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New generation of artisans breathe life into Japan’s traditional crafts

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Kisui Nakazawa Calligrapher

Few traditional crafts enjoy the popularity and prestige of shodo. All Japanese schoolchildren learn the basics of calligraphy, and stylized kanji grace everything from menus to billboards. Yet the attendant skills that shodo helps foster — concentration, posture, discipline — are in serious decline among the current generation of slouching, Wii-obsessed kids. Or so says Tokyo-based calligrapher Kisui Nakazawa.

“I think all of us young artists and craftsmen who are trying to preserve the traditional culture of Japan notice the young moving away from these customary arts,” Nakazawa says during an interview in his immaculate classroom space on the grounds of Zuishoji temple in Tokyo’s upscale Shirokane district. “We all have the same passion and are all trying to achieve the same goal: to bring back interest. We must keep searching for how we can do this.”

If anyone can make shodo relevant in the internet era, it’s the 30-year-old Shizuoka native. With an idol’s good looks and an impeccable pedigree — his father, the calligrapher Eizan Naruse, was named a Person of Cultural Merit in 2001 — Nakazawa has the requisite skills and background. To that end, he acts as a one-man ambassador for his craft, giving shodo demonstrations, running workshops, and teaching classes for children, teens and adults.

That’s not to say he’s mired in the past. “Shodo doesn’t necessarily have to exist in a standard, rigid form,” he says. “Of course, you need to know the basics. In Japan, these are learned at a young age. But after high school, you can play with the letters, be artistic and express yourself. Calligraphy can definitely be modernized.”

Such an openness to new ideas comes, perhaps, from Nakazawa’s own sometimes tortured journey to mastery of the craft. Despite his family’s tradition of calligraphy and his own passion for shodo, Nakazawa found himself adrift in his early 20s.

“I suddenly felt like I wanted to put down my brush,” he says. “So I decided to get away for a while.” The ensuing two-year break saw Nakazawa visit China, where he found himself drawn to ancient calligraphic works and began investigating shodo’s historical roots. This time overseas reaffirmed his commitment to the craft, and inspiration also came from an unexpected source: billiards. “I entered professional pool competitions, and that turned out to be wonderful mental training,” he says. “Pool is a win or lose game, which is an alien concept in the world of calligraphy. It taught me the feeling of pressure and made me realize my weaknesses, which in turn strengthened my mind.”

Nakazawa teaches classes in Shirokanedai and (from June) in Meguro. All classes are free to view.

Shirokane lessons Sundays 3-5 p.m. and 5:30-7:30 p.m. Zuishoji temple: 3-2-19 Shirokanedai, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3443-5525. Nearest stn: Shirokanedai. www.zuisho-ji.or.jp. Meguro lessons two Mondays and Tuesdays a month 10am-noon, 1-3pm and 7-9pm. Studio Issai: 601 Meguro Ekimae Mansion, 3-1-5 Kami-Osaki, Shinagawa-ku. Nearest stn: Meguro. Email kisui.78@gmail.com or call 090-3480-5414 for fees and more information. www.kawagoe.co.jp/muge

Tomoo Sakai Signboard carver

Some craftsmen choose their profession because of family tradition. Others pursue their craft out of a passion to create something beautiful and lasting. And then there are those, like Tomoo Sakai, who fall into their work — or have it fall on them.

“I was raised in my family studio, and I never seemed to have good experiences with the 'kanban' (signboards),” says the jovial 34-year-old. “All my memories are of painful things, like the one time the wooden board fell on my feet and broke my leg.”

Thankfully, such bad luck didn’t deter Sakai from becoming a traditional craftsman like his father. For that, it took another kind of misfortune: a recessionary job market. “Honestly, I got into this career just because I failed at job hunting when I was in college. I sort of knew I would take over the shop and become a craftsman, but I didn’t really think about it that deeply until my junior year.”

During a tour of Fukuzen: Sakai Kanban, their 80-year-old shop in Taito-ku, Tomoo and his father Yasuyuki defy the stereotype of sober craftsmen upholding a venerable artisanal tradition. Instead, they seem more like a pair of manzai comedians. When Tomoo boasts that his dad is a third-generation sign carver who has been practicing the craft for 50 years, the older Sakai breaks in, points to his son, and says, “Yeah, but I’m still at his level.”

Yet when the discussion turns to the fortunes of "kanban chokoku," the two become serious. The demand for hand-carved signboards, they say, significantly decreased around the time of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, when neon signage became trendy. More recently, an influx of machine-made signs, as well as cheap imports from China, have further eroded demand for their traditional skills.

But the Sakais resolutely stick to their traditional ways. Both the father and son use a single tool — an awl known as a "kogatana" —for all their carving. They also work the blade with strokes toward their bodies, which explains why they don’t offer lessons to the general public. “Machine-produced signboards are perfectly finished,” says Yasuyuki. “All the lines are immaculately curved and they look stunning at first. But they don’t have a real ‘spirit.’ People get bored looking at them.

With orders coming in from all over Japan, it’s clear that many others agree with that sentiment. The Sakurais keep busy producing everything from gilt kanji lettering to temple signage to the sponsors’ placards that are on display at kabuki shows. “Demands for wooden carved signboards have been increasing because they are considered more luxurious,” Yasuyuki says. “We have orders from upscale Japanese confectionery shops and izakaya. Overall, our business has been extremely steady.”

Fukuzen: Sakai Kanban. 3-4-1 Matsugaya, Taito-ku. Open hours vary; appointments accepted. Tel: 03-3841-5801. www.interq.co.jp/tokyo/fukuzen

Yuko Sakurai Chochin painter

Providing the festive glow at "matsuri" celebrations and lighting the way to traditional izakaya, "chochin" lanterns are one of Japan’s most recognized symbols. Maybe that’s why foreigners play such a big role in the lives of craftswomen like Yuko Sakurai.

“We have lots of visitors from overseas coming to our shop,” says the 30-year-old artisan at Hanatoh, her family’s store and workshop in Asakusa. “Recently, I sent one saying ‘Yokoso’ on it to a customer in Sweden. Apparently, they are planning to hang it in their garden for a party. Although that’s not a traditional way of using 'chochin,' I find foreigners’ interpretations creative and refreshing.”

Sakurai and her fellow artisans could certainly use the infusion of interest, as their livelihood has been threatened by mass-produced lanterns whose uniformity and low cost make them attractive to local businesses and consumers. Traditional "chochin" manufacturing is a time-consuming process that involves two very different skills: fashioning the lantern’s frame, and applying the lettering or graphics to the wisp-thin washi covering. Sakurai, a lettering expert who buys her frames from a wholesale dealer, readily admits that her skills are sometimes not up to the challenge.

“Oh I screw up the writing all the time. It’s really hard to produce identical ones over and over. My dad’s been doing this for over 40 years, and his style is completely different from mine. Each craftsperson has their own style — that’s what makes them unique.”

Although she was always interested in "chochin" — “I grew up running around the shop and seeing my dad and grandfather making the lanterns,” she says — Sakurai took a roundabout path to becoming a craftswoman. Following high school, she enrolled in a college management program with an eye toward running the shop. But in order to familiarize herself with the business, she felt that it was necessary to get her hands dirty.

“I wound up working making the lantern frames for three years to study the entire production process,” she says. “Some people just start learning how to do just the lettering, but I felt the need to know everything about the lanterns, from shapes to textures. I really wanted to be an expert in the field.”

If Sakurai feels added pressure as a woman in a traditionally male field, she doesn’t show it. “I never really thought about my gender,” she says. “Maybe it’s just because of my personality, but I never felt that being a woman was a disadvantage. There is nothing I cannot do in 'chochin' making just because I am a woman.” In fact, she sees certain pluses in her situation. “I get more attention when I perform my skills in front of people at expos and museums.”

It’s easy to be swayed by Sakurai’s optimism, yet even she is worried about the long-term prospects of her craft. “We are always open to young folks who are looking to become apprentices, but it seems that there aren’t many who are interested. 'Chochin' is not a kind of product that lasts for forever. That’s why we really need someone who’s going to pass on this beautiful tradition to the next generation.”

2-25-6 Asakusa, Taito-ku. Tel: 03-3841-6411. Open Wed-Mon 10 a.m.-8 p.m., closed Tue. www2.plala.or.jp/Asakusa-Hanatoh/

Akira Akatsuka Bekko craftsman

With a declining pool of skilled workers and a lack of interest by consumers, the craft of "bekko" is facing many of the same difficulties as other traditional crafts. Added to this is a distinctly modern problem: environmental regulations. "Bekko" involves fashioning jewelry and ornaments from tortoiseshells, but the 1994 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned the fishing of the hawksbill turtle, which provides the raw material for craftsmen. “For now, there is a sufficient supply,” says Akira Akatsuka of Akatsuka Bekko, in the shitamachi area of Yanaka. “We can’t hire an apprentice, though, because we wouldn’t be able to guarantee his future,”

For hundreds of years, "bekko" crafts held a special significance in Japan and throughout Asia. Kanzashi hair ornaments made of tortoiseshell were traditional heirlooms passed from mothers to daughters, and in more recent times fathers often handed down their "bekko"-framed eyeglasses as heirlooms. Just like the turtles they come from, each piece is unique, and the finished product is the result of an intense process of cutting, heating, molding and filing. But with the ubiquity of plastic and restrictions placed on the export of tortoiseshell, artisans like Akatsuka wonder if their skills are becoming irrelevant.

“In Japan, we don’t have a sense of shared culture,” he says. “There are no strictly practiced religions or rituals. Therefore, the tradition we used to have, like passing down belongings from generation to generation, has faded. Now, 'bekko' only attracts a following when it’s seen as trendy — like when a TV personality wears a piece.”

A second-generation craftsman, 35-year-old Akatsuka has been plying his trade for 12 years, yet he still considers himself something of a novice. The basic skills and techniques can be learned in about half that time, he says, but because there is so much variation among natural varieties of tortoiseshell, true mastery takes a lifetime to develop. Akatsuka points to his 66-year-old father Hiroshi, a "bekko" craftsman for 50 years whose work differs greatly from his son’s.

This lifelong journey is another long-term difficulty faced by "bekko" craftsmen. “I think one of the reasons for this is that our work doesn’t fit the modern lifestyle. We sit in our workshop all day doing the same thing, so there’s hardly any interaction with people. It’s the opposite for the young now who’d rather go out — being active, socializing and finding new things.”

7-6-7 Yanaka, Taito-ku. Tel: 03-3828-7957. Open daily 8 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Nearest station: Nippori (Yamanote line) or Sendagi (Chiyoda line). This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp)

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