In this post, Hiroi-sensei highlights his own experiences as an apprentice and the many years he instructed others. He describes the apprenticing process and the years of dedication necessary to become a master top-maker.
Paula Curtis: And to continue, can you tell us a little about your experience as an apprentice?
Hiroi Michiaki: As an apprentice?
Paula: Yes, um, such as, when you were an Edo top apprentice and first began learning it, what was the most difficult thing, for example. Could you explain a bit about that experience?
Hiroi: Ahh… yes. The most difficult thing was whether a top would spin well or not. At the beginning I didn’t know what I should do to make it spin well. That was definitely the most difficult thing. It’s still hard now, though, it’s still difficult. How it will spin, how I should produce it to get different ways of moving; since the many ways it moves depend on the strength of the top. That foundation… making the top so that it spins, that’s the most [difficult]. A lot of years… it takes a lot of years [to learn], you know. Even now it’s the same. That’s really the most difficult thing.
Paula: Even now, um–
Hiroi: Even now.
Paula: Even now, do your apprentices think that is the most difficult thing [to learn]?
Hiroi: Ahh, I don’t know what my apprentices think. I think it’s probably the same, though. And for tops, you know right away. Whether it’s good or bad. No matter how many you make with this shape, if you spin it and watch and it goes rattling about, it’s not a good one. So that’s the most difficult part. I think my apprentices probably have that same worry, even now, worried [about how they spin].
Paula: When did you first start accepting apprentices?
Hiroi: Mm, when was my first apprentice…? Ahh, it was after we came to Fukuhara, right. Umm it was some years ago… mm, it was some years ago so I’ve forgotten. Quite a while back. It was before we came here, so we came here at least twenty-five years ago, and it was before that, so about thirty years ago, I think.
Paula: How many apprentices do you usually have?
Hiroi: At first it was one. And I mentioned this before, but that apprentice had a lot of friends and brought seven people with him, so, yeah, it was when we were in Fukuhara, so before we came here.
Paula: Um, when Janell came here to learn about these Edo tops, did you have [other] apprentices did you have at that time?
Hiroi: At that time… ah! I already had some apprentices, seven of them. The apprentices from Shiroishi were already here at that time. And in addition to them, um, there were a number of people, umm, who like Landis-sensei came here to learn as a hobby… Amano-san, Jin-san… umm… Suzuki-san, Zanma-san… ahh, also there was Shimamura-san, Watanabe-san… who else was there… Amano-san, Jin-san… Junna-san, Suzuki-san… and… Ah! Today, err? Kyōya-san, was he around that time? When we were in Fukuhara. Kyōya-san…
Mrs. Hiroi: Also there was the Jins.
Hiroi: So, Amano-san, Jin-san, and Zanma-san, Suzuki-san, Kyōma-san…
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah. That’s about it.
Hiroi: That was about all the people doing it as a hobby. Ah, and Landis-sensei, too.
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah. So that’s about it.
Hiroi: Six people doing it as a hobby. And other than them, there were people doing it professionally… Ah, Shinomura-san was doing it for a hobby at first, and from that beginning went pro.
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah.
Hiroi: So other than the seven from Shiroishi that I said before, the people who became professionals were the two from Marumori and today’s Tome. Umm, seven people plus two people, so nine.
Mrs. Hiroi: Mm.
Hiroi: Nine people, these were those aiming at being pros and who were pros. And the other six were amateurs doing it as a hobby. So in all there was ten– ah, there was also Morimoto-san.
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah. There was also Morimoto-san.
Hiroi: Right. In that case there was a lot. Fifteen or sixteen. Heh heh heh. So there was a turnover.
Paula: And were you apprentices usually men? Women?
Hiroi: Female apprentices. Umm with Landis-sensei as the first, then there was Jin-san’s wife. And… there was Yamada-san. Umm… female apprentices…
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah… yeah… that was about it.
Hiroi: Is that about it? I thought there was someone else…
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah. There weren’t [that many] women.
Hiroi: Only three? It was three women.
Paula: Going pro…?
Hiroi: Mmm… probably…
Paula: Was there no one?
Hiroi: There was no one who went pro that was a hobbyist, but there are people above pro. But that doesn’t mean that they’re making a living from it…
Paula: About how old were people who became apprentices? At the beginning, at the beginning–
Hiroi: When they first came?
Hiroi: How old were they? Around that time I think everyone was in their thirties.
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah.
Hiroi: Yeah… it was their thirties. Yeah. Among the men, who was the oldest?
Mrs. Hiroi: Around that time wasn’t there Minoru-kun?
Hiroi: Minoru-kun was so young at that time.
Mrs. Hiroi: Was he that young?
Hiroi: He was still a child.
Mrs. Hiroi: Was he?
Hiroi: Yeah, yeah, was he in his twenties? [Or] in his thirties.
Mrs. Hiroi: Uh, who, who was?
Hiroi: Was he in his thirties? Yeah, everyone was, weren’t they?
Mrs. Hiroi: That’s how it was. Yeah.
Hiroi: The oldest person… ah, was it Watanabe-san? Mm. Watanabe-san was the oldest. He was from a place called Marumori. And he was interesting, I have a story about him. His younger sister’s husband, he was from Marumori. And this sister, the man she married, her husband, he was the chauffeur for the mayor of Marumori. And I was often told that in Marumori they didn’t have any special [local] products, so they wanted me to make something. And at that time, when they said “Let’s make something!” in Marumori, there was one person who made kokeshi, and they asked him if he’d make them something. I spoke with them about it, but ahh– “bring him along”– [no,] I think they said to bring what I’d made and show them to see what they were.
Mrs. Hiroi: Mm. Yeah.
Hiroi: Then I brought my goods, but they were the [amusing] sort you laugh at. And that guy was someone who specialized in making a new kind of kokeshi using unfinished wood; it seems that he didn’t make them himself, but he made the unfinished wood to order, and didn’t have any experience making them himself. And I brought him with me, and at the time, because they came from the town hall… did the mayor come? The mayor, and– ah, no, it was the deputy mayor.
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah. The deputy mayor.
Hiroi: The deputy mayor and… umm, the section chief of the commerce and industry division. I think three people came.
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah. Three people came.
Hiroi: I wonder if the mayor came… In any case, three people from the town hall came to my home with his younger sister’s husband. And they came saying that they had thought about something that could be the special local product of Marumori, and [asked] whether I had anything good. At that time, uhh, and then, the thing I made was, umm, this sort of… is there a pencil? Umm, this kind of shape… [drawing] and here there’s… this top with three [other tops] attached.
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah. Three [tops] attached to it.
Hiroi: It’s in this shape, one, two, three. I made this kind of top… and I made this kind of top, but they didn’t understand what it was for some reason. In Japanese, it’s “marui” (round), round and there’s three trees. There are three trees in the round place, so it becomes “Marumori.” [translator’s note: the town’s name, Marumori, is comprised of the kanji for “round” and for “forest.” The character for “forest,” mori 森, is made up of three of the “tree” kanji (木), making this a pun on three round objects representing trees becoming a “round forest,” or “marumori,” the town name.]
And I made this top and show it to them and the people from town hall were surprised and said, “Ohh, this is great!” So they took it and had the person I mentioned before, Watanabe-san, make it, and it’s [now] sold as Marumori’s special product. They’re [still] making it now. They’re still making it now, though I don’t know where they’re selling it, but I hear it’s still made somewhere. So a few might still be sold somewhere, but I don’t know. I don’t know how they’re selling it. But at that time, for the first time I met Watanabe-san, and the people from town hall said that they definitely wanted me to make him an apprentice and teach him. When he came, he was quite a different age than you, wasn’t he?
Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah.
Hiroi: He was the oldest [of the apprentices]. He also had a lot of experience. Even now there are a lot of shops that have the products he’s made. He might come here directly today. Yesterday he called and he said he might come. He was the oldest.
Paula: How many years are your apprentices apprenticed to you before they become independent top-makers?
Hiroi: Umm, in the end it takes ten years. Of course, it takes half a year or a year to learn the lathe. And then there’s a lot to remember. Even for someone like Maeda-kun, who can do it all now, it took ten years. It takes ten years.
Paula: Did you have any foreign apprentices after that?
Hiroi: No, after that, I didn’t any apprentices, but the people who came because they liked it were those that Landis-sensei introduced to me. They were her friends, and Newton-san, Landis-sensei had– what was it? Was he from Shichigahama? Takayama? After she returned to America, Newton-san joined [my workshop]. Newton-san came to my home for a while, but I think he moved somewhere before the [Tōhoku] earthquake. It was that he moved to Okayama or somewhere shortly after, right? So I think he wasn’t around for the earthquake, the tsunami.
And other than him, there was a person from Sweden, a person from Denmark, and– where was it? Was he Japanese? And there was another person. An American. Someone related to [Janell’s] church, I think. And they gave me wooden clogs or something. Clogs from Sweden or Denmark– I thought they were from Holland and they were like “No, you’re wrong!” and “Mine are the real thing.” I have the clogs somewhere, I could find them if I looked. And often when they came, they’d make me cherry-shaped [tops]. They said it was because they loved cherries, [so they made] cherry-shaped tops. If you travel to Sweden and Denmark, they have purple and yellow cherries, not just red ones. So I asked them to [make tops] in all kinds of colors. So they did, and I was delighted.
But they didn’t become apprentices. In that time, ummm… their term [of office], they had to switch jobs, so they had to go back to their countries. So both of them had to go back to their countries at the same time, and I never met them again. And one more person, who was it? Newton-san came every day, didn’t he? Until he moved to Okayama. He came until the earthquake happened. So he must have moved to Okayama just before that. And Landis-sensei brought him. Yeah, and Landis-sensei told him to become an apprentice, and he half-wanted to, but it was impossible for me [to make him do it]. Heh heh heh. He didn’t become an apprentice. He was a handsome person. Heh heh heh. When you met him you were like “Whoooa.” Hahahaha.