Tag Archives: apprenticeship

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.



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.







ポーラ:(laughs) その、まぁあの難しいことが、もちろん、多いと、おっしゃいましたが、まぁあの時間とともに、ま、多少変化しましたか。何が難しいか、あのその、ビジネスとか、売るのとか。














廣井: そういうのがあると本当いいんですけどねえ。残念なことに日本にはまだそういう制度ないし。もうちょっと、偉い人がさっきも言ったように職人に、えぇ、こう、目を向けてくれれば、少しは、伝統的なものとか、技術が、残るんじゃないかな。で、若い人も、職人に、結構職人になりたい若い人いるんですよね。でも、職人の世界って難しい。で職人っていうのは頑固でなかなか。こう、馴染めないっていう、そっちのイメージの方が多くて恐ろしがってね、へへへ。なかなか『やりたくてもなぁ・・・』っていう人結構多いんですよね。だから、そういう人たちにね、もっとこう、スムーズに馴染んでもらって。育てたいな、と思っていたんですけど。ええと、去年ね、ええと一年半、仙台市で、この工芸の里で、後継者の育成をしようっていうことで市の、市がお金を出してくれて。で五人、入れたんですね若い人を。



Hiroi and Janell’s First Meeting and Apprenticeship

In this interview segment, Hiroi-sensei describes his first time meeting Janell on a New Year’s television broadcast in Sendai. He discusses the beginning of their friendship and the start of her training with him as a top-making apprentice.



Paula: Was the attitude towards America and the West different in Sendai than in Tokyo?

Hiroi: No, in Tokyo, Americans… well, in Tokyo I didn’t meet any Americans. It was after I came to Sendai [that I did]. Because it was after the war. Like I said before, because I was living in the mountains without knowing the war ended. So I didn’t meet any Americans in Tokyo, and after the war, I was in Sendai. And in particular, [it was only] after I met Landis-sensei that I became close to Americans.

Paula: Why was it that your experience getting to know Americans—well, was that the first time? Or, did you have other American friends?

Hiroi: Ahh… there weren’t any others. I had met a few [Americans]. Umm… to make something for them, that is. Mm, that was about it, and I can’t really say that I became close to them. Even if I wanted to become friends with them I couldn’t. And also, at that time I was still poor, and I was putting all my effort into making a living. Mm, Americans were like an unattainable goal, hahaha. They’d do something and I’d be like “Whoaaa, amazing!” And when I met Landis-sensei, it was because we had a chance [to meet] on a television [show].

Photo - 016-01 [edit 1]
Hiroi and Janell on a television broadcast together.
Paula: Did you often introduce those Edo tops on that television program?

Hiroi: Yes, yes. I often did it.

Paula: Was that an NHK program?

Hiroi: I did it on NHK, too, and all of the Sendai broadcasting stations. I did all of them. I did broadcasts for the entire country on NHK and also local ones. I’ve done a lot of local shows and NHK shows, too. Also Tohoku Broadcasting. Mmm, even now I’m doing Miyagi Television’s OH! Bandesu program. They let me do that TV show a number of times. Even now I’m good friends with a man named Wakigaya-san from Miyagi Television, and Amano-san from Tohoku Broadcasting, he was a producer, I think. And Amano’s wife was a student of Landis-sensei. That was the relationship. And he said, “Next time I’ll introduce you to an American.” And then because there was free time, on a New Year’s TV program, this was a New Year’s TV program. And [Landis-sensei] and I did it together, and they told us they’d introduce us. Did we meet before that? Before the television show… hmmm… before the television show… ah, I had heard of her. Because they said they would introduce us, and we didn’t have a chance [before that]. And [they said] they’d have us do [the TV show] together. Mm, it was from that time.


Paula: What sort of television show was it?

Hiroi: It was a New Year’s show, and, err… what kind of things did we do? In any case it was things that were good luck for the New Year, and it was a show that also did Edo tops… I think. I don’t remember in detail what we did. What I remember is that the announcer kept getting things wrong and was corrected a lot. (laughs) I think Landis-sensei knew the whole time. Heh heh. We talked about it a lot.

Paula: This will go into [the topic of] Landis-san [again], but could you talk a bit about the first time you met her?

Hiroi: I think the first time I met Landis-sensei was when [we] were on television. I feel like I might have met her before that, but maybe I didn’t. I don’t remember that time well. The first… thing I remember is that time on TV, I think. But I might have met her before that. I don’t remember when that television show aired.

Anyway, she was a teacher at Miyagi Gakuin, and an American who was fluent in Japanese. And she had an interest in [things like tops], so [Amano-san] said he’d bring her next time. I heard this from the show’s producer, Amano-san. After that we met on the television show, which I saw in a photograph first. I feel like we met before that, but probably that was our first meeting. I don’t clearly remember that time. Anyway, it was around that time. And she came to my home, and was really happy [to see the tops]. And that was the first time she said she wanted to make them herself. She said “Please teach me,” so I taught her. Umm yeah that’s about right. It’s hard to remember. But she really made a lot of things, Landis-sensei did.

Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah. That wagon, she made that wagon thing.

Hiroi: Yeah. What was interesting at that time was–

Mrs. Hiroi: The wagon.

Hiroi: Umm, yeah. It was a wagon, a covered wagon from the pioneering times like those you see in Western films. But attached to the wagon, I thought they were horses, but Landis-sensei put oxen. I said “Shouldn’t they be horses, not oxen?” and she said, “No, they’re really oxen.” When I said “Why?”, and she said that horses can go far but they get tired easily. Oxen were slow, but they had stamina for no matter how far they go, and so for going [that far], actually it’s not a carriage but an ox cart. And so she attached oxen to the covered wagon. Mm, even now, it’s amazing. That she made that. She made so many things. Later she used the lathe by herself, and that was Karahiro-chō, right?

Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah.

Hiroi: There we made a cabin, a little cabin where we worked, and [made tops] there for a while. I think she [made tops] until she went back to America.

Mrs. Hiroi: Yeah.

Hiroi: Yeah, that’s it. She returned to America and sent her lathe there. And she said, “After I return to America I’ll [make tops] there, too,” and I said “No, you won’t remember the way to make the tools, won’t it be impossible?” and she said “No, I’ll be fine, I have friends who are skilled with machinery and cutlery, so if I ask them [when I have a problem,] I’ll get by somehow and it’ll be fine.” And she sent her lathe to America. When I asked some time ago that was the case.

Paula: Umm–

Hiroi: And– huh? I think she [worked on the lathe] a little in America. There are lathes in America, too, but they work a little different. And Americans find Japan’s lathes unusual, so they come to see them. Umm, actually in America, there’s a lathe association of some kind, something like a world lathe association. And there’s number of members and an association. And the president… she’s in a group that makes naruko kokeshi, and I invited the American lathe association president and her husband, the couple, and they came here. I think the wife was the president and her husband was the vice president. And there was a [cultural] exchange with the artisans who made naruko kokeshi. On their way back they stopped by here. And at that time they made these teeny tiny tops. They were tops about this big, they had become their specialty. And I thought “Man, I’ve been defeated!” and made even smaller ones. Ones this small. And I showed them to them and they said “Nope, I’ve lost!” Heh heh heh heh heh. I was like, “I wonnnnn!” Hahahaha. They burst out laughing and we shook hands. It was great fun to experience.


Paula: Were you hesitant to take on Janell as an apprentice? Did you have any concerns?

Hiroi: No, I didn’t really have any concerns. Mm. Actually, I thought, she’s not Japanese, and it would be wonderful if an American learned [how to make tops]. And Landis-sensei was the one. And she carved a kokeshi by hand herself, and showed me that, too. And said that she definitely wanted to carve using a lathe. And right away, on that very day, she used the lathe. And she learned a lot of things carving, but, we didn’t understand each other here and there. And it was funny, when it was a problem she’d go, “I don’t understand because I’m an American.” Heh heh heh heh. Everyone would give big belly laughs. Heh heh heh.

Paula: Was that the first time you had a foreign apprentice?

Hiroi: Yeah, that was the first time. Heh heh heh. Yeah.


廣井先生とジャネルの出会い, そして弟子入り







廣井: あーそいつはいなかったですね。少し会った程度ですね、みんなね。あのう・・・何かやっぱり頼まれて作ってやったり。うーんそんな程度で、あまり親しくっていうことは、言葉がほら通じないから。あの親しくなりたくてもなれなかったっていうか。でこっちもまだ、その頃うんと貧しくて、その日、生きてくのが精一杯な状態で。うん、なかなかもうアメリカの人は高嶺の花で、えへへ。もうこうやって「わーすげー」って見てる程度だったの。ほんであのう、ランディス先生と知り合ったのは、ほらこのテレビ、がキッカケ、だったんですね。








廣井:だからお正月の番組で、えー内容どうだったのかな。とにかくあのーお正月の縁起のいいものっていうことで、この江戸独楽の紹介を兼ねて・・・の番組だったのかな。ちょっと内容までは、あまり詳しく覚えてないんですけど。覚えてんのはこのアナウンサーの人が間違えて何度もやり直しさせられたっていう。(laughs) ずっとねランディス先生も分かってると思うけどね。へへ。よく話しているね。

[Segment 3, 20:21]











廣井:そうだね。でアメリカに帰るんでその轆轤はアメリカへもう送って。で『アメリカに帰ってからもやるんだ』なんて言うから 「いや、道具つくりだのも覚えてないからちょっと無理でねえの?」ったけど、『いや、大丈夫だ』なんて言って。 『友達で機械に詳しい人いるし。刃物に詳しい人もいるから、その人たちに頼めば、何とかなるから大丈夫だから』っていうことで。で轆轤アメリカに送ったんですけど。さっき聞いたらあるって言ってましたよね。


廣井:で、うん?アメリカで少しやってた、みたいですけどね。なんか、アメリカにも轆轤はあるんですけど、あのやり方がちょっと違うんですよね。で日本の轆轤のあのやり方は、アメリカの人たち、珍しいからって前はよく、見学に来たりしてたみたいですけどね。であのう、アメリカの、やっぱりあの、こう、轆轤協会っていうのがあって、世界轆轤協会って言ったけな。でアメリカにもなんか、何人かで、協会があって。でその会長さんが・・・鳴子、のこけし組合で、アメリカのその轆轤協会の会長さんご夫妻、ご夫婦を呼んだんですよね。で来たことがあるんですけど。で奥さんが会長で、旦那が副会長っつったかな。そして鳴子のこけし工人の人たちと交流して。でその帰りに、ここへ来たんですよね。でそのときに、その・・・人が作った、こう、こんなちっちゃな独楽作ってきたのね。このくらいの大きさの独楽を作って、得意になって来たわけ。で「こんな、負けてらんないな」と思って、もっとちっちゃいの作ったのね。このくらいのやつを。で、見したっけ 『いや、参りました』なんて言って。へへへへへ。こっち「勝ったー!」なんて、へへへへへ。大笑いしてね。握手してね。えらい喜んでもらったことはありますね。