Hiroi and the Life of the Artisan

In this interview segment, Hiroi-sensei describes the life of a woodworking artisan and the difficulty of maintaining Japanese traditional arts in the modern world.

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Paula Curtis: What are some of the biggest difficulties you have encountered working as an artisan?

Hiroi Michiaki: The most difficult thing… it’s nothing but difficult things, right? (laughs) There’s nothing that’s easy. Saying which one is most difficult– it’s all difficult. On the other hand, the thing that makes me most happy is when people who buy my tops enjoy them. If they go “Woooow!” I’m so happy. Other than that, every day I’m suffering. (grins)

Paula: (laughs) Those, well, difficult things, of course you said there are a lot of them, but did they change a lot over time? What was difficult–doing business? Selling them?

Hiroi: Well, the difficulty of being an artisan, the more you do it the more difficult it becomes. Other than that, selling them, I’m bad at selling them. So, yeah, I’m always at a loss.

Paula: Do you feel that artisanal professions are in danger of dying out? Why do you think that is?

Hiroi: Ah! Yes. This is the thing that troubles me most. Umm… why it is that Japan takes artisans for granted. If there are no artisans, I don’t think that they can even established Japan’s large businesses, but for some reason artisans are looked down upon and taken for granted. Umm…  people in administration also think little of artisans and don’t support us. I’m not saying we want [more] support, but I think we want them to value us more.

But Japan right now is developing only this one [type of] skill, and maybe the bottom, you’d call it, artisans are definitely at the very bottom [of those priorities]. Artisans make things [to be used], and at this time [those things] are made in great quantities, so large companies are established. And if those artisans gradually disappear, someone will say “Let’s [make] this thing,” and they probably won’t be able to. So there are a lot of artisans of different occupations, but in any case I want those people who are artisans to be valued more. That’s my wish.

Paula: Do you have a lot of apprentices compared to the past?

Hiroi: Ahh, yeah. So, um, this is, well, as for why apprentices increased, it’s because I was doing traditional kokeshi, umm… and there were a number of people doing kokeshi. So there were a lot of people who gathered to do that. And I was painting kokeshi, and selling them, selling them to collectors, and people were saying difficult things to me like “that’s wrong,” “this is wrong,” and I was very troubled, but I did my best at it, and became able to [make them] to a certain extent.

My name was published in kokeshi books, too. And at that time, I realized, “Ahh, in my home there was something even more precious than kokeshi.” There were a lot of kokeshi makers, and they would definitely survive [in the future], but the Edo tops of my family, there was only one house [that made those] in all of Japan. All of the world. The ones who inherited that were only me and my younger brother. Kokeshi [makers] weren’t like us, who were only one family, there were had hundreds, thousands. I realized that it would be impossible to revive it and leave it behind [after we died]. So I thought to myself that I had to increase our apprentices. And young heirs to kokeshi maker families… they came to me, and those young people said “Can’t we make a living not just doing the kokeshi from before?” and “I want you to teach me other things.”

At that time, there was another person here like Maeda-kun whom I was teaching. He was the son of a kokeshi maker, someone from Obara Onsen, he was someone famous, and this was his child. He was named Yūsuke, Honda Yūsuke. That was in Shiroishi, and the young sons of the kokeshi makers of the Yajirō [style] lineage came together and I had seven [apprentices]. And since Yūsuke said “I’m learning [Edo top making] right now at this place,” everyone else said they wanted to, too. And so they [all] came saying, “Will you teach us?” It was like asking if it’s true and going “It’s true!” And he was saying “Come with me everyone!” Those seven came to Shiroishi and I ended up teaching them.

Well then, my goods are different from kokeshi, and there’s a lot of different kinds, and you have to want to enjoy yourself, so first it was like “If you come to my home, it’s not work, it’s more like fun.” And everyone was like “Whaaat!” and was really surprised. Heh heh heh. One person really took that seriously and messed around and found a girlfriend and got married. Haha.

Now, for kokeshi, the Yajirō line is the best one, but he couldn’t really make tops well. He’d been learning for almost half a year but couldn’t make them. And kokeshi, well, his parents were kokeshi makers, so, first, first it was best for him to do kokeshi [instead of tops]. So he put all his efforts into kokeshi. And everyone else was doing tops. And of course I wondered if their parents were angry, if they were complaining. I thought, “I’m teaching their precious heirs unnecessary things!” Surely they must have been mad. But their parents all came and said “Please take care of them,” and bowed their heads to me. All seven. Contrary to it all, I was the surprised one. “Ahh this is serious,” I thought, and put my all into teaching them. I think usually one person can remember about a hundred types [of tops].

Paula: Umm, about these artisanal occupations disappearing, what do you think should be done about that? So that they become more popular?

Hiroi: Ahh. Yeah.

Paula: Do you think there’s anything that can be done?

Hiroi: I think it would be really good if they were popular. It’s regrettable that in Japan there’s not a system for that. Like I said before, if important people would take note of us artisans, wouldn’t a bit more traditional things and skills survive? And young people becoming artisans–you know there’s quite a lot of young people who want to become artisans But the world of artisans is difficult. And artisans are quite stubborn. And people are scared of that popular image, that they can’t get used to that [sort of life]. Heh heh heh. there are quite a lot of people who say “I really want to do that…” So I thought [it would be good if] it was easier for those people to become accustomed to it. I thought [to myself] “I want to teach them.” Umm… last year, a year and a half ago, in Sendai, our Craft Village, we wanted to do successor training, so the city gave us money. And five young people came.

And, ah– the city gave us wages. And we got quite a bit of money as an honorarium, too. It went on for a year and a half and it ended in March of this year. In the end those who stayed on were one person with Kotake-san, and Maeda-kun here with me, and another person, Misa-chan, a girl. Three of them were left. I think that if something like that [program] went on a little longer we’d have more young people come. And if they did it without such strict conditions. This time around, the conditions weren’t so tough, and that was good. Five people came and three stayed. I think that’s a huge success.

And doing something like that again, not just with the city, but with the prefecture, the country, if they did that, I think the number of young successors really go up. And, well, among the same artisans, places with money, they can steadily support young people themselves. Places like mine that don’t have any money, because of that people like Maeda-kun are doing part-time jobs but also want to learn, so they come [to us]. I think people like that can become the real thing. So I think that if [the government] extended its hand more to places like that, more young people could be trained, and I feel like Japan, too, would be a richer place for it.

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