For many artists and craftsmen, nature is a great source of inspiration. For Toyama-based sunago craftsman Tatsuo Nagaoka, the beautiful scenery he encounters while hiking in the mountains is also his inspiration to create new work. His subjects range from a sea of clouds viewed from a mountain peak to butterflies flying over a flower garden.
“Whenever I see something nice I wonder if I can depict it with sunago,” he says.
Sunago is the traditional Japanese art technique of adorning fusuma (screen doors), byobu (folding screens), lacquerware and Japanese-style paintings with the powders and foils of precious metals such as gold, silver and platinum.
The technique is believed to have been developed in the Tenpyo Period (710-794) and was perfected in the Heian Period (794-1185). One of the best-known examples of old sunago is the Heike-nokyo — the 33 decorative volumes of Buddhist sutras presented to the Itsukushima Shrine in 1164 by Taira no Kiyomori.
The basic creative process has changed little since then. The artisan begins by applying glue to durable washi paper called torinoko-shi. He then puts gold or silver foils into a cylindrical sievelike container and grates them down to a powder with a wooden stick, while holding it over the glue-painted paper. Nagaoka sometimes also cuts out foils and pastes them on.
“Unlike paint, those metals never fade with exposure to light,” says Nagaoka. “They retain their original vivid color for centuries. That is one of the great things about sunago.”
Handling the materials is often troublesome, however. Since gold leaves are as thin as 1/10,000th of a millimeter, windows must be kept closed and the use of air conditioners or heaters is prohibited, because the circulating air can carry away the foils and powders.
“These days I cool or warm the studio before getting to work, but it was very tough especially in the summer when there were no air conditioners,” he says.
Nagaoka’s family has been in the business of making su-nago for 230 years. He is the seventh owner of the Seijudo shop. Before World War II, there were many sunago craftsmen around the country. However, during the war and right after it, people could not afford to buy luxuries, and sunago craftsmen disappeared one after another.
Nagaoka’s parents, who knew it would be difficult to continue making a living off sunago, never asked their son to take over their family business. When he was in high school, he wanted to become a commercial designer, but eventually ended up choosing sunago. After graduating, he worked for six years as an apprentice to a Kyoto hyogu-shi (frame-maker/paper mounter), and eventually came back to Toyama in 1964 to take over the business.
According to the craftsman, a recipient of the Oju-Hosho (Medal With Yellow Ribbon), it was not very difficult to master the techniques, but creating designs proved challenging. The designs of sunago works are governed by certain rules and many artisans have followed the convention. Nagaoka, however, does not follow convention, and says, “It is not fun to do the same things other people have been doing for centuries. I want to create something people today can enjoy in their daily life.”
Nagaoka has brought unconventional design to the art of sunago. One of the things he does is cover the entire surface with oxidized silver foil first, and then add gold and silver to it. By doing so, a more subdued beauty, reminiscent of a subtle painting is created, despite the flashy sheen of the materials. “Although sunago subdues the gloss, gold and silver can make the work look too gaudy depending on how they are used,” he says.
His customers include companies and local government offices, as well as individuals. Even former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone ordered a folding screen to display for his official talks with former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1983.
“I seldom make something I really like, but creating is always fun. I have never regretted my decision [to become a sunago craftsman]. I think it is my calling. Now I cannot do anything else,” he says proudly.
Seijudo: 1851 Fukuno-cho, HigashiTonami-gun, Toyama. Call (0763) 22-2607, for more information (only in Japanese). The prices of folding screens range from 1.5 million yen to over 2 million yen depending on the size. Small panels are less than 100,000 yen.