Hiroi-sensei and his apprentices participated in many local community events. Below are photos of them selling their top and kokeshi products at Sendai’s Shimin Matsuri, a local festival, in the 1980s.
Hiroi-sensei has appeared many times in Japanese newspapers. Below is a translation of an article entitled “Professionals with a Skilled Touch: Whittling – Edogoma Artisan, Hiroi Michiaki” that ran January 1, 2003 in the newspaper Kahoku shinpō. See the original Japanese article at the link below.
Professionals with a Skilled Touch: Whittling – Edogoma Artisan, Hiroi Michiaki
Surely there isn’t a single person who doesn’t touch objects during the course of their job. However, there are those who notably work by cultivating years and years of experience and expertise, polishing the instincts of their fingers and hands. Are they somehow different from those of us with “normal” senses, or is their sense of touch something cultivated through their work? We look at the secrets behind three “professionals of the sense of touch”: a sushi chef, a physician, and an Edogoma (Edo top) artisan.
In harmony with the tools, the object’s form is freed
He inserts a pre-sized piece of dogwood (mizuki) onto the lathe and whittles it. Hiroi Michiaki, a fourth-generation Edogoma artisan (age 69, Sendai, Taihaku ward), says without hesitation, “I couldn’t do anything without my sense of touch.”
While Hiroi-san switches between his tools like the plane and rasp, and when they touch the top, he knows how they change its smoothness. Bit by bit, without even touching [the top directly] with his hands,he feels how much he should shave off and if there are any nicks in the wood from the vibrations transmitted through the edges of his tools. Hiroi-san experienced the family business of making Edogoma from when he was young. “Before you know it,” he said, “you’re feeling it unconsciously.”
One characteristic of the brightly colored Edogoma is the sheer number of different types of tops,from simple tops to ones delightfully brimming with trick mechanisms to enjoy, like leaping tops (tobigoma) or chasing tops (oikakegoma). Only Hiroi-san and his little brother Masaaki, who lives in Tokyo, have inherited the skill of Edogoma-making. Other than them, [Hiroi-san] has two apprentices.
“You know, even among apprentices, they quickly grasp and remember how to feel for the quality of the top and its spin, and they improve fast, too,” Hiroi remarked. “Whether whittling or polishing [the top], you can be certain [it’s good] by touching it, rather than looking with your eyes.”
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].
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.
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.
In this post, Jan discusses how she developed as a feminist, her desire to share her point of view with her students, and her unique position as an unmarried American woman in Japan.
Malina Suity: [1:00:42]: When you were working as a teacher at Miyagi, what were your–did you have any particular duties other than just teaching classes? What were your classes like?
Janell Landis: Um, well. The classes were, as I said, were sometimes with junior high school girls. And that was about fifty kids in one room and reviewing the English studies that they had with their Japanese teachers. They had me twice a week and the other teachers every day. And so it was back up for the Japanese teachers, and then that was true in senior high too. In college, I was given an opportunity with the juniors and seniors to have these elective courses. And then I attempted to really concentrate on some of the issues that women would face. And that’s when my feminist years developed. And I saw some of the girls develop too. And one of them ended up being, working on the wonderful program north of Tokyo that was involved with educating workers from other Asian countries and for commuting to work and so on. [1:02:09]
Malina [1:09:50] You mentioned your development as a feminist and working with women’s issues. Can you describe your experience as a woman in postwar Japan?
Janell: Yes. Uh, it was, my own conversion was when I was going with a group of people from New Jersey to what they called the God Box. To a Riverside area where the national church of these mainline denominations was located. And I went into a drug store while we were waiting for the car and I bought the first magazine of Ms. and that changed my life. And I didn’t see…what was your question again?
Janell: I’m ready to get off of it.
Malina: It’s uh, being a woman in Japan.
Janell [1:10:58]: Oh, a woman in Japan. Well, because of that conversion in the States when I went back. I had the privilege in some of these elective classes to show what women were doing in other countries or so on. So, I myself branched out. But I had a reaction of one of my female Japanese teachers, she thought I was degrading the men. And uh, like I was anti-man. And that really hurt me in a way. I didn’t ever feel like I would, that I would, ever degrade my fellow men that were working on the faculty. I was cautioned then, to be careful not to be too demanding.
But um, like I said, being a single woman. I was my own self and I think I got a little bit different treatment than a wife would. And she would have opportunities that I didn’t have. But I never begrudged the difference. Each of us is given a walk and we have to walk our walk, own walk. We can’t imitate somebody else’s trot, but uh. I never felt…well let’s see I can’t say never. There were times when being a woman in postwar Japan might have been more difficult. But, being an American woman, being a single woman. [laughs] I had some freedoms that my Japanese women didn’t have. I was always–In the first years when things weren’t as progressive, I never got invited to the weddings. But after how many years there, it was like, if they had the American teacher there that was a real special thing. I got took to so many weddings and their parties. But, it was rarely that we were in the weddings. Many of them were held in a Shinto temple, but we were having the wedding parties in these big hotels or these big wedding parlors. And they’d spend a fortune and give everyone a present and so on. But I, in the latter years, I was one of the people they called. [1:14:02]
For more information on Ms. Magazine and the impact it had on women like Jan, read this oral history from New York Magazine.
Photograph of Janell and English Department staff at Miyagi Gakuin via Janell Landis.