Despite a decline in the handmade craft industry, especially with a lack of young people to pass the baton to in recent years, the Expo Milano 2015 that kicked off May 1 is a big chance for densan, or traditional Japanese handcrafted products, to promote their charm and elaborate workmanship to the world.
“The key is innovation. With a touch of innovation, traditional crafts can live on, making products that can appeal to a changing society, both in Japan and abroad,” said Masaaki Sakai, managing director of the Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries in Tokyo’s Minato Ward.
Techniques to make handcrafted household items have been passed down from one generation to the next for more than 100 years, with each item having its own unique regional characteristics.
However, crafts manufactured using traditional methods and materials are facing hard times due to changing lifestyles and the development of new materials.
To address this, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry enacted a law in 1974, with the intention of promoting traditional craft industries and continuing the legacy of those crafts designated by the ministry as densan.
To date, 219 items have been chosen from all over Japan, ranging from different types of textiles, lacquerware, bamboo, woodcraft and metalwork to Buddhist altars, wooden kokeshi dolls, and washi paper.
At the expo, a variety of densan will be on display at the Japan Pavilion, where guests can see firsthand the beauty of raw materials and the skill involved in products from all over Japan.
Visitors can also enjoy shopping at the pop-up shop set up outside the expo venue in Milan.
Sakai says that this is an experimental shop, which he hopes will lead to opening stores in the future in big cities like Paris, New York and Dubai.
He said that three craftsmen in their 30s and 40s — two of whom are women — will be at the expo and will take turns demonstrating their techniques, alongside the product displays. The three are lacquerware, bamboo and metal artisans.
The association, which was founded in 1975, holds several programs throughout the year to promote densan, while raising awareness and demand for these products in Japan and abroad.
Crafts designated as densan under the law can apply for projects funded by the economy ministry, and seek advice such as what kind of products will sell in today’s market.
One of the projects sends designers to production areas to collaborate with craftsmen on new product ideas.
For a craft to be designated densan, the association says it must satisfy the following five criteria: The item must be used mainly in everyday life; the parts of the craft that greatly influence its features should be made mostly by hand; the craft must have a manufacturing history of at least 100 years and must be made with traditional techniques that continue to be used today; the main raw materials must have been used continuously for more than 100 years; and regional enterprises that produce the craft should maintain a certain scale — with at least 10 enterprises or 30 people engaged in manufacturing — and should be established as a local industry.
It’s important for craftsmen to get advice, but what’s most important, Sakai says, is the willingness of them to create something new.
“Craftsmen must improve their skills even further and create unique products that are made especially for each customer,” he added, saying that the younger generation in Japan and customers from abroad, especially Europe, are looking for more stylish and modern versions of the products.
On the other hand, he said, there is still a niche market for the more traditionally made products, such as Buddhist altars that are popular among the Chinese.
He explained that although altars don’t sell well in Japan today, as they are expensive and many households are too small to have them, they are popular among Chinese customers, who favor the glittering gold altars made with Japanese lacquerware, wood or metalwork.
He said that craftsmen should challenge themselves and go abroad and find business opportunities there, as globalization is a social phenomenon that cannot be stopped.
“It’s important for each artisan to go out and learn what the changing demands of the people are, and expand the market today,” he said.
He said that without exception, craftsmen who have succeeded are those that have adapted their skills to create new and innovative products that are slightly different from the originals.
For example, Nambu Tekki, or traditional ironware, from Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, is one such craft that has succeeded in creating a completely new series of teapots that have caught on among foreigners.
Japanese iron tea kettles have been painted in bright colors, transforming the traditional kettles into stylish kitchen pieces. The craft, which has a four-century history, has adapted itself successfully and, after seeing popularity in France, has gradually spread throughout Europe.
Takaoka Doki (copperware) from Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture, has also found success abroad, making unique products that can be bent and made into different containers such as vases — an innovation created in collaboration with Andreu Carulla, a renowned young Spanish industrial designer.
“In the five years until the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, there’s a chance for densan products to expand their market,” said Sakai, as the world “will have a favorable eye on Tokyo and Japan as a whole during this period.”
“Japan today is full of mass-produced products and everything is homogenized, but I feel that in a global market, there is demand for handmade products for everyday use. In this case, craftsmen can provide those customers a unique product that can never be mass produced,” said Sakai.
“These products are not made using the most advanced technology, but are made carefully, with a sincere heart. I feel this is truly special.”