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Toyama Prints: A Spoonful of Ukiyo Helps the Medicine Go Down

(Text and Photos by Peter Ujlaki)

Smart shopkeepers in Japan periodically reward their customers with gifts, a practice that helps insure continued loyalty. Thanks to these "presento," many Japanese never switch purveyors — even across generations — and  often buy more than they really need.

Another example of Japanese consumer gullibility? Well, perhaps, but for some shoppers the gifts seem to make the cost worthwhile, so the moral to merchants is: Choose your gift well.

Starting already in the late 17th century, itinerant patent medicine peddlers used to trek through the mountainous countryside of Japan, making their living by dispensing herbal remedies. Competition may have been scarce, but so was money and hypochondria, so to help with sales and develop a little dependency customers from late Edo on were rewarded with presento of ukiyo-e.

Compact, lightweight and beloved by farmers as sophisticated artifacts of an urban culture they could only dream about, colored woodblock calendars and prints of kabuki actors, geisha and the Seven Lucky Gods represented the perfect presento for all concerned.

Naturally, the herb vendors could not afford to lavish standard ukiyo-e on their customers; profit margins on pharmaceuticals were not what they are today. Instead, and this we know from studying old albums of accumulated "gift" prints, the freebies consisted of a hodge-podge of ukiyo-e from a variety of irregular sources.

Some of the sheets handed out were indeed big-name, mainstream designs from Edo, but they had clearly been rubbed from desperately worn-out blocks that the original publisher must have been eager to exchange for a few mounds of Chinese herbs.

Other sheets, such as stencil prints of Gion beauties in their annual costume parade, were not inferior in quality but simply overstock from Kyoto publishers. Once July had passed, such prints were like yesterday's newspaper for cosmopolitan Kyoto-ites, and subject to clearance.

The bulk of the presento, however, were original designs commissioned by the herbal industry itself. Since this business was (and still is) centered around the city of Toyama, in present-day Fukui Prefecture on the Japan Sea Coast, prints of this type are termed "Toyama prints," or sometimes "medicine prints."

With the home-grown variety, cost savings were initally achieved by combining the stencil process — in which only one block need be carved — with much smaller sheets of paper. Later, in early Meiji, standard multiple- block prints were produced, but execution was careless. After that, and in fact right up through early Showa, Toyama prints consisted of compact, cut-rate lithographs.

There is little to recommend among post-Edo Toyama prints, and no period has achieved the status of collectible, except of course in the greater Toyama area where a fine early example can fetch as much as ... $100! But not all medicine prints should be sneezed at. Despite their less than immaculate printing and diminutive size, some are very attractive.

The kabuki actor image shown here, from c. 1840, is a case in point. Though measuring only 10 x 22 cm (as compared with 15 x 34 cm for the standard Kyoto stencil print), and notwithstanding the smudged pigments and pronounced white stencil rib lines on the lady's kimono, the print offers a charming depiction of the doomed lovers Osome and Hisamatsu.

Toyama fig. 1
Fig. 1

Equally alluring for the more esoteric minded are the little peculiarities found in Toyama prints. Of the two actor names in this example's cartouches, for example, one, Nakamura Fukusuke, was celebrated in Edo, but the face of Osome bears no likeness to him, while the other, Nakamura Tetsunosuke, is unknown to posterity. Perhaps such a man existed and played the provinces, or maybe the artist simply made the name up.

And then there is the matter of signatures. This one boldly proclaims "Kuniyoshi," a popular artist in Edo who absolutely, positively had nothing to do with the hundreds of Toyama prints bearing the identical characters of his name.

Is this the homage of an Utagawa School student, proclaiming kinship from his distant outpost on the Japan Sea, or simply an attempt to add a little extra sense of elegance to the gritty lives of countryfolk?

Either way, a dandy little touch like this must have caused entire hamlets to get hooked on herbs.

This article originally appeared in Daruma, no. 27, Summer 2000. Copyrighted © text and pictures reprinted with permission.

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