The Japanese Fine Art of Bragging

Gyotaku, the art of making inked prints from real fish, originated in 19th century Japan. Above, three examples from modern Gyotaku artist Heather Fortner (from left): Under the Rainbow Rainbow Trout; Little big skate and Primary colors butterfly ray. Courtesy of Heather Fortner

Gyotaku, the art of making inked prints from real fish, originated in 19th century Japan. Above, three examples from modern Gyotaku artist Heather Fortner (from left): Under the Rainbow Rainbow Trout; Little big skate and Primary colors butterfly ray. Courtesy of Heather Fortner

How did fishermen record their trophy catches before the invention of photography? In 19th century Japan, fishing boats were equipped with rice paper, sumi-e ink, and brushes in order to create gyotaku: elaborate rubbings of freshly caught fish.

Fish printing often attracts those who have a connection with the ocean or marine life. Wada, who is Japanese-American, grew up in Hawaii and was taught how to fish by his family at a young age. And before she became a gyotaku artist, Fortner was a commercial fisherman, research vessel deckhand, and a ship’s officer and Master in the U.S. Merchant Marine. “I have always loved the ocean and anything from the ocean,” she says.

She adds: “Gyotaku allows you to express an appreciation for the natural world by partnering with the finest artist in the world: Mother Nature.”

NPR’s The Salt brings you the detailed story:

Fishing lore is full of tales about “the one that got away,” and fishermen have been known to exaggerate the size of their catch. The bragging problem is apparently so bad, Texas even has a law on the books that makes lying about the size or provenance of a fish caught in a tournament an offense that could come with a felony charge.

But in 19th-century Japan, some enterprising fishermen found a foolproof way to record trophy catches. (Some versions of this origin story suggest they did so at the emperor’s behest.) The method was known as gyotaku, or “fish rubbing,” and allowed fishermen to print inked fish onto paper — creating a permanent record of their size. They used a nontoxic sumi-e ink, a black ink traditionally used in both writing and painting which could be easily washed off. Once the print was made, the fish was either released, if it was still alive, or sold at market.

At first, these prints were rudimentary, but they soon became works of art. Fishermen began adding details like eyes (which don’t show up in a print) and enhancing other parts of the image. Over time, gyotaku became an established art form with two printing methods: direct and indirect.

Read the full story here.

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