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The cutting edge of artisanship

by Yuko Naito

Edo-kiriko craftsman Shuseki Suda does not blink while engraving intricate lines on the surface of glassware. Sometimes he can even keep his eyes open as long as five minutes.

“If I close my eyes, even if it is less than a second, I might miss the line I’m cutting. You can never erase a line once you make it,” he says.

Kiriko, or Japanese cut glass, originated in the Edo Period. It was influenced by English cut glass brought to Japan by Portuguese trading ships. The first kiriko was believed to have been made by glass craftsman Kagaya Kyubei, in 1834. His kiriko immediately became popular among Edo citizens, and over 60 items — including tableware, medicine bottles and ornaments — were reportedly made.

Following Edo-kiriko, cut glass was then produced in Satsuma (present-day Kagoshima Prefecture) as an official product of the clan. Produced in a factory that used the most advanced glass-cutting technology available at the time, Satsuma-kiriko soon developed a reputation for creating some of the world’s finest cut glass. Despite its reputation, however, production came to a halt not long after the death of feudal lord Shimazu Nariakira, who had sponsored the production of cut glass.

While the sophisticated factory-made Satsuma-kiriko disappeared after being manufactured for only 16 years, handmade Edo-kiriko survived in artisans’ studios. Today at least 70 Edo-kiriko craftsmen still practice their art.

The process of making kiriko is quite simple: Draw rough outlines on the glassware and engrave them with a motor-driven diamond wheel. Suda engraves detailed lines freehand, but they turn out as precise as if he had used a ruler.

There are only 20-30 basic cutting patterns used for Edo-kiriko, and even the most complicated-looking designs are made of them.

“For professional glass-cutters, it usually takes up to 10 years to grind accurate lines for each pattern,” says Suda, who’s had 64 years of experience. “Only one mistake can spoil the whole design.”

Suda became an apprentice to a kiriko master at the age of 12. When he was about to begin working independently, World War II broke out and he was recruited. After the war, he got a job at a glass manufacturing company, where he made mass-produced glassware for years.

Despite the long devotion to his craft, he didn’t become truly serious about it until his mid-40s, when he was allowed to handle top-quality glassware ordered by Tokyo’s most expensive ryotei (Japanese restaurants), he says.

He quit the company in 1990 before his retirement, in order to pour all his time and energy into the creation of his own works. Since then he has created many beautiful pieces; however, Suda explains that there are only one or two works with which he is really satisfied.

“I always want to create the things I have never seen on the market. But whenever I complete one, I think it is not good enough, I could have made something better.”

While pursuing his art, Suda opened a kiriko-making class four years ago. He now has 50 students, and more than 10 people are on the waiting list.

“I have no intention of making money from the lessons. I just wanted to pass down what I’ve learned to the next generation,” he says. “Some of my students say they want to turn professional in the future. I’m very pleased to hear that.”