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Goin’ Japanesque!

Gyotaku: The Traditional Japanese Art of Fish Printing

When you hear of Japan, you must already know that there is a unique culture of eating fresh raw fish in the form of sushi and sashimi. This shows that Japanese culture and fish have had a deep relationship since long ago. Gyotaku that we are introducing today is a part of culture that is particular to a fish loving culture such as Japan. Photo:


The History of Gyotaku


Ukiyo-e Painting: Pilgrims Amusing Themselves Fishing, Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806)

Gyotaku refers to the process of putting ink on a caught fish and imprinting its image on washi (Japanese paper) or cloth. It is a culture that was born in Japan.

The gyotaku was developed as a form of recording at a time fishermen could not photographically record the fish they caught. The reason being that since the old days, any bragging, word of mouth or rumors tend to get more and more exaggerated. This was the same for fisherman. They would often speak of their catch being so large it didn’t fit in both arms. It seems that any spoken words becoming more exaggerated the more times it is told has not changed since the old days. Since the process of gyotaku started being practiced, it became possible to accurately record the actual size of the fish.

 – The oldest existing gyotaku: Gyotaku of a crucian carp recorded in 1839. (Gyotaku is thought to have been practiced from much earlier, though there are no remaining records.)


How to Make a Gyotaku Print

The Direct Method

In order to get a gyotaku or print of the fish, first, any slime or debris must be removed from the fish by washing in water. Special care must be taken so that the scales do not come detached. Afterwards, moisture should be wiped off thoroughly, and ink dabbed on the fish. Place paper or cloth on the inked fish and you will have completed a gyotaku (direct method).

Additionally, other than this method, there is a way to place color over the paper or cloth without putting any ink on the fish. This is a method called the indirect method. It was a method of printing that was originally developed so that the letters would not become reversed.

In either method, the last step is to fill in the eyes after completing the gyotaku. When the eyes are drawn in, it is as if there is life infused in the image of the fish. This represents the same idea as when the eye is drawn on a daruma doll.


Gyotaku Now and Then


As explained above, the major objective of the gyotaku was a means to record. Thus, in the past, no edits were made after making the print. In fact, strictly speaking, making any alterations was considered taboo.

However, gyotaku nowadays is starting to become recognized as art so it is not rare to make alterations or additions. The editing for example includes things like addition of color in the fish, as well as background elements like the ocean using paint. There seems to be an increasing number of people even outside of Japan who practice gyotaku.


A duplicate piece is never created in gyotaku. From an artistic point of view, it is perfect. Many people who practice gyotaku don’t do it just for the sake of it but rather, do it before the fish is turned into a meal, or they use a fish that has already died and is lying on the beach. Thus it deals appropriately with the issue of making any unnecessary killings. We can feel that there will be an increased interest toward gyotaku.

Sushi Art: Koi Fish Sushi That Look As If They’ll Start Swimming
Suminagashi: The Traditional Art of Paper Marbling

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