26 October 2023
Masters of Tradition: Japan's Artisanal Heritage
In the heart of Japan's rich cultural fabric lies a special designation bestowed upon its most skilled artisans: 伝統工芸士 (Dento-kougeishi), "Traditional Craftsperson." Instituted in 1974 to rejuvenate a dwindling traditional crafts industry, this title is more than just a recognition; it's a reflection of over a decade of dedication and mastery in traditional craftwork. To be eligible for the title the craftsperson must have over 12 years of experience in the production region and have successfully cleared practical, knowledge, and interview tests.
Today, around 3,600 individuals across Japan hold this esteemed title, representing a mere fraction of the artisans in each craft region. These artisans, experts in traditional techniques from arts like Edo kiriko glassware and Kutani pottery, shoulder the responsibility of preserving and passing down their craft to future generations. Explore the stories of seven such illustrious craftspersons, who have not only perfected their art but are also fervently committed to its continuity in the modern era.
- Wakasa Lacquerware: The Luminous Legacy of Lacquerware
- Kokeshi Doll: The Enduring Artistry of Okazaki Yasuo
- Sinra: Merging Tradition with Today's Tastes
- Kutani Ware: Yamachika Yasushi's Poetic Porcelain
- Crystal Radiance: Kiyohide's Hand-polished Glass Masterpieces
- Arita Ware: Kanagae Shōhei and the Echoes of Ri Sanpei
- Nabeshima Celadon: Kawasoe's Timeless Artistry
Wakasa Lacquerware: The Luminous Legacy of Lacquerware
In the city of Obama, a traditional craft has been illuminating its culture for centuries: Wakasa lacquerware. This intricate art form, embedded with materials such as mother-of-pearl, quail eggshell, and gold leaf, dazzles brilliantly under the light. Tracing its origins back around 400 years to the Keichō era (1566 CE -1615 CE), the tale of Wakasa lacquerware begins with a prominent merchant named Kumiya Rokurōzaemon, who presented a Chinese lacquered tray, called zonsei, to the local lord Sakai Tadakatsu. Captivated by its beauty, Lord Sakai commissioned Matsuhira Sanjūrō, a master lacquerware craftsperson serving the castle town, to recreate a tray mimicking the zonsei. Sanjūrō, inspired by the seabed of Wakasa Bay, innovatively conceptualized the kikujin-nuri pattern.
Furui Masahiro, an artisan of Wakasa lacquerware, carries this rich tradition forward, crafting exquisite chopsticks using lacquer. The art form, which now boasts over 400 traditional patterns documented at Matsukan, predominantly employs the okoshi method. Here, after applying the undercoat, various natural materials like eggshell, pine needles, shells, flowers, and threads are meticulously placed to create the motifs. The allure of Wakasa lacquerware lies not just in its intricate designs, but also in the raw, natural beauty emanating from its humble materials, a charm that Furui masterfully encapsulates in each of his creations.View Wakasa Lacquered Chopstick Collection
Kokeshi Dolls: The Enduring Artistry of Okazaki Yasuo
In the heart of Naruko Onsen hot springs lies the workshop Kokeshi no Okajin run by the Okazaki family. Okazaki Yasuo, the mastermind behind these enchanting wooden dolls, stands as a pivotal figure in the realm of kokeshi craftsmanship. As the executive director of the Miyagi traditional kokeshi dolls association, his association with these dolls is not just a matter of profession but a rich tapestry of lineage, stretching back to his grandfather's era. Having taken the baton from his predecessors, he began his journey into the world of kokeshi right after high school, training under the watchful eye of his father, Jinji, honing the delicate art of wood carving.
The resonance of Okazaki's commitment to the art is felt not just within the confines of his workshop but also at the Japan Kokeshi Museum. Here, spectators are granted the privilege of witnessing the magic unfold as wood transforms into elegant dolls, with the lathe weaving its charm in Okazaki's adept hands. However, his vision extends beyond personal craftsmanship. Recognizing the invaluable cultural weight the kokeshi dolls carry, Okazaki has dedicated a significant part of his life to mentoring young artisans, ensuring that the whispers of this tradition continue to echo through the corridors of time.View Naruko Kokeshi Dolls Collection
Sinra: Merging Tradition with Today's Tastes
Steeped in a rich heritage that traces back to the Edo period (1603 CE-1867 CE), Matsumoto Kota's dedication to Sinra is more than just an allegiance to tradition; it is an earnest endeavor to forge a bond between the artisan and the consumer. Through Sinra, he aspires to demystify lacquerware, changing its aura from an elite, distant artifact to a friendly, integral part of everyday life. Embracing tradition, while simultaneously infusing it with a fresh perspective, Matsumoto believes in making lacquerware that not just celebrates the past, but also resonates with the present, enhancing every meal and every moment spent around the dining table.
But what sets Matsumoto's creations apart? It's his innovative approach to amalgamating age-old practices with modern tastes. By ingeniously integrating Aji stone powder which is native to Kagawa Prefecture with lacquer, he breathes life into pieces that boast an unparalleled texture, capturing a raw, primitive allure. This seamless blend of the old and the new is Matsumoto's vision for Sinra: lacquerware that is at once rooted in tradition, yet fashionably attuned to the contemporary world.View Sanuki Urushi Sinra Collection
Kutani Ware: Yasushi Yamachika's Poetic Porcelain
In Nonoichi City, Ishikawa Prefecture, Yamachika Yasushi emerges as a luminary in the realm of Kutani ware. Born into the revered Seizan Kiln lineage, he carries with him the weight and wisdom of generations. Yet, Yasushi's spirit brims with a fervor for innovation. As the fourth generation of his family to dedicate himself to this intricate craft, he has not only inherited a legacy but also added to it with his indomitable spirit and artistic vision. In 2011, driven by a desire to carve a unique niche and articulate his personal worldview, Yamachika established Taishi Kiln — a commitment to both honor and rejuvenate traditional techniques.
Yamachika's interpretation of Kutani ware is like poetry in porcelain. His creations, painted in the traditional quintet of colors — green, purple, yellow, deep blue, and red — radiate a brilliance and depth that is unmistakably his own. He is not merely an artist but a storyteller, weaving narratives of beauty and boundless creativity into every piece. His hands breathe life into the pottery, as meticulously crafted animals come alive with dynamic line drawings and a palette born from specially concocted paints. While deeply rooted in tradition, Yamachika's relentless pursuit of fresh expressions ensures that his artistry is both a homage to the past and a vision of the future. In him, the traditional craft of Kutani ware finds a contemporary champion, bridging epochs with elegance and eloquence.View Taishi Kiln Collection
Crystal Radiance: Kiyohide's Hand-polished Glass Masterpieces
Renowned for perpetuating the time-honored technique of hand-polishing, Kiyohide's creations shimmer with a unique brilliance that mesmerizes all who lay eyes upon them. Being an esteemed member of the Edo Kiriko Cooperative Association, a privilege in itself, Kiyohide's stature is further elevated by national recognition as Traditional Craftsperson. Each piece he crafts is not merely glassware; it's a canvas where sophistication, artistry, and technical mastery converge.
With each design and pattern Kiyohide etches onto his crystal glassware, he demonstrates a virtuosity that few can rival. His techniques, both traditional hand-polishing and acid polishing, coalesce to produce results of unparalleled radiance and precision. While many of his contemporaries in the Edo kiriko craft rely on chemical polishing with acid, Kiyohide's equal dedication to the subtlety and depth of hand-polishing sets his work apart. Every curve, and every shine in his creations bears his unwavering commitment to the craft and the legacy he continues to uphold. In Kiyohide's hands, glass is transformed from the mundane to the magnificent, celebrating the rich tapestry of tradition with a contemporary flair.View Kiyohide Glass Collection
Arita Ware: Kanagae Shōhei and the Echoes of Ri Sanpei
The tale of ceramic mastery in Japan traces back 400 years when the esteemed ceramic master Ri Sanpei (Yi Sam-pyeong) was brought to its shores following Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasion of Korea. Ri Sanpei made remarkable strides, introducing Arita to the exquisite white porcelain production method, a consequence of zealous cross-border research. Today, the baton has been passed to Kanagae Shōhei. As a descendant of the pioneering Ri Sanpei, Kanegae the 14th has breathed new life into Early Imari Blue and White, the oldest style of Arita Ware. His meticulous studies of the Izumiyama porcelain ore, first unearthed by his ancestor, have paved the way for this revival.
With a reverence for the past and an eye on the present, the works emanating from Kanagae Shohei's kiln are a harmonious blend of ancient techniques and modern sensibilities. Each piece boasts a symbiotic relationship between the bluish translucence of the porcelain and the meticulous margins of the Sometsuke (underglaze blue) painting. This impeccable balance, combined with Kanegae's deep-rooted connection to a lineage of ceramic greats, ensures that his creations not only adorn contemporary dining spaces but also serve as poignant reminders of a rich heritage.View Ri Sanpei Kiln Collection
Nabeshima Celadon's Timeless Artistry
Kosen Kiln is run by enduring passion and artistry of the Kawasoe family lineage. This kiln, a familial beacon of tradition, boasts the combined expertise of seven craftspersons, each playing a pivotal role in the pottery-making process. Among these artisans is Kawasoe Takahiko, not only a dedicated painter but also from a family deeply entrenched in the legacy of Nabeshima Kosen Kiln craftsmanship. The roots of this legacy delve deep, tracing back to ancestors who mastered the art of crafting exquisite figurines and undertook relentless glaze research.
The story of the Kosen Kiln is intrinsically tied to the visionary endeavors of Tameo, Takahiko's grandfather. In 1963, with a heart filled with ambition and hands drenched in ancestral skills, Tameo laid the foundation of the Kosen Kiln. His dream wasn't just to build a kiln, but to elevate Nabeshima celadon to global acclaim. At a time when the crafting of celadon porcelain was deemed so arduous that it threatened the very sustenance of the business, Tameo, with unwavering determination, committed himself to exhaustive glaze research. Over a decade of perseverance saw him surmounting challenges and refining techniques, culminating in a mastery that now courses through Kawasoe Takahiko's veins, ensuring the artistry of Nabeshima celadon continues to mesmerize the world.View Kosen Kiln Collection
The realm of traditional Japanese craftsmanship is full of history, technique, passion, and resilience. Each of the seven artisans profiled here, from the luminous chopsticks of Furui to the mesmerizing glassware of Kiyohide, offers a unique narrative that underscores the timeless relevance and beauty of Japan's rich cultural heritage. While the world may continue to modernize at a rapid pace, the Traditional Craftspersons of Japan ensure that these long-standing art forms balance innovation with tradition. Through their art, these artisans beckon us to pause, reflect, and appreciate the unparalleled beauty that emerges when hands and heart work in unison, crafting stories and legacies that transcend time.
By Yoshikaze Kawakami