In early November, Kazuo Yoshihara, an antiques expert with a 30-year career in the field, carefully opened a scroll painting in a room at the 14th Yokohama Kotto World fair.
Located at the Pacifico Yokohama event venue, Yoshihara was at the fair giving free appraisals to items that were brought in by curious attendees. He examined the scroll of a plant for a few minutes, then made his judgment.
“This scroll is for tea-ceremony rooms,” Yoshihara explained to Hiroshi Yoneyama, the scroll’s owner, who had inherited it from his late grandfather, a farmer in Nagano Prefecture.
“I don’t know how valuable the picture scroll is,” said Yoneyama, “so I brought it here to be appraised.”
After looking at the scroll painting and checking the author’s autograph, Yoshihara said the painting was drawn by Japanese painter Katei Kodama (1840- 1913). “This has a value of ¥300,000,” he decided. “Bigger works by Kodama are priced ¥5 million to ¥8 million. Some of his works are exhibited in museums.”
Yoneyama looked very happy and said he would keep the scroll as a treasure.
The next appraisal was for a picture scroll handed down to me from my great grandfather. With much expectation, I handed it to Yoshihara, who opened the picture scroll and examined it.
“This figure is shoki-sama, a god who keeps evil spirits away,” Yoshihara said, looking at the artist’s autograph. “But I don’t know the name of the artist.” After a pause he added, “Please don’t be surprised. It’s worth only ¥1,000.”
Only ¥1,000? Yoshihara sympathetically explained that the work appeared to be drawn by unknown painter from the Meiji Era (1868-1911), a time when there were many amateur artists who painted such scrolls.
Although I was disappointed by the scroll’s value, I consoled myself by thinking that at least the god on the scroll would protect me from harm. Pulling myself together, I walked to the fair floor to look for real treasures. One of the biggest antique markets in Japan, the Yokohama Kotto World fair featured about 250 antique (kotto) shops from across the country that were displaying more than 30,000 items.
There were hundreds-of-years-old Korean ceramics, a gold necklace from 1920s England and a plate from the 1980s Japan with illustrations of pop characters, all for sale in the same hall. Walking into shops full of such things, I found real art and the kind of junk that would only be considered a precious for certain collectors, such as a ragged uniform from the Japanese Imperial Army.
Antique shops bring to my mind cautious-looking proprietors who evaluate new customers with an unfriendly eye, yet the fair was lively and laid back. About 15,000 people came to the three-day-long event, according to Tadayoshi Takehi, the event organizer. Takehi, who has run an antique shop in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward for some 30 years, said that he has organized Yokohama Kotto World twice a year since 2002.
While a number of antique markets have been held across Japan nowadays, the history of antique fairs in the Kanto area is fairly new. Although curio markets have been held in temples in Kyoto, including a monthly market that’s been running at Toji Temple since 1239, the first antique market in Kanto was held in Tokyo in 1977 by Takehi’s father, Chuji Takehi, now 88, and his fellow antique-shop owners.
Chuji, who had a shop in Tokyo’s Nippori, started the event to provide young antique dealers a place to sell their items and to make antiques more popular among the general public. Since then, the number of outdoor and indoor antique markets taking place across the country on weekends have increased, according to the younger Takehi.
Recently, he has seen more retired baby boomers begin their own businesses based on their personal collections.
“By buying and selling old goods, the seniors can reflect on their lives,” he says. “It’s enjoyable.”
One of such retirees is Katsuyo Kishi, a 63-year-old former court secretary. Kishi said she opened her own shop of old kimono in Shinjuku last year. Showing an elegant furisode (long-sleeved kimono) priced at ¥25,000, Kishi said she sells old kimono at reasonable prices because she wants more young people to wear them. A new furisode sold in department stores is usually priced ¥300,000 or more.
“The number of women wearing kimono, from in their late 20s to 40s, has increased in recent years,” Kishi said. “Many foreigners, as well, understand the value of Japanese traditional clothes.”
It has become a fact that many foreigners now know the arts of Japan better than the average Japanese.
Joel M. Barish, who teaches internal medicine at Tokyo Medical and Dental University in Tokyo, said he has been interested in Japanese ceramics since he lived in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture when he was 12 years old.
“When I see Japanese ceramics, I see in my eyes two categories,” the 66-year-old American doctor said. “I see shibui yakimono (subdued-style ceramic ware), which is Bizen and Shigaraki (the names of production areas), for example. I see more busy work, Kutani, Satsuma, Imari and Arita. And I prefer shibui, more quiet, more subtle.”
Barish said he has collected some 1,300 ceramic works, of which half are ochawan (cups for the tea ceremony). Given his experience buying ceramics, he also knows a lot about antique dealers.
“If you go to mainland Asia, there is always negotiation. Here, generally, the dealers do not negotiate much,” Barish said, because “Japanese dealers absolutely understand what they have. These are smart people who know their stuff.” Barish says Japanese culture is another reason why dealers in the country don’t negotiate much.
“You have to be polite here. If somebody asks for ¥200,000, and I say ¥50,000, that’s insulting, and that’s not polite. I would not do that,” he said.
While Barish was enjoying the Yokohama event, he said his favorite antique fair is at Heiwajima in Ota, Tokyo, which will he held again this December. Started in 1978, it is the oldest indoor antique fair and one of the biggest curio markets in Japan.
Heiwajima Antiques Fair will be held Dec. 19-21 at the Tokyo Ryutsu Center (Tokyo Monorail’s Tokyo Ryutsu Center Station). For more information visit www.kottouichi.com The next Yokohama Kotto World is April 24-26 at Pacifico Yokohama.