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Craftsmen keep alive hair ornaments that were all the rage in Edo Period

by Hiroko Nakata

The display of fine Japanese hair ornaments at Tsumami-Kanzashi Museum in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward illustrates a small world of plums, cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums, chestnuts, bees and phoenixes created with pieces of colorful silk.

The showcase is placed at the entrance to a workplace where craftsmen Tsuyoshi Ishida, his father, Kenji, and brother, Takashi, are producing the hairpins daily.

“Tsumami-kanzashi,” a type of “kanzashi,” or traditional Japanese hair ornament, stands out in its delicate features, which are crafted by pinching 1-sq.-cm pieces of dyed silk with tweezers to turn them into the shape of flower petals, leaves, and even traditional motifs like flower wagons and treasure boats.

Since 1993, members of the Ishida family have displayed their artwork for visitors twice a week while maintaining and developing their unique skill in the adjoining workplace.

“They are unique accessories only seen in Japan. Visitors from abroad are often surprised by the works and say they are gorgeous,” Ishida said. “Tsumami-kanzashi are bright in color, so they are particularly good for special ceremonies.”

Tsumami-kanzashi became popular during the Edo Period (1603-1867) among young women.

But as their lifestyle changed during Japan’s modernization, public demand for kanzashi decreased along with that for kimono.

Now there are reportedly fewer than 100 kanzashi craftsmen in Japan, and only about 15 who can create tsumami-kanzashi, Ishida said.

About 70 percent to 80 percent of the Ishida family’s overall sales comes from kanzashi used for “shichigosan,” the celebration for children who are 3, 5 and 7 years old. These pieces generally cost 5,000 yen to 20,000 yen.

The remaining sales are for other ceremonies, including New Year’s Day, Coming-of-Age Day and college commencements.

But for a family running a traditional craft business, managing a museum in addition is a difficult duty.

All the tsumami-kanzashi works are handmade. The Ishida family can produce about five simple pieces a day, but it takes several days to create one with a complicated design.

There are about 20 to 30 pieces of tsumami-kanzashi in the showcase at a time, and the Ishidas need to replace their display once every six months because silk loses its original color quickly.

Unlike other types of kanzashi using metal, coral and tortoise-shell “bekko,” tsumami-kanzashi is fragile because silk pieces are stuck to hairpins with a traditional paste made of rice.

“After displaying them for half a year, the works can’t be sold to customers anymore,” Ishida said.

Precious kanzashi are sometimes handed down from mothers to daughters. One time, a woman asked the craftsmen to repair a kanzashi, which had been used by her mother, so she could give it to her daughter.

The beauty of the traditional hairpins appeals to an increasing number of people, particularly women, Ishida said. Between February and June, the family opens half-day introductory classes teaching ways to create a small piece of the hair ornaments. About 100 people apply for these seminars annually.

While it takes five to 10 years to become a professional craftsman of tsumami-kanzashi, it is important to get more people interested in these traditional works, Ishida said.