New for Old ...

Many years ago, when I first began sending my prints out to collectors, the scale of my business was very local. Our very first collectors were the couple who ran the local bakery literally across the street from our apartment, and for the next couple of years, the geographical spread of people who were supporting my work didn't get much wider than that. The first exhibition I held was in a small room in a neighbouring town, and it was perhaps three full years before I attempted to reach out to a wider audience by renting a gallery in downtown Tokyo.

But even then, my audience remained 'local' - if one can think of Tokyo in those terms - and it was not until the advent of the internet some years later that people living in other countries were able to see, and potentially purchase, my prints.

In order for that to happen though, I had to cross two hurdles. One was easily solved; my prints are quite light in weight and generally small in size, so I was able to create packaging that enabled them to be sent overseas by post fairly cheaply. The other side of the exchange - receiving payment from overseas customers - was not so easy at first. The Japanese banking system is not designed to allow consumer-scale foreign exchange at all, and high transfer fees make it impractical to make remittance for small purchases. The internet 'solved' this by providing a framework for companies such as Paypal to operate, and with that link in place, my overseas business expanded quickly.

I haven't made an exact count recently, but last time we made a tally, we were sending prints regularly to over fifty different countries. This 'little' printmaking venture is actually an exporting 'powerhouse' in our field, and more than 95% of our business is done with customers in countries other than Japan.

But all is not perfect in the world of international finance, and although Paypal has offered us a smooth and problem-free way to handle these transactions, this comes with a stiff cost - close to 6% of the gross revenue on each transaction goes to their fees and lop-sided currency exchange spreads.

So we have been on the lookout for other methods of handling these transactions, and over the past year or so, a clear alternative has come to light. You have almost certainly heard of it - the digital cryptocurrency known as Bitcoin.

I learned what I could about Bitcoin, and how it works, and then decided to take the plunge and make this payment option available for my customers (and potential customers). I adapted my software to accept it, both online and in our shop, and sat back to see what would happen.

My staff was unanimously against this move. All they know of Bitcoin is what they have read in 'scare' headlines in the media: "The currency of choice of drug dealers and porn merchants ..." perhaps best sums up their impression.

But anybody who has read past the headlines, and looked into this a bit more seriously understands that there is nothing inherently evil in the medium itself. Yes, it has certainly attracted a number of undesirable characters who see opportunities to do things 'under the radar' of authorities and regulatory agents, but this an exact repeat of how the internet itself took hold some twenty years back. Since those Wild West days, the internet has settled down and become an integral part of all our lives - criminals and law-abiding citizens alike - and so it will be with crypto-currencies.

I'm not demanding that my staff accept their paychecks in Bitcoin (yet!), but they are going to have to get used to handling it in our business.

So has it begun to affect our affairs? Yes indeed. We now have a half-dozen collectors who make payments sporadically in Bitcoin (when the exchange rate suits them), and today in Asakusa, we welcomed our first 'in person' Bitcoin customer. He was a tourist from Canada who had gone online and searched for businesses in Tokyo that would accept Bitcoin. Seeing us listed in such a directory, he made a bee-line for our place and found some nice prints to take back to Canada.

Checking that directory again this evening, I see that there are currently a total of 27 business in Tokyo ready to accept Bitcoin (out of a population of how many million I have no idea). So this is your chance! Drop by next time you're in town, pick up a 150-year-old print or two ... and send us some Bitcoin in exchange (using our in-store WiFi network, of course!)

Can you handle the mental 'time slip'?

 


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