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Champion of craftsmen on mission to showcase Japan’s masters online

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Staff Writer

Keigo Omaki, director of the video website Nippon Teshigoto Zukan (Japan Handwork Encyclopedia), has an almost addictive interest in traditional items made by Japanese craftsmen, and he’s not sure why.

“Maybe it’s because I played baseball when I was young. It taught me the importance of taking good care of the equipment,” Omaki says.

These days he travels nationwide interviewing craftsman and filming their work to archive traditional skills and processes.

Traditional crafts are “not only good in quality, but the stories behind each craft add extra value to it,” he says.

Showing his Koshu-inden business card holder made of deer leather, he explains: “This may appear equivalent to synthetic leather to many people, because there a few opportunities to look at traditional crafts. That’s how I came up with the idea of introducing the works of craftsman through videos. Since there were no such media, I decided to start it myself.”

Omaki, 38, launched the website in January 2015 as a project within his IT company Fastcom Inc., with a team of six videographers. Established in 2010, Fastcom is strong in web development, and Omaki’s project is their latest product.

The team was driven by a sense of crisis that craftsmen are on the verge of disappearing from Japan.

“There is always a craftsman behind a craftsman, who makes certain tools necessary to make crafts,” Omaki says. “For example, there are no more craftsmen who make a tool called a pincer used to make shoes. It’s these types of craftsmen who need successors right away. The last craftsman who makes shuttles to weave Nishijin-ori silk fabric is in his 80s and is about to retire.”

Born in Azumino, Nagano Prefecture, known for its rich nature highlighted by the Hida Mountains, Omaki grew up in an environment where he had access to the region’s culture and tradition. He often visited a grandmother who labored in a workshop creating Shinto household altars, and he created his own crafts with scraps that were given to him.

Growing up, he dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player but a hernia prevented him from playing in high school.

“Then I tried becoming a sports journalist,” he says, adding that although he now covers a different field, he still has the same passion for telling stories, and finds importance in preserving his country’s traditions.

“There is little opportunity for people, especially in urban areas, to grow up learning and knowing about traditional crafts. I’d like to offer that opportunity through our videos.”

The videos usually run less than 10 minutes. They capture the working process of craftsmen from various angles, and feature detailed interviews with them talking passionately about their techniques as well as their background.

A letterpress printing company in Yokohama and a pewter ware workshop in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefectures, are two of the operations covered by the project.

Omaki says the interviews are the most important element of the videos.

“On top of their skills, we want to archive the character of the craftsmen so we make it a rule to include interviews. The rest is up to each videographer.”

Unlike TV programs that do not allow secondary usage, Omaki gives the videos to the interviewees free of charge. They are often used on websites and screened at craft exhibits during trade fairs.

Other than producing videos, Nippon Teshigoto Zukan has recently collected funds through the crowdfunding website A-Port to work on a project to provide people — especially children — with a chance to make field trips to traditional workshops.

“I decided to launch the project after receiving an email from a mother who watched our videos with her son, an elementary school second-grader,” Omaki says. “The boy dreams of becoming a basketball player but told the mother that becoming a craftsman would be his second choice.”

He says most craftsmen who did not get their start by taking over the family business had an experience visiting such workshops when they were small. “It would be great to make more people aware that such careers are an option.”

Omaki said Nippon Teshigoto Zukan will be launching new services in autumn using funds that will be provided by the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency in September or October. The agency has been granting annual subsidies to roughly 100 businesses and services deemed new and innovative since 2013.

Omaki is planning to start three web services. The first is a recruitment service that will allow craftsmen to post job openings. He says craftsmen often can’t afford mainstream job-hunting websites such as Rikunabi and that he is aiming to start one that will require job seekers to provide a certain amount of money.

The second is an online shop exclusively for traditional crafts. Omaki says popular online shopping malls such as Rakuten or Amazon are not appropriate platforms for such products, as they emphasize larger quantities and lower prices.

The third is a real estate service dedicated to information on vacant homes.

According to the latest statistics from the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, 13.5 percent of all residences, or roughly 8.2 million houses across Japan, were going unused as of 2013. It was the highest rate on record.

“Many local governments are happy just by having young people move in, and are offering vacant homes to be used for free. That’s why I wanted to start a service where young people can search for vacant homes to use them as workshops or ateliers,” Omaki says.

Although the Nippon Teshigoto Zukan project has yet to turn a profit, he says it has become a great PR tool for his company in landing more lucrative contracts, such as filming promotional videos for local governments.

In 2015, Omaki’s team worked on videos for Kazuno, Akita Prefecture, and Nagano Prefecture. This year the team produced a video for Ebina, Kanagawa Prefecture.

“It’s usually unthinkable for municipalities to be offering projects to a small team like us, and it has been a great achievement,” he says.

Hopeful that the new business will bring in steady funds to the website, Omaki says he would like to recruit more videographers in the future.

“I’ve been told by many people that they’d like to help out, but I couldn’t take them up on the offer because it was simply impossible to pay them. I don’t want them just volunteering and making no money.”

However, he adds, “I know there are many videographers who are interested in traditional Japanese crafts, and I appreciate it. I would like to be able to offer them a bit of cash and have them helping us out.”

To view the videos, visit nippon-teshigoto.jp .

“Generational Change” is a series of interviews that appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp .