Onchi Kôshirô (恩地孝四郎 1891-1955) was the preeminent figure of the sôsaku hanga (creative print: 創作版画) movement. A visionary modernist, Onchi used a varied and sophisticated approach to design, exploring figurative, abstract, and symbolic imagery through traditional and experimental techniques, both Japanese and Western. He was an excellent draftsman in the realistic manner, while his explorations into abstract composition stand as seminal in the development of sôsaku hanga. The printmaker Yamaguchi Gen once said, "Onchi was a vital artist ... he had the inspiration and passion of a great artist. He was the embodiment of modern hanga in Japan and our ambassador to the rest of the world. He was heart and mind....". Perhaps more than anyone else, it was Onchi who exemplified the principle of self-carving and self-printing as essential to the sôsaku hanga artist. Even so, he contributed to various projects for which his self-carved images were printed by others to be included in themed print series.
Onchi's Shinsho Fuji includes two full-page color woodcuts designed by him: (1) Fuji above the clouds, and (2) Fuji under the first snows of autumn. The book is bound as a honbunbukuro (western-style binding: 本文袋), each page of typeset text enclosed in a pale blue woodcut border. All told, there are 23 leaves paginated in Western style plus 1 tipped-in page of calligraphy. The paper covers are blue for the front & white for the back with dragon/cloud patterns, with the title on a white paper label on the front cover. The contents are enclosed in a paper wrapper, which is a woodblock-hand-printed image of Fuji in sumi (carbon black pigment) also designed by Onchi on soft Japanese paper with blue printed titles. The wrapper of this book lists the longer title, (Kasha) Shinsho Fuji 歌集新頌• 富⼟ (Collection of poetry: new praise of Fuji ). The main text of the book was printed by metal type.
Alicia Volk (Associate Professor of Japanese Art, Yale University) posted online (Oct. 17, 2016) the following commentary: "Shinshô Fuji (New praise of Fuji) is a poignant collection of short, thirty-one syllable tanka (短歌) poems celebrating Mount Fuji by the naturalist poet Maeda Yugure (前田夕暮 1883–1951). Published in June 1946, not long after the end of the Pacific War, the book was designed and illustrated by Onchi Kôshirô, a renowned print artist and leader in Japanese modern book design. Onchi is said to have created over eight hundred books between 1911 and 1955, including novels, art books, photography manuals, children’s books, and encyclopedias. His designs span an astounding range of artistic idioms, from early twentieth-century cloth-bound tomes with richly embroidered gold patterns to the sparer and more dynamic modernist styles he evolved in the 1930s. For Onchi, it was important that a book "talk to the reader as if it were alive."
Onchi classified Shinshô Fuji as a “Japanese book” (wahon 和本) — that is, conceived in the Japanese manner — but he described it as "a hybrid born of the anomalous conditions of the postwar." He further wrote that, "For the book ... the Western binding, the cover is blue Japanese paper (washi) with a cloud pattern printed in gofun (胡粉 a pigment comprised of calcium carbonate powder). The printing blocks were carved by hand due to the conditions of the time. The front is perfectly ordinary but I am proud that I made it work together with the same pattern printed in gofun on the whitespace of the back cover. The letters on the cover are also self-carved." In his postscript Onchi writes that in compiling the collection of poems on Mount Fuji after Japan’s defeat in war, "I was able to experience a feeling of contentment. I was furthermore even able to feel that my life is surely developing in a new direction from here."
Lawrence Smith has written that, "Maeda was a leading poet in the tanka form, later also successful in free verse ... noted for ... naturalism .... In the postscript he [Maeda] explains how, in retreat in the Chichibu Mountains to till the land, he selected 101 verses [composed] from ... 1914-45; he tells how they represent not mere depictions of Fuji, but a facet of his spiritual activity as he has been constantly inspired by the mountain over that period. The preface, too, is a call for renewed appreciation of Fuji's beauty in the aftermath of war: 'Ah, Fuji! It is all the more because our land of Japan has fought and been defeated that your expression is so wise and sure (sakashii)'."
Other impressions of Shinsho Fuji are included in the collections of important institutions worldwide, such as the: British Museum; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; University of Maryland, College Park; Worchester Art Museum; National Diet Library, Tokyo; Shinsho University Library, Matsumoto; Tokyo Metropolitan Tama Library; Tsurumi University Library, Yokohama; and Waseda University Library, Tokyo.
Note: The condition of our copy is very good. The paper for this immediate-post-war book was not of the highest quality, given the severe paper shortages of the period, so all copies have impurities (specks, marks, inclusions). These are not soil or mold spots, and are to be expected in every copy. The toning of the calligraphy page is likewise evident in every copy we have ever examined. As for the wrapper, the delicacy of the paper is such that a great many examples are badly damaged or lost altogether, so the fact that our copy has only minor losses (now repaired and made intact with a tiny bit of modern washi) to the small area of the upper spine means this is an unusually "healthy" survivor. Smith  explains that, "Although the materials available at that time were relatively poor, the book was put together with all the care traditionally lavished on volumes of poetry." We can attest to the pleasure one feels when holding our copy in the hands and turning the pages to view the poems and illustrations.
This iconic book has long been recognized as one of Onchi's finest post-war productions. The two views of Fuji are superb examples of the artist's innovative and poetic approach to landscape views. These two designs, in particular, evoke the sadness that Onchi was feeling in the year after the Pacific War. He not only witnessed the defeat of his country, but lost one of his sons, Masao, very late in the conflict (August 6, 1945).
Given all of the above, the aquisition of such a copy of Shinshô Fuji is a goal of every serious collector of the works of Onchi Kôshirô.
- Helen Merritt & Nanako Yamada, Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints 1900-1975. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992, pp. 267-272.
- Iwabe Sadao (ed.), Collected Prints of Onchi Kôshirô [Onchi Kôshirô hangashû] 恩地孝四郎版画集, Tokyo: Keishôsha (形象社) Ltd., 1975.
- Matsumoto et al., Onchi Kôshirô (Exhibition catalog National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo), 2016.
- Helen Merritt, Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Early Years. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1990, pp. 178-199 and 261-85
- Lawrence Smith, The Japanese Print Since 1900: Old dreams and new visions. London: British Museum, 1983, p. 111.
- Lawrence Smith, Japanese Prints during the Allied Occupation 1945-195: Onchi Kôshirô, Ernst Hacker and the First Thursday Society. London: British Museum Press, 2002.