Lessons with Hiroi

In this post, Jan describes how she came to meet and work with Hiroi-sensei, how he taught his apprentices, and how she felt appreciated among a community of artists.


Malina: So, now I think we’re going to shift over to, um you’re work with Hiroi Sensei.

Janell: Yes. Uh-huh.

Malina: So how–you mentioned how you first met him, had you heard about him before?

Janell: No. No. He came from Tokyo and settled in Sendai but it was–I didn’t know he was there. It was through Mr. Amano’s connection, he and Mr. Takahashi helping Hiroi sensei and visiting for this particular, they discovering him. They found, like I said, they were looking for a kite-maker to interview on one of these new years programs because flying kites is the big thing for boys and playing badminton is for girls. And anyway, they didn’t find a kite-maker but a woman who was running–a japanese woman who had a nice book store was acquainted with Hiroi-sensei.  and she found that they had a top-maker right there in Sendai. And that’s when they found him and he was not well, and he was not making much money to live on. So they got him into the hospital and got him taking them on as apprentices. So they could get some money to him and assisting him in getting back to making tops. And around that period, I had been on that program with Mr. Amano’s wife and she was my associate and using the Japanese while I was doing the English. But anyway, he and his friend from the same company, TBS, asked me to be on this program. And they took me to the home of Mr. Hiroi. And I met Hiroi-sensei and his wife in a very strange house. They had one or two rooms besides the shop and we’d sit around the table and have tea after we finished working. 

So, there’s some pictures in this book of that room and the thing that was wonderful is, he had two lathes, one that he worked at and we sat and he could see us like that you know. We sat across from each other. And so, instead of like an apprentice does for a potter making clay for five or six years before they get on the wheel. We got on the lathe right from the very beginning. And he prepared the wood for us, he prepared our tools for us, so we were his apprentices but we were beholden completely to our teacher. I was so pleased with the way he accepted me as a foreigner and he actually would make, for me, he would make a model and then I could copy it. For his professional men who were his apprentices, the ones who made the dolls, he would just talk about the concept and talk about what…and then they’d make it and bring it back to him and then he’d tell them what was wrong with it and what was good about it. It was interesting to be there and sit in the same [kotatsu] with these other apprentices. 

And many times his wife and I were the only women, so we listened a lot. And it was fun. I enjoyed those times in the kotatsu and listening to the discussions. For a teacher of English who was with a college of junior high and senior high school girls, and in many ways being a leader for them, it was just wonderful to be able to sit around a tale with these Japanese men and listening to what they were talking about. Because a lot of the times it was about making the tops, but the friendships that developed in that area were some that were quite different from being a missionary in a Christian school. But I was always accepted as a valid person. 

And he was good at giving me examples and I would make them myself. I have two of them out there that I made, one in ‘82, that’s the first one. That was a present for my family, so I made I think seven or eight of them. That’s in one of these books too. Then the more recent one is the church with each item makes a top, there’s seven tops in that one. That one conglomeration of seven tops. But anyway, he let me do Huck Finn, and Tom Sawyer, Cinderella. I like that fact that he was open to European or American stories as well as these ones we have here of Momotaro. These two he made, this is not his, these two. Momotoro and the Onii, the devil, that were disturbing the life of his village. And the peach boy. Those are the [dango] that his mother made him that he gave one to the pheasant, one to the monkey, and one to the dog, and they helped him conquer these ugly bad guys. And they were fierce and then they became friends. 

But we had some interesting discussions. And my teacher once, around Hiroshima day in August, that was one of the most memorable times in my visits with him. He told me about when his parents and he were in Tokyo when the big bombing of Tokyo took place. Their part of Tokyo was connected with war-making factories. His father could no longer do tops, he had to use his…doing something connected to the war so that the company that bought his tops took his lathe and all his equipment and sent it up to [Shiroishi City] in Tohoku where there were a lot of woodworkers. But then the father and the mother… in this time…Sensei said the planes were so low he could hear the music that they were playing on the airplanes. They bombed that part of the city. He and his brother and father fled to the school pond, the swimming pool, and they jumped in the pool, fortunately in the shallow end. The people who jumped in the deep end went down to the bottom and other bodies went on top of them and they all perished. But the people in the shallow end survived. His mother and the siblings, I don’t know if it was one or two, perished in the fire. And his father and his brother were left, and this company sent them to Shiroishi to live. 

Many of the children of Tokyo at that time were sent out to farmlands and Tohoku was one area where they came, Tokyo kids, because their families were trying to save them from the terrible bombings that they were having. Some of them were in the same areas and the locals weren’t that glad to have them, you know. You’re struggling yourself with food, but in those years people that I knew sold their kimono or whatever, they took them to the farmers in the country. Fortunately the farmers in Japan didn’t experience what Europe experienced, the land warfare where the armies were fighting right out in the farmlands. The Japanese were bombed in big cities but the farmlands were still functioning. So the city people went out with their treasures and traded for food. But Mr. Hiroi– he and his father and brother went to the Sendai area, [Shirorishi] about an hour away on the train and then he became one of the Tohoku’s famous woodworkers. He and his brother are the two living members of the Edo-tops. Edo, the former name for Tokyo.

Malina: Did he have many other apprentices? How many other apprentices?

Janell: Well, I’m not sure how many are left. Because we’re all getting older. But I have a picture and there were oh about, three or four, five, six, seven. Some professional and then non-professional. When I was starting my work there there was a man who was an employee for Sendai City and he went there as a treat to himself, and he was very good and I have a top that he made, really beautiful top, on that I often use. It’s way over there, but anyway. And now we have a connection with Mr. Maeda who’s there every day. That means I think he’s working on the lathe. 

Malina: How did you become interested in becoming his apprentice?

Janell: Well, it was just buying that [??} and giving it to somebody and finding out that right there in Sendai was the man who made it. And I was impressed with him and I just…it was timing. I, nothing I can say I was looking for. It just happened. And I was so fortunate to be able to be on that program teaching English to the women that gave me a contact with Mr. Amano. And anyway, to be invited to meet this man. And then be able to be an apprentice [excited noise]. Because I had been interested in art and I draw pictures and stuff. But, I never had any…my father was a woodworker. He made a  big desk for me that’s in another room here. I took that to Japan and brought it back, but my father was working down in the basement of our house. When I was an eighth grader, in the seventh and eighth grade, girls weren’t allowed to take shop but we had cooking and sewing, and so I wasn’t interested in that stuff. But, being an apprentice was just a work of fate.

Malina: So, you had bought a [sumo-set] before you met him, or was that after?

Janell: Yes, before. Because I found that in Tokyo, he was making things still and selling things in Tokyo that, right after the war, because of the connection probably to his father. His father had this connection with people in Tokyo, but anyway, I bought that when I went to Tokyo one time. And I gave it to Mr. Amano’s little girls. And thought it was fun. And then they found when they were looking for a kite-maker they found the top-maker and found out that he made that set of sumo wrestlers.

Malina: How long before you met him did you give the girls the set?

Janell: It wasn’t too much before that. A couple..maybe a year or so. Because it was still connected to that program and I wish I could tell you what years that program was on. One year it was on TBS and that connection.

Malina: What year did you become his apprentice?

Janell: ‘82.

Paula: For how long were you apprenticed to him?

Janell: Until I left Japan. ‘95. There wasn’t a real apprentice after a couple of years because my teacher helped me get my own lathe. Like I say he’d make me a sample and I’d make it on my own. I have a book of the stuff I made. This is it. [laughs] You can see in that book the freedom I was given. And he helped me do a Cinderella, a little pumpkin and the horses and anyway [laughs].

Malina: Did you sell yours?

Janell: Yes, I didn’t make ‘em for sale. Then for three years–and I wanted to find out if they’re still doing that–one of the department stores has a sale of Mr. Hiroi’s apprentice’s and his tops for sale. Three days in that January 3 and January 6. I had a couple of books of that. Where are they–over there. But I had my things there for sale at that time. The money for our things one year went to an organization for helping people with something. I had…I don’t have it in my head, I have it in one of these books. The money that we made from the tops that time–some of it was from the apprentices–was given to an organization for some use for others.

Malina: How far did you travel to take lessons, to work with him?

Janell: To get lessons? For a while I was going to the southern part of Sendai. I usually went around supper time. It was a frustrating experience because two lanes went into one to cross a bridge and you’d have these guys who would sneak in [makes driving noise]. I was kind of high before I got even to my teacher’s house. But anyway, then he moved from that place to this village and that was further, but it was a more interesting ride into this hot spring town south of Sendai. The other one was off a main thoroughfare that went down to Tokyo, you know. But this one was a more quiet route. So, I was never really far.

Malina: What was a daily lesson like?

Janell: Mmm. Well, it was like being given a piece of wood that was five-sided and you’d put it on the bit, and working, and the teacher was often working on a project that I could watch him do. And there’s a… if I had any trouble he would come and look at me. It was just me doing work. After I got good enough he got me this lathe of my own and I went there just like the pro-deshi [apprentices] did with the things I made and he would look at them. And we would discuss what project we could do and then he’d make something…made the raft and Huckleberry and Tom. So there were things done in the kotatsu, around the table. Planning. But when I had my own I wasn’t getting lessons anymore I was getting assistance and a great deal of help. 

I liked my teacher because he was willing to…and he was knowledgeable. It was an interesting combination of him and his wife. When they were in Sendai, she was from a farm home down south of Sendai, I can’t remember the town. And her father and his father were very close friends. They’d his father…Her father would come and visit. [laughs] They were such good friends that they decided his son and her father…his daughter, his daughter was just right for the son. Now, this is a Tokyo son and a farmer girl. Who for part of her life was sent to Hokkaido to be somebody’s babysitter and send the money back because her mother had gone, had died, I think. It was just like an oshikei story oshiin, of the hard life of this farm-woman. And then she married this Tokyo-man. But he had a lot of interest in Japanese folklore, and I think coming out of Tokyo he had a background that was much broader than coming from a little town and farm in Tohoku. It’s an interesting combination. But she’s the business woman and he’s the artist. She handles all of these things that the apprentices bring to sell in the store in connection with his shop in this village. She keeps track of how much this man should get and how much this man should get. She was very good at business, and of course, cooking and taking care of the house. And then she was on–there’s a picture of her there on the lathe. He let her–he taught her how to make things. But anyway, it was an interesting combination.

Malina: What was the most challenging aspect of the top-making?

Janell: The most challenging? Time was an issue. Having the time to do it. When I had my own lathe I didn’t have to travel so far. It was right behind me in my house and I could work after school when I was teaching at Miyagi. It was different when I was working for the conference because then I could plan my own schedule. When I worked at school I was at school this time and by this time so it was easier to organize. When I had my own time, I’d feel guilty when I wasn’t working, you know. It’s not as easy to do what you thought you should do. But, after a while, otherwise I didn’t feel any hardships. Or frustrations, because my teacher was very generous. He’d even say something nice even when it was dumb [laughs].

Here’s a picture when he had…this is why I like my teacher. Just look at that bottom picture. Look at him sitting in a chair smiling. We had this wonderful party and we had food. There’s Mr. Amano, and Mr. Takahashi, and the woman who did all my cooking.

Malina: Was there a difference between the types of tops Hiroi made for collectors, well you said you didn’t make any for sale, was there a difference?

Janell: Yes, he’d make some that were easy to spin, but the collectors were interested in something that’s really different. And so, he would make them and anybody who came there to visit could buy them. He didn’t have a shop when I first met him, he was in this very–what I call a hovel. A very poor place to live. But then we joined this artisan’s village then he had a nice shop to go with it. And most of the tops in that shop were done by his disciples, his deshi. And then they would get the money that they–Mrs. Hiroi was the business woman. The money that they got from those that say Masayuki made, then he, those were–all that money went to him with a bit for the sensei. You know like one of the consignment things where you give things and you get some of the money back. So these, this is one way he was helping these young professional doll-makers also become skilled top-makers and they could earn some extra money that way. But the one rule he made was interesting, the professional men who were skilled in making the dolls, they always signed their name on the bottom and some of the dolls were collected faithfully by certain people. Every year they’d get another one and the number of how old the person was would change each year. Then you could compare how many, if you collected Masayuki’s all every year you could see how he developed or how it went down and so on. That’s a collecting technique that I didn’t follow. But, my teacher himself asked that none of the tops that were sold in his store, none of them have a name on the bottom.

He wanted the people to buy the tops for the appearance and not for the name. And that indicates a difference between the dolls and tops in my teacher’s case. And when he made tops for the collectors, he did that. Not a different top every month because some of them were quite complicated and took a long time to make fifty of one kind. Those he might sign for the collector, because that was a verification that this was Hiroi-sensei’s and that’s an Edo top. But, um, when I was there in the shop that was part of that village, his things were not on the shelves. All of the tops were made by his professional deshi. I don’t…I think it indicated a kind heart of a teacher who wanted his disciples to have equal access to the buying public. And I appreciated his generosity. He didn’t handle the business he was there, they would sit in the kotatsu and talk with him and discuss some new designs. He, for me he made it so I could copy it, but for his professional disciples they had to make it from his words, from his descriptions. And when they’d come back with what they made and then he would pick out that should be a little bit rounder there or something. He would make them do it over if it wasn’t what he was suggesting. So that trained them to listen very carefully. And I was in on some of those sessions, they were exciting to be there, just sitting there and listening to him instruct them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.