An example of Gyotaku art.

Gyotaku: A Unique Japanese Tradition in Which a Fish Becomes a Work of Art

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Gyotaku is a traditional Japanese art form that is highly unique, and some may even say bizarre. The word Gyotaku itself is a combination of two separate words – Gyo, which means ‘fish’, and Taku, which means rubbing. As its name indicates, Gyotaku is an art that produces imprints of fish through the method of rubbing.

The Origins of Rubbing as a Means to Keep Ancient Text

In neighboring China, the method of rubbing was discovered by the beginning of the 7th century AD, and perhaps even earlier. With the use of paper and ink, the Chinese were able to make multiple copies of old inscribed records accurately and easily. It has also been said that the first plant printing found on paper can be found on a Syrian manuscript dating back to the early 1100s AD. 

Rubbing of engraved inscription on a rock stele with Buddha footprint poems. (8th Century) Yakushiji-temple, Nara, Japan.

Rubbing of engraved inscription on a rock stele with Buddha footprint poems. (8th Century) Yakushiji-temple, Nara, Japan. ( Public Domain )

Fish Imprints as Records

Compared to the two examples above, it may be said that Gyotaku was a newcomer to the practice of producing imprints with the use of the rubbing technique. Nevertheless, this traditional Japanese art is special in its own way.

The Chinese use of the rubbing method, for instance, was used primarily for making imprints of inscriptions and man-made art forms, including inscriptions (or carvings) on rock faces or cliffs, pictorial reliefs, and bronze vessels and figurines. The Japanese art Gyotaku, on the other hand, can be said to be more nature-oriented, as it was the fish that became the subject and material of this art form.

It has been speculated that Gyotaku did not originally begin as an art form however, but instead as a means of recording. This technique may have been first used by Japanese fisherman who wanted to make a record of the size and species of fish they caught.

According to another story, an emperor of Japan wanted to keep an accurate account of all his catches, and commissioned prints to be made of the different types of fish that he caught. Regardless of the origins, eventually the purpose of Gyotaku changed from being a practical means of recording one’s catches to a cherished art form.

How to do Gyotaku

The materials required for Gyotaku are simple – a fish, paper, ink or paint, and brushes. In the past, this art used fish that were freshly caught. Today, however, rubber replicas may be used to replace real fish.

Additionally, in the past, a non-toxic type of ink called sumi ink (which consists mainly of soot and animal glue) was used. This meant that after the imprint was made, the fish could then be cleaned, cooked, and eaten. 

Gyotaku imprint using ink.

Gyotaku imprint using ink. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

There are two methods of Gyotaku – an indirect method (known as kansetsu-ho), and a direct method (known as chokusetsu-ho). For the first method, wet paper is molded directly onto the fish. By fastening the paper down, all the details are picked up when the ink is applied. The paper is then left to dry and carefully removed.

Compared to the indirect method, however, the direct method is much faster, and is capable of producing multiple images. Instead of pressing a moistened sheet of paper onto the fish, ink (or paint) is first applied onto its body. After that, a sheet of paper is placed over it, and pressed gently to pick up the fish’s details. The paper is then peeled back, and a mirror image of the animal will be produced.  

The direct method of Gyotaku with paint.

The direct method of Gyotaku with paint. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Expansion of Gyotaku for Art and Education 

Although Gyotaku began as simple black ink prints with a practical purpose, it later developed into an art form when rich colors and environmental details were added. Today, the art of Gyotaku is still being practiced in Japan, and has spread to other parts of the world as well.

In addition to being a fine art, some people have also used Gyotaku for educational purposes. For example, whilst people are producing their fish imprints, they can also be taught about basic fish anatomy, the way they move in the water, and perhaps even the adaptations made by their bodies to survive in the environments they live in. Thus, Gyotaku may be said to be an example where the arts and science can complement each other in educating the general public.

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