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Hida lacquer artisans seek successors to preserve technique

Chunichi Shimbun

Hida Shunkei lacquer work, a traditional craft based in Hida, Gifu Prefecture, is at risk of fading away because its masters are having serious difficulty finding successors to keep it alive amid weak sales.

To improve the situation, the Hida Shunkei Association Cooperative has started sharing the unique techniques used in each process with all of its members.

The first skill the artisans shared was “hegime,” which involves carving lines along the grain lines in wood. There are precious few craftsman left who possess this skill.

Usually, they will only pass their techniques on to their apprentices, and it is extremely rare for them to share the knowledge with others.

“We have to do what we can do now to ensure that our knowledge will not be lost in the future,” explained association director Yukio Tozawa, 79.

The first Hida Shunkei lacquerware ever made is said to have been a tray made from “sawara” cypress.

Hida Shunkei lacquerware was designated a traditional craft in 1975.

It is characterized by graceful grains and pliably curved wooden boards that have been used to produce trays, tea sets and other items.

The members of the association include the craftsmen who work on the wood and the coating, and the wholesalers who handle the product planning and sales.

In the past, each craftsman considered his own technique top secret and kept it hidden from outsiders.

At its peak almost 25 years ago, the association had more than 100 members. That has shrunk by two-thirds over the past 20 years amid the nation’s changing lifestyles and economic upheavals. Sales are down by around 70 percent.

Its members range in age from 50 to 80, but it hasn’t welcomed a new member since 1989.

One of Tozawa’s goals is to expand the artisans’ sales channels for the lacquerware.

“But at the same time we need to pass on our skills as well, or they will die out,” he added with concern.

Hegime is a special skill even among Hida Shunkei artisans. It involves using a knife to carefully carve lines into wooden boards to make the grain patterns stand out.

There are only two craftsmen who possess this skill — one is in his 60s and the other is in his 70s.

“Even if they take on an apprentice, it will still take him four to five years to master the technique,” explained 63-year-old Yoshiro Kobora, an expert in traditional Japanese crafts.

The association’s plan is to get artisans who are involved in the other processes of creating Hida Shunkei lacquerware to visit Kobora on a regular basis and study his hegime technique.

“It is true that by letting others learn this, it may reduce the number of job offers I get, but I will put such thoughts aside and teach the others so that the technique of hegime will be passed on,” Kobora said.

The association will look at other processes involved in Hida Shunkei for the possibility of sharing their techniques as well.

“Hida Shunkei exists as an art form because of these craftsmen. I think we can also improve our techniques by sharing our knowledge,” Tozawa said.

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Jan. 25.