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All in the Family: Heirloom Souvenirs

By 4 min read

At the end of the school year, school teachers in Japan often get the opportunity to travel or go visit family. This year, I was able to surprise my grandmother for her 90th birthday. I was happy that the timing worked out so I could make her milestone birthday special. As is typical with most expats or immigrants, making trips to see family is often difficult due to money and timing. You end up missing a lot of milestones and life events in the lives of people you care about. Even though Internet video chatting is common these days, missing events in person is a very important point to consider when deciding to commit to living abroad.

My surprise appearance at my grandmother’s surprise birthday party left my grandmother speechless. She did a double take and eventually said,”It’s really you!” She admitted that she didn’t think it was possible that I travelled all the way to see her.

After a few days of spending time with her and my family, my grandmother visited me with a flat rectangular object double bagged and pungent with the smell of mothballs. She presented me with the object and said I was probably the only member of the family who would ever appreciate it. She helped me unwrap the multiple garbage bags and newspaper to reveal a woodblock print of a Japanese farmer. Apparently, her uncle had spent a lot of time in Asia before and after World War II. On one of his many trips to Japan, he brought back this painting. Over the years, it had lost its significance. Some thought her uncle painted it, and that was what I was initially told. I thanked my grandma profusely and vowed to bring my great great uncle’s painting with me to Japan.

Of course, I didn’t want to transport the painting in its frame. Whether or not that was the original frame, it was a homemade job held closed by what seemed like shards of box cutter blades. In addition to being somewhat hazardous, I have had frames and other items break in my luggage, damaging the photos and other things in my luggage. I envisioned this delicate painting ripped apart in transit and knew I’d need to put it in a protective tube.


In order to put the painting in the protective tube, I had to dismantle the falling apart frame. That was when I discovered the stamps and certificates of both the artist and the art dealer in Japan. After a quick internet search, I learned all I could about the artist, Kotozuka Eiichi (1906-1979), and his dealings with the Uchida Art Company in the late 1940s through the 1950s.

Kotozuka was born and raised in Kansai. He was born in Osaka and then moved to Kyoto to study art at the Kyoto City Specialist School of Painting. At the time, there were two art movements in full swing. There was the Shin Hanga movement, a modernised type of traditional printmaking, and the lesser popular Sosaku Hanga, the do it yourself (DIY) artists who valued creativity. While the Kyoto City Specialist School of Painting was open to the Sosaku Hanga movement, artists like Kotozuka mostly earned money by creating Shin Hanga prints with companies such as Uchida Art Company.

In 1948, Kotozuka and his other artist friends created the Koryokusha Company to support Sosaku Hanga with the money they made from their Shin Hanga prints. It’s not so strange to think that my great great uncle’s purchase helped support their endeavour in some small way.

Most of Kotozuka’s prints are still quite affordable today. He created many designs and was very active as an artist. His unique style never quite caught on with mainstream audiences, so the lack of demand makes his prints affordable for collectors. To me, this particular print of a farmer is priceless, no matter what collectors say.

My grandmother’s uncle bought this print about 60 years ago as a high quality but affordable souvenir that he would keep for many years. He had no idea that his great great niece would marry into a Japanese family and become a permanent resident of Japan. He had no way of knowing that his souvenir would find its way back home to Kansai after 60 years abroad, now hanging on his great great niece’s wall and watching over a whole new generation of descendants who happen to be Japanese.

It’s interesting to think that a inexpensive souvenir would come to mean so much more to future generations and have its own interesting story to tell. It’s certainly something to think about the next time I buy souvenirs.

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