Japanese Folk Art: Etegami

Jun 26th, 2009 | By Shane Sakata | Category: History & Culture

Etegami is a Japanese folk art consisting of simple hand-painted drawings accompanied by a few apt words, and they are almost always done on postcards for quick and easy mailing. The basic concept has been around for a long time; the tradition of handmade New Years cards testifies to this. But the present day surge in etegami popularity began after the work of artist Koike Kunio was taken up by the media in the late 1970s.

Koike is the current president of the Japan Etegami Society, and may rightly be considered the father of the modern etegami movement. The etegami motto, which he made famous, is “heta de ii, heta ga ii” (roughly translated: It’s fine to be clumsy. In fact, the best etegami are clumsy!)  Encouraged by this motto, more and more ordinary folk–people who don’t think of themselves as “artists”– both young and old, have taken up etegami as an enjoyable and relaxing pastime. If you google “etegami,” you are likely to find an increasing number of non-Japanese references to it, evidence that its popularity is gradually spreading to other parts of the world.

horsetail triptych etegami

For those who would like to give it a try, etegami classes are usually offered at neighborhood community and culture centers, and may be sponsored by the Japan Postal Service or even newspaper publishers. There are ample opportunities to participate in etegami exhibits, which regularly take place at local post offices and the lobbies of city hall and ward offices.

koinobori etegamiYouTube features a nice series of etegami lessons with English subtitles. They feature etegami instructor Hanaoka Yuko, who also has her own website. Search YouTube for “Etegami 24 Seasons,” and you’ll find the whole set, each on a different theme or check out the etegami gallery on the Japan Etegami Society website.

I started my own blog, “dosankodebbie’s etegami notebook,” with the purpose of sharing the world of etegami to the English-speaking world. This is where I post samples of my work and discuss tools and techniques. I also regularly post interesting links and contest information on the Facebook group page “Etegami Fun Club.”

There are very few hard-and-fast rules to etegami. The traditional tools include writing brushes, sumi ink, gansai color blocks, and absorbent washi postcards, but non-traditional tools are acceptable. However, if it doesn’t have both drawing and words, it isn’t an etegami. Etegami are meant to be sent, rather than hoarded or displayed in frames.

The grass-roots popularity of etegami makes it a perfect medium for promoting civic events and other advertising targeted at the general population. In the year since I started keeping track, I have found dozens of etegami contests. Last year in June, the city of Nagoya announced an etegami contest on the theme of “Scene with a view of the Nagoya TV Tower.” Later that fall, the Gero Onsen Association called for etegami submissions on the theme of hot spring bathing. This May, “Fude-no-sato-Kobo,” a Hiroshima-based maker of writing brushes announced an etegami contest on the theme of “thankfulness.” Many of these contests offer substantial cash prizes.

Tokyo2106 Olympic Etegami1

Etegami contests are also a regular part of the promotional strategy of the Olympics. The Beijing 2008 Olympics was promoted with an etegami contest, which called for submissions with the catch phrase, “Let’s participate in the Beijing Olympics through Etegami!“  Etegami were sent in from all over the world for this contest. Currently, Tokyo is promoting its candidacy for the 2016 Olympics with exhibits of 800 etegami. The Ozaki West Gallery exhibit ended on June 14, but you can still catch it at the Osaka Etegami Hall from July 14 to 18.

This article was written by Deborah Davidson, Hokkaido-based translator and Etegami artist. Read more about etegami at dosankodebbie’s etegami notebook and about translations of Ainu folklore at Project U-e-peker.

Image Credit:  Deborah Davidson personal collection & Shane Sakata personal collection (Tokyo2016 Etegami)

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  1. [...] nossa… no link dos etegami das olimpíadas tem um link pra cá, onde explica bastante sobre etegami! bem [...]

  2. [...] “Etegami” means “picture letter”, it can send as a postcard. Kunio Koike, he is Etegami master, says “It is fine to be clumsy, clumsy one is the good one “.  This is the main point which etegami became popular in Japan. There are no rules exactly how to draw etegami, it’s totally free and just drawing on a paper whatever you want. [...]

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