Making a Fishy Impression: “Gyotaku” Fish Prints Gain Reputation as Art

A Saitama residential neighborhood is gaining surprising popularity as a destination for tourists interested in gyotaku, prints made with caught fish. Once simple trophies for having slain a “great foe” made with ink, they are today gaining complexity and respect as works of art.

A group of foreigners has come to a residential area of Higashimatsuyama, a city in Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo. The place is not a conventional tourist site, and indeed, their destination is a typical family dwelling. The moment they enter, though, their faces light up, and as one, they gasp: “Wow.”

The home’s interior is filled with the things that these visitors have come to experience—images of fish. These are not paintings, however. The illustrations are known as gyotaku, literally “fish impressions.” Among them is a colored print of a giant squid, created using an actual animal more than 10 meters in length with the assistance of Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science. This monumental piece of work took a month’s worth of working days to produce.

The giant squid gyotaku is a powerful piece thanks to its sheer size, as well as the lively aspect of its subject.

While the gyotaku traditionally calls to mind a simple print made with India ink, often produced by fishermen to commemorate a trophy catch, contemporary gyotaku has branched out into color art. These are highly valued as works of art outside Japan.

A colored print of a 2-meter swordfish with magnificent sail bears a ¥900,000 price tag.

Yamamoto Ryūka is the leading exponent of color gyotaku. A one-time globetrotting businessman, he dropped out of the rat race in order to dedicate himself to the artform. These days, the Japanese art of gyotaku is acknowledged the world over. The actor Robert DeNiro, for example, owns an original Yamamoto print of an immature salmon.

Many of Yamamoto’s own works are on display in his Saitama studio. Some have high price tags attached: an orca selling for ¥1 million; a swordfish, 2 meters long, for ¥900,000; and a bluefin tuna for ¥300,000.

Trophies for Slaying “Mighty Foes”

Dated 1839, this is the oldest known surviving gyotaku in Japan. (From the collection of the Tsuruoka City Library, Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture)

Gyotaku is reported to have originated in the late Edo period (1603–1868). By that time, the country had long been at peace, and fishing was one prized method of keeping warriors in fighting trim. The thinking behind this notion was that fishing was believed to have traits in common with bushidō: devising a plan, lying stealthily in wait for one's target, and then bringing it down.

Gyotaku, in which a fish, once caught, is transferred to paper, is a way to memorialize the size of the fish—in other words, the might of the foe that one had vanquished. It is believed to have been a way for warriors to inform their clan lords of their exploits. It would thus have served a purpose similar to the collection of the heads of foes from the battlefield, that is, as a report of a warrior’s accomplishments.

Foreign art fans’ interest in gyotaku has as much to do with how they are made as with their artistic quality. As of this writing, over 2,000 foreigners have taken personal instruction in gyotaku from Yamamoto. Among the visitors on this particular date are tourists from Finland and an Austrian resident of Japan.

“Today’s fish is the right-eye flounder, known as karei in Japanese,” says Yamamoto, speaking in English. Naturally, the real thing will be used in the work.

Yamamoto made preparations the previous day for this class, extracting the internal organs from the fish, removing the mucous from their surface, and attaching the carcasses to silk sheets using a paste specially prepared for the purpose. The students will apply ink upon the silk in layers using a padded dabber called a tanpo.

This technique is known as kansetsu-hō, the “indirect method” of gyotaku. After transferring the outline of the fish to the opposite side of the silk from the subject, the students take it a step farther by adding colors. While recommending that the students follow their respective personal inclinations, Yamamoto does go so far as to offer them one piece of advice: “Don’t just casually apply a color,” he says. “Apply it 30 times or so in any given place. Don’t apply it forcefully, and don’t smear it.”

Daubing color onto the gyotaku outline of the flounder.

The secrets to making color gyotaku, says Yamamoto, are to apply the color with a rapid tapping or patting motion; to act with consistency and restraint; and to exercise self-control and patience.

The work begins with application of a yellow base coat, which brings the shape of the fish into relief. Red is added next, increasing the depth of the coloration. A dun brown color is added last. These colors are applied in a sequence from light to dark, in the process transferring the texture of the fish to the silk. It takes about three hours to make the finished work.

A Remarkably Profound Art

Yamamoto explains the process: “Yellow is the base color, what women would describe as the foundation when talking about cosmetics. And applying lots of red will result in a fish that is still bright red even after the final dun brown coat has been applied.” And indeed, red determines the overall look of the work. The strength and precision of the taps of the tanpo have a decisive impact on the finished work as well.

An atmosphere of silence pervades the studio, with the visitors relaxing as they confront their subject fish. They feel each individual scale as they work. Before long, the time comes to present their finished art.

The tourists have critical opinions of their work: “It seems pretty dark to me. Maybe I overdid it in trying to bring out the shape of the fish with the dun brown coat,” says one. “I guess this would be a fried fish,” laughs another.

The dark brown color makes this flounder look more fried than alive, laughs one participant.

Of gyotaku, Yamamoto says, “It brings one’s own nature into sharp relief as well.” In other words, one can interpret artists’ personalities from the works that they have made. And to be sure, the characteristics of the individuals come out in their finished art, manifested in varying degrees of delicacy, coarseness, and color tone.

One Finnish tourist says he truly enjoyed his first experience with gyotaku. “It takes a lot of patience. And I’m not good at self-control. Maybe it can help me build up the self-control that which I lack.”

Yamamoto’s own flounder gyotaku.

The road to becoming an accomplished gyotaku artist is long and difficult. The karei prints that Yamamoto can produce after 40 years of effort are clearly in a class by themselves. Without a doubt, these are world-class works of art. Each finished image is distinct, while also being recognizably similar to the others.

The foreign participants have found the experience well worth their time. “Gyotaku is a peaceful activity that put me at ease,” notes one. The mental relaxation that comes from concentrating on one thing is mentioned as a benefit of the practice. “I think that this is real Japanese culture,” says another visitor. “Thanks to Mr. Yamamoto, there are people around the world who now know about gyotaku and are pursuing their own study of the art. I think gyotaku is simply a wonderful form of culture.”

There are few Japanese today with an affinity for gyotaku, seen domestically as old-fashioned. But the foreign fascination with gyotaku on display here shows that Japan yet has charms that its own people know little about.

(Originally broadcast in Japanese on Hōdō Prime Sunday on August 19, 2018. Translated by

International Fish Print Studio

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