The new look of Japanese artisans

Manufacturing town Tsubamesanjo crafts a modern image for its ailing factories

by Cameron Allan Mckean

Special To The Japan Times

Machi-kōba is the name given to small, city factories in Japan, usually operated by a family, or a handful of craftspeople. While traditional Japanese crafts slowly gather dust in museums (or are regularly dusted in department stores), the baton of the “unknown craftsman” and the “everyday object” has been passed on to these factories. But that doesn’t mean business is good.

Two decades of economic trouble have taken their toll, and manufacturing is heading offshore as Japan tries to re-invent itself as a knowledge economy. These machi-kōba produce all kinds of industrial items and everyday goods: Teapots, cardboard boxes, scissors, tofu, glass cups, automotive parts, knives and cutlery are a few examples, but there are thousands of unique items being manufactured in these spaces.

For five days this October, one of the largest open-factory festivals took place in Niigata Prefecture. Fighting local apathy, changing ideas about design, and an economy that suggests that manufacturing is on its way out, Kouba Fes (“Factory Festival”) opened the doors to 54 machi-kōba in Tsubamesanjo, an old metalworking town attempting a revival through design.

There is a higher density of machi-kōba in Tsubamesanjo than almost anywhere else in Japan. “We say there are more bosses here than anywhere else,” joked Tadayuki Sone, president of local knife manufacturer Tadafusa. “And since bosses of factories like to do their business in bars, there are more bars here per capita than anywhere else in Japan, too.”

According to Miki Koike, president of How, the PR company for Kouba Fes, about 11,000 people attended the festival, which is not a massive number when you think of the millions that attend the blockbuster art festivals in Japan. But it is impressive when you consider that Tsubamesanjo is one of the few places in Japan with almost no tourist attractions.

The 11,000 visitors were free to navigate between the 54 factories in any way they saw fit. For those without cars, a free shuttle bus was provided. Arriving at your destination — perhaps the copperware factory, Gyokusendo, or the tofu maker Gankotoufu Sakuma, or the cardboard box maker Hiroshi Aiba— you were greeted by a worker who would take you through the factory and explain their tools and working process.

At Gyokusendo, that role fell to marketing manager Ritsu Yamada, who tried to explain the method for hand-crafting pots over the din of visitors hammering away on copper. “This is the first time for the factory festival, but I’m hoping there will be a second and a third,” he said.

Gyokusendo’s workshop is almost everything you’d expect, and hope to see, from a small-scale factory: old and rustic (with a fire roaring), a partially broken roof and full of mysterious tools and ephemera. On the festival’s last day, Gyokusendo was alive with movement and noise. In the very back room, Keita Tamagawa, a young employee, was coating copper tea pots in silver by himself. It’s a job given to new workers. “I’m 19, I just got married,” he said, very quietly. “I’ve been working here since March and I want to use these skills to make artworks.”

Many workers at machi-kōba, however, see themselves in a dead-end, redundant industry. Organiser Yu Yamada had a hard time convincing them that what they were doing was interesting and that people would be curious to see their factories and even watch them working.

Yamada and Sone organized this event after a successful collaboration between Sone’s knife company, Tadafusa, and a designer in Nara three years ago. The collaboration resulted in a beautiful, minimally designed knife set that included a bread knife, which was previously not part of Tadafusa’s product line (Japan has no traditional bread knives because it has no traditional bread). Unusually, the collaboration was funded by the municipal of government in Tsubamesanjo, and then repeated a year later owing to the success of the first year. For the third year, in 2013, Yamada was brought to produce another collaboration, but the team decided on something larger.

What they came up with was a first for Japan. Though factories have opened their doors to the public before, the idea to create a “festival” and the way it has been designed and organized, make the event noteworthy.

Thanks to designer Hirokazu Kobayashi, the website and guide pamphlet looked as though they were promoting a contemporary art festival, not factories. The bright pink stripes that were used as a design feature also instantly destroyed any connotations with that old unknown craftsperson silently toiling away in the dark.

“I wanted this festival to be on the same level as those big art festivals in Japan, like Echigo Tsumari or Setouichi Triennale,” said Yamada, who was also an organizer of Tokyo’s now defunct DesignTide fair.

“There is already this treasure here,” he said, referring to the industrial crafts of Tsubamesanjo. “There is meaning in bringing energy to something that already exists.”

By owning its own revival, Tsubamesanjo is changing the face of small-scale factories in Japan through good design.