Motoki Sakai on the traditional Japanese crafts that are making a comeback
As the Edo period gave way to the Meiji era, Japan entered an age of rapid cultural change and technological advancement, which brought with it significant changes to the arts and crafts traditions of Japan. Apart from the well-renowned names like Tokoname, Seto, and Arita ceramic ware, Wajima lacquerware, and Nishijin textiles, most household goods and everyday tools had always been produced locally: they used resources available within the area and were sold locally to serve the needs of the community. But with the development of the railroad and information networks, skilled artisans and materials were able to travel from one area to another. As a result, these local, high-quality products spread to Tokyo and beyond to the furthest reaches of Japan. Some products also became symbols of Japanese produce and found their way across the seas to Europe and America.
These products earned a unique place in the world’s economy. Consequently, some craft traditions became global hits and enjoyed an explosion in sales, while others suffered the fluctuations of the modern international economy, now needing to compete with new materials that could be easily mass-produced. As a result, many traditional crafts, tools and materials began to disappear, replaced by cheap, low-quality items.
Crafting local identity
However, there have been recent efforts to revive extinct craft traditions by rediscovering each product as a symbol of the area from which it originated.
One such example is Satsuma kiriko. This traditional cut glassware was a favorite of Shimazu Nariakira, the intelligent and stylish feudal lord of the Satsuma domain in the late Edo period. Although once promoted by this lord, the art of Satsuma kiriko eventually lost favor and disappeared. But, in 1985, the Satsuma Glass Kogei Workshop was built in response to new interest in reviving the art form, and thus began the story of its rebirth.
Technicians undertook extensive research of old manuscripts, took measurements of existing samples, and made models from photographs when real examples didn’t exist, to painstakingly recreate the glassware as accurately as possible. Looking closely at the form of the glass cuttings, they worked out the methods and tools needed to recreate the delicate cutwork – largely through trial and error. One of the most difficult elements to recreate was the rare crimson color that had once achieved fame as the “crimson glass of Satsuma,” and it took several years to work out how to make it. They also managed to restore the shades of indigo blue, purple, and green, as well as two other difficult colors: the “golden red,” which had appeared in various texts though no sample had survived, and yellow. “Shimazu purple,” named after Shimazu Nariakira, was also added to the color range in 2005.
When Japan opened itself up to the world in the Meiji period, many more traditional crafts started travelling overseas, one of which was Minakuchi-zaiku basket-weaving. An original craft of present-day Minakuchi-cho, Koga city, Shiga prefecture (then Minakuchi domain), these baskets are woven from vines of plants called tsuzurafuji (shiomenium acutum). Lightweight and delicately woven, the baskets became so popular that they were featured in the Vienna World Exposition and orders flooded in from the rich and famous overseas. But, despite this popularity, the low wages paid to the craftsmen (which never did justice to the time and effort involved in the creation process), meant that production of Minakuchi-zaiku came to an end in 1970.
However, by 2000, locals were eager to revive the art form. A group of passionate individuals began researching the last remaining samples and written texts, as well as interviewing the families and descendants of past craftsmen. Thanks to their efforts over the course of almost a decade, the craft of Minakuchi-zaiku was successfully brought back to life.
Kyoto also has its own revival story: Mardley-some is a dyeing technique born in the Taisho period. The technique involves placing fabric on a starch paste marbled with pigment so that exquisite patterns are dyed onto the fabric. Originating from the ink-marbling technique called suminagashi-zome, it was an improved variation of norinagashi-zome (paste marbling), and became a popular dyeing technique in the Showa times. It disappeared in 1990 when the last successor of the traditional art passed away; however, researchers at Kyoto Women’s University set up a project to explore this lost art, and the technique has since been recovered and revived.
As if it wasn't hard enough to preserve these traditional crafts, World War Two had a devastating impact on the industries of some Japanese regions. In Okinawa – an area that suffered extensive damage in the war – the production of traditional textiles known as basho-fu was temporarily discontinued.
Basho-fu is a textile woven from fibers of itobasho (Musa liukiuensis), a type of wild banana tree. One type of basho-fu called ni-gashi is made of treated skeins that are then woven together, and was used to make garments for the samurai class in the Ryukyu kingdom. The second type is made by treating the fabric after it has already woven, and was used for everyday summer wear for lower-class citizens. The production of basho-fu slowly restarted after the war, and it is now recognized as a burgeoning new industry.
Another example from Okinawa is a traditional craft known as Ryukyu hariko. These papier-mâché figurines were once sold at toy stalls on the festival day of May 4th in the old calendar – parents would buy them as good-luck charms for their children. However, during the Miji period they were gradually replaced by mass produced, factory-made toys and, with no younger generation willing to take on the tradition, the traditional techniques faded away. But it’s now making a comeback: young artists are coming up with new styles of Ryukyu hariko, which have become popular among the younger generation once again.
The Traditional Tools Behind the Traditional Crafts
There are lots of different practical and cultural reasons that Japanese artisans have found it difficult to preserve their trades, including a lack of young craftspeople to inherit their methods and processes, the challenge of getting ancient products to cater to modern tastes, and the difficulty in finding quality materials and tools.
Finely-made tools – such as hand-crafted brushes, charcoal, bamboo-ware, knives and cutting tools – are created from natural resources with time and care. The tools are, indeed, a form of traditional craft themselves. Nevertheless, as a ‘secret ingredient’ in the process, this element of Japanese craft tradition is often overlooked.
Still, even in this overlooked field, there are crafts that have been lost and found, with amazing stories of the individuals and communities who’ve strived to keep their traditions alive.
One example is tamahagane (meaning “precious steel”). It was traditionally used to make Japanese swords, famed for the sharpness and strength of their blades. Tamahagane are made using the “tatara process”: a furnace is built from clay and heated for three days and three nights while iron sand and charcoal are continuously thrown in. Although the process disappeared after World War Two, a new facility for the tatara process called ‘Nittoho Tatara’ was built in Okuizumo-cho, Shimane prefecture, thus establishing a center for tamahagane once again.
Some traditional materials are also getting a new lease of life. One example is the Japanese cotton Hakushu-men, which is grown across Yumigahama Peninsula, stretching from Yonago to Sakaiminato in Tottori prefecture. In the past, rural women used this soft, high-quality cotton to weave the beautifully patterned fabric yumihama-gasuri., which was particularly well-loved as it was thought to bring good fortune to those who wear it. The production of Hakushu-men stopped during the war, but was restarted in the 1950s.
The revival story of each art, craft, material or tool, began with the passion of dedicated individuals and communities. In order to pass on this craft's heritage, it’s important to preserve the quality materials and tools that are so essential to its survival, as well as support the next generation of craftspeople; but this is nothing without the customers, patrons and fans that actually recognize the true value of these objects and buy and use each product with love. Objects made with love, and used with love: this is the tradition that really needs to be preserved.