Japan’s leather industry, almost as tough as old boots

by Cameron Allan Mckean

Special To The Japan Times

“Everyone says their products are ‘made in Japan,’ ” says Katsuhiko Nakano. “But it’s not really true. I doubt it.”

In his east Tokyo workshop, across the Sumida river from Asakusa Station, Nakano is surrounded on all sides by handmade bags and tools for leatherwork. He is one of the few leather craftsmen in the city who still make goods by hand. But to be honest, he’s not sure if he is comfortable being called a “craftsman.”

Local governments in both Taito and Sumida wards — the two districts in Tokyo with a strong history of leather work — are trying to revitalize local crafts and small-scale manufacturing. In the past decade they’ve helped support small-scale manufacturers in a number of ways, including the opening of Taito Designers Village in 2004, an old school transformed into a collection of studios where makers can develop skills and relationships with local craftspeople. The goal is to encourage a new generation of local makers. To the north of Asakusa Station is the Asakusa Manufacturing Studio and Taito Ward Industrial Training Center, which provides facilities for local leatherworkers and creators. This was the location of the A-Round craft and manufacturing festival in November last year.

Tokyo Art Navigation (tokyoartnavi.jp/english/spot/033/index.html), run by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, describes the Designers Village as, in particular, an initiative with the “power … to vitalize this community of handicrafts manufacturers.”

“I have friends at the Designers Village,” says Keito Enomoto, a 26 year old apprentice from Osaka, who has come to Tokyo to begin work as a leather craftsman, “most of them are designers.”

But something “designed in Japan,” is not the same as being “made in Japan,” Enomoto continues. “Some of these designers think that whatever they design is good enough to be mass produced, but they haven’t perfected the craft.”

Nakano also feels that the government-funded projects aren’t quite getting it right.

Which parts of goods need to be actually made in Japan for them to be considered “made in Japan?” Increasingly a “revived craft industry” is one where craftspeople are paired with designers — a formula that has had success in a number of places, particularly in Tsubame-Sanjo, a town in Niigata Prefecture that has a design-focused festival featuring its small-scale manufacturers. The problem is that more people are becoming designers, but there is no second generation of craftspeople. And so production is being moved overseas. Made in China, designed in Japan isn’t a prediction. In the leather industry, it’s already happened.

Nakano entered the leather industry with a job at a Saitama factory, in the suburban sprawl north of Tokyo. His work involved checking the quality of leather bags that had been made cheaply in China and shipped to Japan, he says. Once checked, the bags were sent to brands, some of which had their own “made in Japan” labels sewn into them. It’s a far cry from the image of the apprentice toiling away in his master’s workshop.

“I saw so many craftspeople whose kids didn’t want to continue the business,” says Nakano. Saving money became difficult. “No one wanted to pay the craftsmen fair prices,” he says, “there was just too much (alternative) stuff.”

Many gave up to become taxi drivers as “production was moved to China,” he says. “But I thought, ‘I could do this; I could make money from this.’ ”

And, against all odds, he has — as the only worker at His-Factory, a brand that produces handmade leather bags sold at his own store.

The wider culture of leather goods made by craftsmen in Asakusa, however, has gone. Revitalization is not just about making things in Japan; it’s also about reviving some nostalgic feelings about the past. But what version of history are these local initiatives trying to bring back?

In the same building that hosted the A-Round festival is Asakusa’s Industrial Leather Museum. Waiting at a small desk inside the quiet space is Minori Inagawa, a retired shoemaker and one of Japan’s leading writers on leatherwork.

“I was born in 1929, so I’ve seen everything,” says Inagawa. “You can ask me anything.”

After explaining a story about the origin of the first shoe factory in Japan — involving a handsome samurai called Nishimura Katsuzo — he tells a different story.

For 13 generations, a succession of men controlled Japan’s marginalized leather industry, each known by the official name of Danzaemon, until 1871, when the 13th and final Danzaemon, named Dan Naoki, was stripped of the title. The Danzaemon were in sole charge of leather work, not due to any special skill, but because they were responsible for the social class of people who worked the leather. Yes, social class. The leatherworkers were part of a caste that were known by a number of derogatory names. In the feudal era, they were called the eta (which meant “full of filth”), and later hinin (“non-human”) and buraku (“hamlet” people, a term that became a slur), all of which referred to roughly the same thing: outcaste, which to others meant tainted or dirty. Although they were officially liberated from their low caste in 1871, a number of the descendents of this group still live around Asakusa, and are still marginalized.

The “dirty” and difficult leather work performed in these areas gave the districts a notoriously foul smell, which forced the last Danzaemon’s leather workshops further and further out. But he wasn’t pushed out just because of the smell.

“The stench of the buraku is not the stench of leather,” writes novelist Noma Hiroshi in “Seinen no wa,” (“Ring of Youth”), a five-volume series featuring buraku. “It is the stench of Japanese history.”

Leather in Asakusa today is no longer tainted with the stench of animal hides or oppression. But many versions of its history remain linked to the land here, and with them the complicated question of how to revive the right version to help revitalize the area.

In his Asakusa workshop, Nakano tries to articulate what he thinks is needed.

“Dirt and mud,” he finally says. “The work today is missing soul, the kind of soul that you pull up with your hands.” A certain unpolished, primordial stench that comes from something well-made and hand-made.

“People have forgotten what well-made means,” says Nakano, “even the makers have forgotten, too.”

To see the kind of products made at Katsuhiko Nakano’s His-factory, visit www.his-factory.com, or visit the shop at 1-16-5, Azumabashi, Sumida-ku, Tokyo.

  • http://www.leatherworldtech.com/ Leatherworld Tech

    The enviro group suggested that because of that risk, leather products
    should be designated hazardous waste and be managed accordingly.