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Submitted by: Lenore Kop
W.R. Farrington High School
Honolulu, HI

"You should have seen the fish I caught; it was t-h-i-s big!" How often do we hear those fishing tales? In Japan, a technique called gyotaku was developed in the 1800s to accurately document fish size by inking the fish, then pressing paper onto the fish to make a print (gyo - fish; taku - impression).
When studying fishes, external anatomy can be measured and identified on a well done gyotaku print. Prints of different fishes could be used for classification samples, or to show examples of fishes found in different ecosystems. This activity could also be used as an integration of science with art in designing the composition of the gyotaku print.

  • fresh fish
  • printing material: india ink or tempera paint
  • printing surface: may include rice paper, construction paper, newsprint, paper towel
  • at least 2 paint brushes (preferably a sponge brush, keep 1 dry)
  • cleaning supplies (newspaper, soap, paper towels)
  • optional materials: cardboard, styrofoam or a plastic bag filled with sand
    modeling clay
  • straight pins

  1. Cover the work area with newspapers.

  2. Gently clean off the slimy covering of the fish; you might use some salt or sand to help rub it off. Rinse fish and pat it completely dry.

  3. (optional) Create a support area by tracing an outline of the fish body onto cardboard or styrofoam, then cutting this out to form a well. A well could also be made in a sand-filled plastic bag. This helps stabilize the fish, especially those that have rounded bodies, and supports the fins.

  4. (optional) Lumps of clay or small wads of paper towels can be placed under the fins and tail to spread them open and support them upwards. Pins can be placed on the underside of the fins and tail to further help keep them open. Small bits of clay/paper towel pieces can also be placed under the gill cover and in the mouth to hold these parts open.

  5. Apply the paint or ink directly onto the fish, avoiding the eye area. If the paint is applied too thickly, some features may be obscured. On large scaled fish, try brushing from tail to head (against the scales) to get more details.

  6. Starting with the center of the fish, place the paper onto the body and gently press down using either your fingertips or the dry brush. Be especially careful with the fins and tail.

  7. Carefully lift the paper off the fish so that the print does not get smudged.

  8. Note on supplies: Rice paper might be available through art/stationary stores, as well as places selling Japanese calligraphy materials.


  1. As a method of record keeping, compare the advantages and disadvantages of gyotaku as compared to photography, sketching, and basic descriptions (words and numbers).
  2. What kind(s) of information are you able to get from a gyotaku print?
  3. What types of fish work the best with this technique? What characteristic(s) lend themselves to good prints?
  4. If you were going to do printing on fabric with fabric paints, how might your technique change?


Cook, Amber. 1993. Nature Crafts for All the Seasons . Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., New York.

Klemm, E. Barbara, et al. 1995. The Living Ocean: Biology and Technology of the Marine Environment . Curriculum and Development Group, University of Hawaii.

Olander, Doug. "Gyotaku Fish Impressions". Internet: www.finefishing.com/finefish/authers/olander/article1/

This is one of six lessons in "MIXED-PLATE BIOLOGY, HAWAIIAN STYLE", a collection of biological activities that values the cultures of modern Hawaii's multicultural population. The collection includes:

Hawaii is a land of immigrants. The Hawaiians are believed to have arrived around 1000 AD from the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. Starting in the 18th century, Europeans and Americans arrived usually involved in missionary work or seafaring trades. Once agricultural plantations of sugar and pineapple were established in the 20th century, workers arrived from China, Japan, Puerto Rico, Portugal, and the Philippines.

Since the plantation days, immigration has been largely from Southeast Asian nations of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand; Korea; the South Pacific nations of Samoa and Tonga; the Philippines; as well as the US mainland. As ethnic diversity increases in our classrooms, let's draw from the various cultures to personalize the concepts of biology.

(About the title: a Mixed Plate is a unique lunch that evolved as new immigrant populations arrived in Hawaii and can include pork adobo from the Philippines, teriyaki beef from Japan, kim chee from Korea, bean soup from Portugal, chow mein from China, traditional Hawaiian foods such as lau lau and poi and of course two scoops of rice.)

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