Wandering in an area, a little off the tourist areas in Kyoto on my first visit, I found myself in conversation with Kitamura san in his offset printing workshop. With the help of my guide, Kenzo Sato, he was able to give me some insight into a few decades of change in his home town. He told me that, years ago, he had helped organise the many printers into an association but that now, he tells me laughingly, there is only one member, himself.
Then aged 75 but looking much younger, Kitamura san used to employ several workers. Today his wife was helping him with a complex job, printing envelopes; usually he is on his own.
He has seen the rise of Japan since the mid 60′s and his business grew with it. He has also seen the decline when the bubble burst in the 90′s. Everybody hopes for a return to economic prosperity but so much work is now off-shore.
Kitamura san entered his trade because he loved the skill involved and had much work associated with the Kimono makers, for whose work Kyoto is still famous.
Beautiful kimono labels and certificates of authenticity, like those shown above, required great skill to blend and tone colours so that they reflected the garments they were packed with. To my eye they are works of art and the skill of working with inks on the presses to produce such subtlety is rare now.
His local area has traditionally been a red-light district until restrictions on prostitution were enforced, only ten years ago. Since that time things have gone much quieter and the area’s population is ageing. Kitamura san misses the liveliness of the past though his business was little used by the many red-light houses who relied on word of mouth for marketing. Beautiful old houses like the one above would have been fronted by madams not the council notices now displayed. During the boom times in the nearby Gion district patrons would wave Y10,000 tips just to catch a cab. No tipping now.
Kitamura san has worked with his two offset printing machines for many years now. It seems unlikely the business will continue when, eventually, he retires from the trade he loves so much.
(I wrote this a few years back and still value my learning about the bubble, and it's subsequent bursting, as an important marker in Japanese society. I also still love the fine printing that I remember from my own childhood when my father imported textiles from Japan)