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What is the 'Hyakunin Isshu' woodblock print series?

The phrase Hyakunin isshu can be translated into English as 'One hundred poems from one hundred poets', and is the name of a very famous collection made up of poems written between the 7th and 13th centuries. All Japanese know of it, and any reasonably well-educated Japanese knows many of the poems by heart. It is a very important part of Japanese literary culture, and it is far from unusual to meet people who have memorized the complete collection.

Although the 'Hyakunin Isshu' was created as a purely literary endeavour, in recent centuries it has also become strongly connected with a game of cards (karuta) based on the poems. Two sets of 100 small cards are used to play this game. One set contains the complete poems, and is used by a reader who chants each poem while the players scramble to be the first to locate the matching card, which contains just the last portion of the poem. (A few years back I was commissioned by a publisher to write a magazine article on the history of karuta. The story is on-line over in this section of the website.)

The series of prints (hanga) that I made are not specifically connected with the card game, but were reproduced from an old book containing illustrations of the poets accompanied by calligraphic renderings of their poems. It was designed by the Ukiyo-e artist Katsukawa Shunsho and published in Edo (old Tokyo) in 1775. The card game had become popular by this time, and the book was perhaps partly intended as a reference for young ladies to study the poetry, but also presumably to stand as an attractive book in its own right.

It is a very attractive book. The poets are portrayed with quite a bit of personality, very unlike the typical woodblock prints of the day, which generally used trite formulas for depicting human faces. We see a very wide range of emotions and character pictured. I found the book so attractive when I first studied it that I decided to make a complete collection of 100 prints - one reproducing each page of the original volume.

How were my prints made?

I carved and printed each one using exactly the same techniques that were used to create the original book in 1775. For a master reference, I used a copy in the possession of the Toyo Bunko, a research library in Tokyo, whose staff were most helpful, and to whom I am grateful for permission to reproduce this work.

It is difficult to tell from these computer images, but my prints are larger than the original book (and far larger than the small 'karuta' cards). Each print measures 420mm x 280mm, in a vertical format.

Each print was carved on blocks of mountain cherry (yamazakura) obtained from one of the last two suppliers left in Japan. After carving, I printed each copy on Japanese mulberry paper (kozo washi), hand-made in Fukui Prefecture.

I made 10 prints each year, consisting of balanced sets of 10 images chosen from the complete 100. As I finished each print, I signed it, wrote a short essay on some aspect of the project that has struck me during that month, and then sent it out to the people who sponsored the project through their subscriptions.

From early 1989 ... to late 1998 ... It turned out to be quite a project!