The "Bijin-ga" Prints of SHIMURA Tatsumi (1907-80)

Detail of SHIMURA's "Cherry Blossom Storm" Print (1953)

Prints of Japanese Beauties ("Bijin-ga")

To collectors and admirers of Japanese woodblock prints, prints of Japanese beauties ("bijin-ga") are perhaps only second in popularity to Japanese landscapes. And deserved so--perhaps no other group of artists has better captured the essence of feminine beauty over the centries than have Japanese artists.

For this reason, prints of Japanese beauties have been coveted by collectors for decades. Helping them in both their admiration of and search for prints has been the recently published book, "The Female Image: 20th-Century Prints of Japanese Beauties" by Shinji Hamanaka and Amy Reigle Newland"--now widely recognized as the "bible" of Japanese "bijin-ga" print collectors (learn more).

Shimura's "Five Figures of Modern Beauties" Series

Highly sought-after by collectors of Japanese beauties ("bijin-ga") are the prints of SHIMURA Tatsumi (1907-80). Not a lot is known about Shimura, but we do know that he lived in Yokohama from 1910 and there, at the age of 17, became an illustrator for a popular woman's magazine, "Fujokai" ("Women's World").

Although his other woodblock prints are largely undocumented and not widely known among western collectors, Shimura is well known for his 1953 five-print series titled "Five Figures of Modern Beauties" ("Gendai Bijin Fuzoku Gotai"). These "dai-oban" (large oban) prints were published by the Tokyo publisher, Nihon Hanga Kenkyusho (Kato Junji), which then ceased business in 1953 (active 1930-53; Tokyo).

All five prints of the series were carved by NAKAGAWA Chushichi and were printed by ONODERA Ryuji (active c1940-c55, Tokyo). The carving and printing of these "bijin-ga" prints is truely outstanding; quoting Phillip Roach of The Honolulu Academy of Arts, "(Shimura's) prints are technical marvels."

“Nihon Hanga Kenkyusha” Publisher's "Sales Brochure" (ca1953)

Their Uniqueness

A significant factor determining the pricing of ANY Japanese print image (or any antique for that matter) is the relative "rarity" of the image. According to the Nihon Hanga Kenkyusho publisher's brochure (pictured above) which accompanies this series, 300 copies of each of the five images were originally intended to be the total size of these prints' limited printing. However, according to the Japanese dealer from whom our first copies of these prints were obtained, apparently FAR FEWER were ever produced. As we were told:

"I am not sure about the total production run. They claim in their brochure they were to have 300 signed copies made, but reduced it to only 150 total (30 of EACH). I'll include a brochure.... for you.

The old guy I got these from evidently bought “Nihon Hanga Kenkyusha” and (he) claims there are about 150 of each print made with about 30 being signed. (In any case....) I bought the ENTIRE inventory which included only two signed prints. I can not tell any differences between the signed prints and the unsigned prints.

(Later) I sold one of the signed ones for $xxxx. Now I only have one signed copy left and think it quite valuable.

NO later editions exist. I don't think there are plans to ever make them again. Not surprising considering they are technically the best woodblock prints I have seen. Probably no one good enough (is) left alive to do the same quality work."

It's interesting to note that at the time of their printing (1953), the stated price of the 5-print set was 300,000 yen--which at the then official exchange rate of 360 yen/dollar would have been about $833. Of course, in 1953, one could also purchase a new automobile for under $2,000, so $833 was certainly not a insignificant amount of money.

Shortly after having obtained our first few individual copies of prints by Shimura, we were then pleased to obtain ONE full, original set of five prints as pictured below. These five prints were unusually well packaged, this time inside an impressive red cloth-covered "presentation box" which is nearly 1 1/2 inches thick and very sturdy--complete with two "ivory-looking" side clasps. Inside this outer box, each print is then placed inside its own individual "presentation folder."

Sturdy Red "Presentation Box" and Complete "Set" of Five Prints

The Five Individual Beauties

Pictured just below are the five prints of Shimura's "Five Figures of Modern Beauties" Series. They are titled (left to right) "Cherry Blossom Storm," "Playing Battledore," "Late Summer," "Start of the Dance," and "Hairstyle of a Married Woman."

Two Corrections...

At this point we wish to clearly point out and clarify that "The Female Image" reference book is simply WRONG in its titles of Plates #261 and #262. As a result, likely these two prints will forever now be known in the western print world by their incorrect titles. But in any case the Plate #261 "falling cherry blossom" image is correctly titled "Cherry Blossom Storm" ("Hana-Fubuki") (this "kanji" title is deeply embossed into the print's bottom margin), and is NOT "Married Hairstyle." The other mis-titled print is the Plate #262 "yellow-backgrounded 'Hand Mirror'" image, whose correct title IS "Hairstyle of a Married Woman" ("Marumage") (again, this print's "kanji" title is embossed into the print's lower margin). As always, corrections (and thanks) are due to my native-born Japanese wife, Hisako, who is shall we say, simply "not easily fooled."

Cherry Blossom Storm -- Battledore -- Late Summer -- Start of the Dance -- Hairstyle of a Married Woman

Concluding Comments

The only closing comment we will make is that our years of experience have shown us that these fine "bijin-ga" prints by Shimura are very seldom encountered. Being longtime collectors ourselves, we are well aware of their scarcity.

That said, we know enough to seek them out whenever possible.

(A small selection of Shimura's "bijin-ga" prints are currently available for sale in our Gallery #1.

Detail of SHIMURA's "Late Summer" Print (1953)

Literature sources used in preparation of this article include:

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

"The Female Image: 20th-Century Prints of Japanese Beauties, by Shinji Hamanaka and Amy Reigle Newland, ABE PUBLISHING LTD., Tokyo & Hotei Publishing Leiden, ISBN 90-74822-20-7

(c) Thomas Crossland and Dr. Andreas Grund, May 2003

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