. (NOTE: sometimes you’ll see the term “re-strikes” instead of “reprints.” In common parlance the two terms are used interchangeably.)
- Prints in poor condition or with poor impressions from the inked woodblock are not very good bets.
- Prints by the best-known, most loved artists are the safest bets. Gambling that particular lesser known artists will become market favorites at some future time is just that—a gamble.
- Quality reprints from the Meiji and Taisho eras (mostly late 19th Century through the mid-1920s) are a good place to look if long-term investment is a goal. By “quality” we mean well known or interesting subject matter, good condition and good impression.
- Trimmed margins detract from value, especially if the trimming went beyond the margins into the subject matter itself.
- On the other hand wider margins—especially those which contain seals of one kind or another such as a censor’s seal—are a definite plus factor.
- Quality reprints by the original publishers—such as Hoeido descendants or Uo-ya Eikichi—both Hiroshige publishers—are good bets for the long term.
- Quality lifetime prints from original blocks—most especially first edition prints which can be documented as such—are very good bets for the long term.
- Original 18th Century prints in “decent” condition, as well as reasonable-quality originals by 19th Century superstars like Hokusai and Hiroshige, also are very good long–term bets. But prices on fine condition prints here can be stratospheric.
- Quality reprints by 20th Century portrait masters Hashiguchi Goyo and Torii Kotondo have appreciation potential, although these reprints aren’t widely available in the Japanese print marketplace. When you do see them, you’ll find prices generally in the $500-$1200 range, depending largely on particular subject and condition. Each of these masters produced a very limited number of designs, with limited print runs in limited quantities. Particularly rare or highly desirable design originals in relatively good condition easily can sell in the tens of thousands of dollars.
FULL DISCLOSURE: The writer owns prints of each artist mentioned in this list, and owns both investment-grade and non-investment-grade prints.
In the next article we’ll continue this discussion. We’ll weigh the pluses of Japanese print investment against the minuses we’ve discussed here in Part I, and reach a conclusion. Stay tuned.
© 2014 Tom Silver
In the last article we discussed some negatives when considering Japanese prints as investments. Then we began looking at the positive side of the question. In this article we’re going to continue discussing the positive, and then balance the opposing views to come to a conclusion as to whether Japanese prints are worthwhile investments.
Inflation as a Plus Factor
First, take another look in Part I at the ten key considerations listed for picking investment prints. Assuming you do invest with these points in mind, what factors might overcome the dealer markup and possibly give you or your heirs a profit? The most obvious factor is general price inflation, which works to your advantage in two separate ways. Not only do prices on desirable collectibles usually float upward with inflation, but the cost of doing business for dealers who sell collectibles also rises. That means dealers must raise prices on their print inventory just to cover increasing utility, salary and rent costs among many other increasing costs of doing business.
While you’re probably not a dealer, most of those cost increases work to the advantage of your existing collection all the same. When dealers are compelled to raise print prices the effect is to raise prices on the same or similar prints all across the marketplace. Prints are a global market. So if a Hiroshige Hoeido edition reprint goes from $250 to $300 at a European dealer, your very similar reprint may go up as well, even if not precisely by the same percentage.
True, deflation rather than inflation has been the major concern in recent years. But that may not always be the case, and in any event each print buyer must decide individually which is the more likely scenario going out many years.
Supply and Demand
But long term inflation isn’t the only factor holding out the possibility of profit. Another is the relationship between supply and demand, and each of these two components can work to your advantage separately.
Let’s take supply first. While the precise number isn’t known, prints were produced in the Edo and Meiji periods (18th and 19th centuries) in staggering quantities—“staggering” when you consider that production was manual rather than automated. Total print production must have run into the millions. Yet it’s estimated that only a tiny fraction of those prints exist today—even fewer if you limit the estimate to prints in good or better condition.
What happened to all those prints? Both natural and human–related disasters are part of the explanation. The great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and related firestorms destroyed print dealer warehousing as well as homes and other businesses. Scale of destruction in Tokyo and Yokohama was horrific. It’s estimated that the earthquake damaged or destroyed well over half a million homes.
Quite apart from the human toll, that earthquake has entered the print world’s lexicon. Dealers and collectors often refer to some of the most valuable original prints by early 20th Century masters as “pre-earthquake,” because it’s so rare to find surviving examples from before the earthquake struck. One measure of your sophistication as a print collector is that you know exactly what they’re talking about when they use that term.
And of course little over a generation later came the fire–bombing destruction wrought in World War II. Taken together with the Kanto earthquake the long-term effect on the domestic Japanese market’s potential print supply is unfathomable.
Other Supply Factors
But even without those disasters the quantity of surviving collectible-quality prints from the 18th and 19th centuries wouldn’t be large. Prints had been abundant in Japan before the virtual Western expropriation (buying up) of available supply by the early 20th Century, and early on could be had for the equivalent of pennies. So there was little incentive for print owners to take preservation measures even assuming the requisite knowledge had been there, which it wasn’t.
It’s ironic that unlike in the Western view, the Japanese themselves did not look upon their prints as “high art.” Often prints were trimmed to fit available spaces for display or storage, a fate which never would have befallen art considered valuable. If wall display led to damage, or fading from exposure to light, prints were easily and cheaply replaced.
It’s also ironic that many great Japanese print collections in museums throughout the world—including in Japan itself—had been acquired and donated by Western collectors. It’s fair to assume that many if not most very high quality Edo-era prints today reside in museums, and therefore aren’t part of the potential floating supply which might otherwise become available on the global print market.
Of course it’s true that there was abundant reprint production in the post-World War II period, which made up for some unknown portion of the loss we’ve been discussing. But most of those prints are devoid of significant appreciation potential. They lack rarity, or the historical reference applicable to their brethren of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
A Final Two Supply Factors
As if all these investment friendly reasons for vastly reduced investment grade print supply aren’t enough, there are at least two more. First is the unknown number of today’s print buyers who, like buyers in centuries past, are unaware of the special care necessary for print preservation. By ignoring proper care how many of today’s print buyers are unintentionally taking their prints off the market for future generations of buyers?
Even among current collectors who do take care of their prints, how many of their heirs will inherit that knowledge along with inheriting the prints—or will have the interest even assuming they will be left proper care instructions? We can’t know any of those numbers with certainty, but chances are fewer inheritors will have the same level of interest as their benefactors.
And second, the number of traditional Japanese print publishers—along with carvers and printers with requisite skill—has shrunk drastically according to one major American dealer very much in a position to know.
So clearly investment grade supply is minimal compared to original production, and in all likelihood will continue to shrink. But what about demand? Here we are in the realm of speculation. But there are some things we can say. One, Japanese prints as a genre are world-class art. Two, because they were not produced as unique works of art but in multiple “copies,” Japanese prints are far more affordable than Western art of comparable quality and significance. This is true of print originals, but all the more so of reprints.
A Summing Up and Conclusion
Let’s sum up. Investment-grade supply relative to original production is low and shrinking. Demand is a reasonable bet to increase. Normally this is a powerful positive combination when considering an investment. So should you buy Japanese prints for investment?
Here we must come back to the very first paragraph in Part I, “The answer almost invariably is—don’t do it.” The fact that the vast majority of Japanese prints ever produced no longer exists is offset by something equally important—prices of prints currently on the market already account for that fact. Put another way, facts laid out in this article have long since been recognized by, and discounted in, the Japanese print market. Yes, prospects for long-term inflation and shrinking investment-grade print supply could favor investors. But the dealer markup combined with normal physical risk to prints in your house—along with risk of changing market taste—may well be too high a hurdle to overcome.
Conclusion: Buy Japanese prints because they can enrich your life immensely. If you’re going to buy for investment, have a very long term time horizon—measured in decades, not years. Or hope that your children or grandchildren will realize any profit which may materialize.
© 2014 Tom Silver