"Shimbi Shoin Publisher (Tokyo, ca1899-1938)"

Shimbi Shoin Publisher's Tokyo Headquarters (ca1910)

The woodblock reproductions of the Shimbi Shoin have received critical acclaim over the years....

In a catalogue dated 1924 for an exhibit of Japanese art in London's Victoria and Albert Museum, Edward F. Strange, made the following comment regarding the art of color woodblock printing in Japan:

The last 30 years or so, have, however, witnessed a sort of revival, by no means without merit in its way; and the adaptation of the process to the requirements of book-illustration and the reproduction of works of art has reached a remarkably high standard in such publications as the Kokka and those of the Shimbi Shoin.

Shimbi Shoin Publisher -- Some History

Although reference materials and information about Tokyo publisher Shimbi Shoin are scarce (see our sparse comments about this publisher in our earlier June 2003 article titled "The Unknown 'Kasuga Shrine' Print of Hasui KAWASE") it seems from the limited variety of sources available that Shimbi Shoin Publisher was active during the ca1899 to 1936/38 period. Very quickly during this time period, Shimbi Shoin soon established itself as the premier publisher of art reproductions which were so noted for their high quality and technical excellence, that critical acclaim and praise was often bestowed upon this publisher. As a result, even today a great many of Shimbi Shoin's finest early publications (typically as "bound volumes") are now found within Japan's finest libraries and museums.

Early during this same time, it seems that Shimbi Shoin also pioneered a bold blending of some European printmaking methods together with traditional Japanese printmaking techniques. The result was the creation of astonishingly crisp and highly detailed images. We'll talk somewhat more about this methodology in a few moments.

In any case, as early as 1903 Shimbi Shoin was creating various "bound volumes" (or "folio's") of print "reproductions" which were produced under a variety of titles or themes. Included were a wide variety of titles such as "Selected Relics of Japanese Art," "Masterpieces Selected from the Korin School," "One Hundred Masterpieces of Japanese Pictorial Art," and so on. Typical of these "deluxe bound volumes" were their colorful silk covers, heavy silk thread hand-sewn bindings, gold gilt-edges--often with outer slipcases closed by ivory clasps. The actual prints which were the centerpieces of these publications (inside, Japanese and English text told about each print and artist) were painstakingly produced to the highest standards achievable--of course, having been individually hand-carved and hand-printed by the finest artisans to be found. In other words, for these "reproductions" nothing was spared in their production, nor in their final presentation.

Shimbi Shoin's Showroom and Reception Room (ca1910) (Note artworks displayed on ceiling!!)

By about the year 1925, Shimbi Shoin's output was seen to have shifted away from its former primary focus on "bound volumes," instead turning to the production of individual "single sheet" print reproductions. One reference source tells us that:

"A catalogue published in 1925 listed only single sheet reproductions and (contains) no books. Subsequent catalogues were the same with no books listed. A review of the books published by Shimbi Shoin leads to the same conclusion. Very few books were published by the company after 1925 and those that were published were small format (8vo) rather than the large folio format used for most of it's art reproduction books."

Likely, the marketplace of tourists and print collectors must have dictated this move away from the previous (and certainly more expensive) larger "bound volumes." Yet another decade later, by 1934 to 1936, for reasons not readily known Shimbi Shoin's output declined further, with their only known Hasui print, "Shinto Shrine of Kasuga at Nara" (1935), seen as being from among their final works. (Likely the production run for this "Kasuga Shrine" print was sometime during 1935, as attached to some copies of this print then were a tiny "Jan-Dec 1936" calendar.) This exceptionally beautiful and rare Hasui print is seen just below.

Hasui's "Shinto Shrine of Kasuga at Nara" Print (1935), bearing attached "Jan-Dec 1936 Calendar"

Whatever the reasons, likely in the end it was the marketplace forces of "supply and demand" that dictated the changes seen in Shimbi Shoin's output over their nearly four decades of production, and finally, in the end sadly and slowly drove them out of business altogether.

The Woodblock Printing Process

At this point, a few comments about how the woodblock printing process is done will help the reader to better understand the techniques by which Shimbi Shoin was able create these prints of astonishing quality. To do so, Shimbi Shoin innovatively blended their familiar traditional Japanese printmaking techniques together with a limited use of tradition European printmaking techniques.

Artisans at work at Shimbi Shoin Publisher (ca1910)

For those unfamiliar with woodblock printing, it is a rather complex, multi-step effort requiring dozens and dozens of hours to produce, in the end, a single image. In short, it requires the intricate carving of numerous cherry woodblocks, a separate uniquely carved block being required for EACH of the colors used in the final print. Hence, a typical 12 to 15 color print would therefore require the carving of then 12 to 15 blocks--a painstakingly detailed task that could easily take several full months to complete.

Additionally we should add, into each of these individual block's two edges must also carved two small raised "kento marks" which are needed as precise "alignment points" against which the actual paper sheet is set while each of the various blocks' colors are being individually printed.

Once all of the individual woodblocks have finally been carved, the actual printing process itself then can begin. As suggested above, this printing is itself a tedious multi-step process where only a single color is printed per day, after which the partially-printed papers are then hung-up to partially dry. Therefore, if 15 colors (of course, requiring 15 blocks) are to be seen in a print, this day-by-day printing of individual colors would then take 15 days to complete. The printing of even a single color can be a time-consuming process, as this process often involves the skillful application of inks onto a block's surface--a careful manipulation of colors to achieve the "bokashi" shading (gradation of colors) or other desired effects. A typical an production run, or "edition," of a given image would then be until perhaps either 50 or 100 sheets have been completed. (Images showing traditional Japanese printmakers at work--and a more detailed discussion of the entire printmaking process can be seen in our related article, "Modern Day Woodblock Printers Still Working In Japan".)

Described above then is what would be called traditional Japanese printmaking techniques. However, what made the woodblock prints by Shimbi Shoin somewhat different was their innovative incorporation of traditional European printmaking's "END-grain carving" together with traditional Japanese "plank caving" (that is, using flat-surfaced planks, or "with the grain"). A technique largely unknown to the Japanese, it was this European method of carving into a wood's "end-grain" that allowed European printmakers to break up their colors into more intricate patterns and achieve effects such as finely engraved "hatching." An additional advantage of this European "end-grain" technique was that blocks carved in this manner were also much more resistant to "line-edge breakage" and the other block degradation that is seen in Japanese prints as their blocks wear over time (see related article, "'Key-Block' Line Degradation (Blockwear) Over Time").

What Shimbi Shoin pioneered then was their COMBINED USE of the traditional Japanese printmaking technique of "plank carving" with which they were familiar together with a limited use of tradition European "end-grain carving." Smooth-faced cherrywood planks were thusly used to print areas of broad color, or where a continuous smooth surface was needed upon which to manipulate the gradation of colors know as "bokashi." At the same time, certain complex or intricate areas of a print's detail were achieved though the limited use of "end-grain caving." In other words, Shimbi Shoin's finest prints involved the "best of two worlds"--an unusual and revolutionary blending of both Japanese and European techniques.

The "Crown Jewel" -- Shimbi Shoin's 1903-06 "Ukiyo-e Grand Anthology"

Of the many various "bound volumes" for which Shimbi Shoin became well known, one such "volume" was so painstakingly produced (and so limited in its production) that it later became known as the "crown jewel" of all Shimbi Shoin works. This "bound volume" (which is actually a 5-volume set) was titled in Japanese as "Ukiyo-e Ha Gashu," which can be translated variously as "Ukiyo-e Grand Anthology" or with more words as "Masterpieces Selected from the Ukiyoe School." Whatever the translated title, it is this Shimbi Shoin publication--and more specifically, the individual woodblock prints contained therein--that will shortly become the specific focus of this article.

This largely hand-produced "Ukiyo-e Grand Anthology" set of 5 "bound volumes" was without doubt quite an undertaking to produce--if for no other reason, simply its size and shear volume. Each of the 5 individually produced volumes were large format "folios," each measuring a tall 19 x 12 1/4 inches. If these volumes were then further produced as among the even rarer "deluxe bound volumes," then further embellishments were made. As mentioned previously, typical of these "deluxe bound volumes" were their colorful silk covers, heavy silk thread hand-sewn bindings, and gold gild-edges. Often then, each individual "folio" was then often provided its own outer "slipcase" for protection, closed finally by ivory clasps. The "outer silk cover" to one such "deluxe bound volume" (Volume 1), along with some of the volume's typical Japanese text, is seen just below:

Album's Outer Woodblock-printed Silk Cover -- "Volume 1 -- "Ukiyo-e Ha Gashu,"
and inside view of Japanese text and black/white illustrations

Detail View of Album's Outer Woodblock-printed Silk Cover

One of the very few references that we were able to locate which talks about Shimbi Shion's publications offered the following information about this specific set:

"1906-9, Shiichi Tajima, Masterpieces Selected from the Ukiyoe School (Ukiyoe-ha Gwasshu), Shimbi Shoin, Tokyo. 5 volumes, folio (13 1/2 x 19 in), 175 plates (12 being collotypes), with more than 100 being in color. Text in Japanese. Issued in regular and deluxe editions. An early, but undated, Shimbi Shoin catalogue states that the (full) edition was limited to 700 copies--and, of that total, 100 were "deluxe editions." The "deluxe edition" of Volume 1 (that I have seen reported) is said to have 40 woodblock reproductions, 30 of which are in color. The "crown jewel set" of the Shimbi Shoin art reproduction books. Considered to be one of the finest examples of Japanese xylographic art in it's own right."

Masterful Prints -- A Powerful "Marriage" of Techniques

In the end however, despite "embellishments," it was of course the individual prints which were the centerpieces of these publications, as these multi-color artworks were each, one-by-one, individually and painstakingly produced to the highest standards achievable. Each print contained required first the individual hand-carving of multiple-blocks, and then months later, a painstaking multi-day process of hand-printing only a single of the print's multiple colors per day. To achieve all of this took months and months of effort, and in doing so required the efforts of dozens of the most highly skilled artisans that could be found. In other words, in the creation of these "deluxe bound folios," Shimbi Shoin insisted that nothing be spared in either their production or their final presentation.

Woodblock Printing Onto Silk

Contained within each of these five large "Ukiyo-e Ha Gashu," volumes are various pages of Japanese text, interspersed with each volume's individual large, full-page color prints. Although some of these ukiyo-e "reproductions" are printed onto traditional Japanese paper, a great many upon viewing are noted immediately upon viewing to be "different." Instead of having been printed onto paper, many of these 163 images are (at first it seemed "oddly") seen to have been printed DIRECTLY ONTO SILK. Not only had Shimbi Shoin incorporated "end-grain" carving together with traditional "plank-carving" (discussed earlier above), in addition we now learn that they also pioneered the printing of woodblocks on silk, a technique virtually unheard of before this time.

Silk itself is not very absorbent--lacking the porosity and absorbency of thicker papers--so to do so with precision, one needs the very sharp edges of harder wood blocks to achieve the extreme control of ink distribution (over the block's surface) in order to prevent "ink-bleeding" during printing. Additionally, as "multiple-block sets" were required to print each of a single image's many colors, both precision of carving and later extreme care while printing were needed to assure the virtually perfect "registration" (alignment of each individually printed color) between the many blocks which were used. Thus, it is the realization that many of these large "Ukiyo-e Ha Gashu" images are printed onto silk that makes them both so visually wonderful and technically amazing.

As mentioned above in section Woodblock Printing Techniques, most of these individual "ukiyo-e reproductions" (some were of earlier woodblock prints, while others were, in fact, of hand-drawn scroll paintings) incorporated both the use of traditional "plank carving" together with the European technique of "end-grain carving." It was this marriage of these two techniques that allowed the birth of these prints. The WIDER, smooth surfaces of larger "planks" allowed areas upon which printers could manipulate their inks to achieve the beautiful gradations of color (or shading) that is known as "bokashi." At the same time, the more uniform nature of "end-grain" blocks, coupled with the fact that these blocks were more resistant to breakage while printing, helped Shimbi Shoin to achieve the extremely crisp and sharp "line-work" seen in these remarkable prints.

Detail of 3 "Ukiyo-e Grand Anthology" Bijin-ga Prints

Detail of 2 Additional "Ukiyo-e Grand Anthology" Bijin-ga Prints


A number of these rarely seen Shimbi Shoin "Ukiyo-e Grand Anthology") (in Japanese ("Ukiyo-e Ha Gashu") prints are now being offered by special consignment in our website's
Gallery #6 These prints will be available until only mid-April, at which time we may no longer have them available for purchase. And judging from what we have been able to learn, it may be a very long time before we are able to ever offer such prints again.

(May 2005 UPDATE: Due to their popularity, these Shimbi Shoen Publisher prints have been retained by Ukiyoe-Gallery. Plus--we have added another 12 prints to our selection of prints offered.)

These 15 or so prints (now 29 in total) have come to us from a long-established Kyoto antique dealer (who we shall simply call "John"), who we actually only met recently by chance. To tell you more, he has dabbled in Japanese antiques for nearly 15 years, in addition to having made Kyoto his home for the past 8 years. The point is, John knows Japanese art and Japanese antiques. Regarding these Shimbi Shoin "Ukiyo-e Grand Anthology") prints, we have further learned that these "anthologies" are quite rare in the marketplace--in fact, he tells us in his own words that, despite operating an active antique business within the heart of Kyoto, "we have had exactly one chance to acquire it." Here, "it" being, of course, a full set of all 5 volumes of the 1903-06 "Ukiyo-e Ha Gashu" set. Perhaps a few more comments directly from this Kyoto dealer will best tell more:

In "John's" OWN WORDS.......

"Published in 1906, at the end of a nearly decade-long effort by the greatest woodblock printers of the day, this anthology was intended to be the definitive record of the Ukiyo-e School. As such, no expense was spared, and the result is THE finest volume of reproductive woodblocks ever produced. Unparalleled in the quality of paper, detail in execution, and the selection of images and artists, it is the standard by which all others are judged. Many of these are the finest woodblock designs ever produced, the originals of which run from a thousand up to a quarter million dollars (for iconic Utamaro triptychs), but a significant number of the designs come from paintings, mostly priceless national treasures, which have never been rendered in woodblock anywhere, before or since."

"This anthology is exceedingly rare, even here in Japan. As dealers for nearly 15 years, we have had exactly one chance to acquire it. Far superior to modern woodblocks (owing to their overly-bright colors, poor carving and low grade paper), these select prints, premium in every way and "mellowed" with 100 years of age, represent the best way to collect and display superb ukiyo-e at a reasonable price."

"Shimbi Shoin produced a great many art volumes, of which this one, the "Ukiyo-e Ha Gashu" is the "crown jewel." It consists of about 175 woodblock prints, spread over 5 volumes, most of which are excellent in terms of composition, color, printmaking technique, paper quality, and collectability."

"(At the time it was produced) this set was intended to be the definitive look back at the "Ukiy-e School," and as such some of the most revered national treasures, both paintings and prints have been included. The compositions are nearly all superb, with most of the greats represented there.... Utamaro, Hokusai, Hiroshige, Eishi, the "Kano School" painters are all well represented (at the same time, Sharaku and some of the late masters like Yoshitoshi are notably absent)."

"SS pioneered the widespread use of the chromoxylograph, sometimes called "wood engraving," in the West. This involved carving into the "end-grain" rather than the "plank face" of the woodblock. That resulted in a level of printing detail perhaps only Harunobu ever approached in his best "chuban" prints."

"SS's use of color is notable not overdone. Many artists and publishers of this (late Meiji) period went hog-wild with the new aniline dyes, colorfast and eye-poppingly bright. Think "tomato-red" Kunichika actor prints. Shimbi Shoin, however, went for subtler colors, balancing new technology with the atmosphere of the originals. The result is a fresh, yet rich color balance that is quite satisfying indeed. Used for the prints found within these volumes were fine Japanese papers, or in the case of many of these prints, the finest Japanese silks available. Bound then into "volumes," each of these 175 prints were then laid-down on somewhat wider full pages of heavyweight presentation paper."

"They key thing for collectors is that these prints are all carefully chosen compositions, of nice size, and wholesome altogether. These volume's preponderance of "bijin-ga" helps further. (In addition to the) unusual subjects such as "bunraku puppetry" and "Otsu-e" for example, (they are) mostly tried and true beauties. They simply work."

"Finally, these prints which we have found are from one of the (even rarer) "deluxe sets" that are very seldom seen, as most all are already held by Japan libraries and museums."

More About Our "Limited Time" Ukiyoe-Gallery Offering....

From this 5-volume 1903-06 "Ukiyo-e Ha Gashu" set, we have deliberately selected a preponderance of "bijin-ga" images to offer what we believe are among the finest of the 162 woodblock images of this entire set. The popularity of such "beauties" to collectors seems to never fade, as together with Japanese landscapes, these two "themes" seem to appeal the aesthetics of many collectors. Stated again, only in fewer words: "Tried and true beauties..... they simply work."

Cheap??--well, perhaps they are not...... However, considered within the context of their age, their rarity, and the efforts which went into their production, nor at the same time can they be said to be "expensive." Best described as perhaps being of "somewhere in the middle," we like to think of these individual Shimbi Shoin prints as being simply "affordable."

Speaking of his clients in Kyoto and elsewhere within Japan, John tells us that he has never had a single Shimbi Shoin print returned..... and that he has a number of clients who have purchased multiple prints for their collections.

As with ANY print sold by Ukiyoe-Gallery, your purchase is made with the added confidence that it may be returned at any time within the first 10 days for a full "no questions asked" refund.
(See our "Guarantee" and "Return Policy" to learn more.)

Detail of 2 Final "Ukiyo-e Grand Anthology" Bijin-ga Prints

Conclusion and Afterthought

To collectors of Japanese woodblock prints, the prints produced by Shimbi Shoin Publisher during the very early 1900's period of Japan are noteworthy and certainly deserving of their attention. This turn-of-the-century period was a time when Japanese printmaking techniques had advanced to a very high level of quality and craftsmanship. As a result, prints of this period are often noteworthy for their very high quality and use of deluxe printing techniques. It was also a turbulent time--a period when the introduction of photography, lithography, and other "modern" techniques began to challenge and slowly replace the need for hand-carved and hand-printed artwork. The highly skilled artisans of this period--both carvers and printers--were cast about by this sea of change, and in many cases found themselves literally looking for employment.

Despite this cultural movement toward change and the adoption of newer techniques, publishers such as Tokyo's Shimbi Shoin Publisher and Watanabe Publisher refused to give in--insisting that their hand-made prints were technically superior to anything that could ever be mass-produced by mechanical means.

Of course, today we still share their vision, their courage, and their dedication. Looking back, we know today that they were indeed right. To students of Japanese prints, of course it was the year 1906 when the term for these "new prints" known then as "shin hanga" (in Japanese, "shin" means "new," and "hanga" means "print") was introduced by Shozaburo WATANABE when he, too, began to boldly redefine Japanese printmaking. To publishers such as Watanabe and Shimbi Shoin, we owe a great debt.

Literature (and print) sources used in preparation of this and other articles include:

Above documented prints courtesy of: Ukiyoe-Gallery and "John," our Kyoto Consignor

"John", (Kyoto, Japan), a consignor and dealer of Japanese antiques

George C. Baxley, (Alamogordo, NM), himself a dealer of (in his own words) "old books and stamps" (permission granted to quote)

"Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975", by Helen Merritt and Nanako Yamada, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, ISBN 0-8248-1732-X

"Kawase Hasui -- The Complete Woodblock Prints", by Kendall H. Brown & Shoichiro Watanabe, Hotei (KIT) Publishing, Netherlands, ISBN 90-74822-46-0

"Crows, Cranes and Camellias: The Natural World of Ohara Koson", by Amy Reigle Newland, Jan Perree, Robert Schaap, Hotei (KIT) Publishing, Netherlands, ISBN 90-74822-38-X

(c) Thomas Crossland and Dr. Andreas Grund, December 2004/January 2005

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