A tradition that’s all pinned down

by Kazuko Ide

To decorate one’s hair with morning glories, complete with a tiny snail on one leaf, may not be everyone’s idea of chic. However, if they are fashioned by Tsuyoshi Ishida out of sheer silk, it is another matter.

“The key step is creating the design,” said Ishida, a third-generation craftsman of tsumami kanzashi, a type of ornamental hairpin worn with the kimono. Along with his father Kenji, he is one of the 15 or so craftsmen around Japan who carries on the tradition dating back to the Edo Period, over 200 years ago. According to 1877 statistics, there were 1,000 kanzashi makers in Tokyo alone.

The craft is characterized by two techniques for “pinching” (tsumamu) the dyed silk which is cut into small squares. Working on his dining table at home in Shinjuku Ward, Ishida first spreads starch adhesive liberally on a small wooden board. Using a pair of tweezers, he picks up a piece of green silk measuring 1 sq. cm, folds it diagonally three times, gives it a sharp crease with a flick of the tweezers and places the tiny triangle on the starch. This is “square pinching,” as opposed to “round pinching,” which produces a softer effect.

Some 134 pinches later, the 40-year-old craftsman is ready to mount the pieces on seven cardboard leaves. When the dried leaves and three Styrofoam balls that are covered with red silk are assembled with silk threads, the nanten hairpin is done. The delicate work is priced at 25,000 yen.

Flowers of the season, goldfish and butterflies are some of the popular motifs of kanzashi. Part of the Ishida family’s collection is shown in a display case set up inside the entrance of their home. A ward-designated “mini-museum,” it is open to the public two days a week.

While most of his work adorns the coiffures of kimono-clad girls celebrating their Shichi-go-san, the festival occasion of turning 3, 5 or 7, he also makes kanzashi in subtler hues for older women. One of Ishida’s clients is a Japanese doll maker, who asked him to make miniature hairpins for her creations. Most of the kanzashi made in western Japan are made for young geisha, maiko dancers and bunraku dolls.

As a craftsman living in the age of the Internet, Ishida opened his Web site in 1997 in hopes of “making the craft known.” The colorful site is linked to the sites of other craftsmen as well as a Kyoto-based geisha. He also offers classes to the public between February and June, when he is less busy.

“Since tsumami kanzashi is a craft unique to Japan, we can present them proudly anywhere,” said the elder Ishida, who has shown his skills in many countries, including China, Portugal and the United States.

Yet the craft also has a sad past. The production of kanzashi (a “luxury item”) was banned during World War II. During the postwar years when silk was scarce, craftsmen used silk Hinomaru flags as material. The flags had become redundant because the Occupation forces put a stop to raising the flag and singing “Kimigayo,” the traditional national anthem.

“It is so pitiful when you have to cut up your own country’s flag. The era when the kanzashi sells is a peaceful era,” he said.

A customer recently commissioned the Ishidas to create a “millennium kanzashi.” Reflecting their hope for peace and the preservation of nature, the work features an elegant bird on a backdrop of chrysanthemum blossoms.