Tweezers, a traditional Japanese grooming utensil
Tweezers have long been essential utensils for grooming in Japan. The history of tweezers in Japan is older than that of other grooming tools, such as scissors and razors. Supposably, the first tweezers were actual clamshells, used as pinchers to pull out hair. From these origins, they then developed in a way unique to Japan. The 11th century diary The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon (966–1025) states, “Something to be thankful for; silver tweezers that pluck hair with ease,” indicating that metal tweezers were already in existence at that time. By the Muromachi period (1392–1573), the use of tweezers had spread among the commoners as well. By the Edo period, the shape of the tweezers had become almost the same as those used today. The giant tweezers that appear in the kabuki play “The Tweezers” (Kenuki) are of an “iroha” shape, which is one of the classic forms.
The only handmade tweezers
Today, almost all tweezers distributed in the market are mass-produced by machine. There is one traditional style tweezers smithy left in Tokyo: The Kuroda Workshop specializes in forging hand made tweezers. It is headed by the fourth generation descendent of the founder Kurata Yonekichi, who studied in Asakusa at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868–1912). At first there where many other tweezers smithies, but devastation due the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and WWII led to a decrease in the number of artisans and eventually to their jobs being given over to machines. However, the second master of the Kurata Workshop, Fukutaro, did not give up on hand-made tweezers. In the old‐established store, Ubugeya in Ningyo-cho, Nihonbashi, he learned the honteuchi tweezers smithy techniques, such as “iroha”, “kōmaru”, and “hyōtan,” that had been handed down since the Edo period and then passed them on to his sons. Today, the honteuchi tweezers are made by the third master Yoshiyuki and the forth, Seiji , who have inherited the art.
The making process of hyōtan (gourd) tweezers by Kurata seisakushoArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University
The tools for honteuchi tweezers
The tools used for making tweezers are very simple. Of course they have been modified to make them easer to work with. Working with simple tools over long hours lies at the heart of the art of the good honteuchi kenuki craftsman. The beating of the metal gives the metal a spring with less fatigue. Then the end blades are sharpened, which enhances their performance when plucking. Minor adjustments and polishing are repeatedly done to create firm and sturdy tweezers that last more than a generation.
Process 1: Forging
A heavy hammer is used to forge the raw steel on a metal base. First the two ends are beaten till the slab spreads. These ends are the parts that will have pincers and then be given a curve, so they are hammered thoroughly until they become thin.
Process 2: Bending the center
The ideal tweezers “grip tightly and pluck smoothly.” A process called shinnuki (drawing the core out of the metal, or forging and bending the fulcrum) is what makes honteuchi tweezers springy, which is their most importent quality. Shinnuki is done by beating the raw metal from both sides. In addition, after the metal has been flattened by lightly forging all areas, it is cut to shape with a cutout press and the corners are rounded off with a file. Then three types of buffers--sand, hemp, and cloth--are used to polish the metal.
Process 3: Engraving the maker's name
On a wood table, after adjusting subtle curves (soriuchi), the artisan’s name is engraved, then “soriuchi” is done again.
Process 4: Curving the
The parts of the tweezers that pinch the hair are polished, then sharpened just enough that the blades will grip the hair but not cut it. Then the ends are curved to the shape of tweezers. The pincers are made so they can even pluck out fuzz.
Process 5: Bending the
The center part that had been hammered to remove the “core” (shinnuki) is bent over with pliers into the shape of tweezers.
Process 6: Adjusting the blades
The surface is polished till smooth, then the ends of the pincer blades are sharpened in three stages with rough, medium, then fine files. When the shape and the resilience of the spring is perfected, the blades are shut with their ends together and set against the light to see if any light seeps through. In this way, the tweezers’ blades are given a sure grip.
Process 7: Final touch
The rubbing of the pincer ends against a whetstone continues until all gaps in their clasp disappear, and tweezers with a good plucking grasp are completed.
Reproductions and new
The honteuchi tweezers are popular for their painless plucking and long-lasting sturdiness. At the Kurata Workshop they promote the true beauty of authentic tweezers by producing shapes from the Edo period, fashioning tweezers of silver and gold, and forging tweezers with elegant decorations to be given as gifts.
Information provided by Kurata Factory, The Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Hitotoki, Wedge
Photo by Minamoto Tadayuki
Text written by Tanaka Atsuko
Edited by Melissa M. Rinne, Kyoto National Museum
Exhibition created by Yamamoto Masako（Research Fellow of Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS)）
and Sumiya Momoko, Kyoto Women's University Lifestyle Design Laboratory