For Ryuichi Kumakura, a 70-year-old cut-glass artisan, finding young workers eager to learn and preserve the traditional Japanese craft is the least of his troubles — showing them how to engrave exquisite pieces of glassware with precision is what matters most.
Having a decent “business mind that evolves with the times” is also vital in the field of traditional crafts, he says. Kumakura began selling Edo-kiriko hand-cut glass directly to customers about 30 years ago. It was a rare move back then for the industry to rely on a wholesale system while artisans themselves focused on production.
Edo-kiriko is a type of traditional cut glass originating in Edo (the former name of Tokyo) toward the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868). “Kiriko” means “faceted” in Japanese, and refers to the multitude of decorative patterns that are engraved on the surface of the glass using grindstones and other tools. Using only rough outlines as guides, artisans carve the detailed but accurate lines freehand.
For his original kometsunagi, or rice chain pattern, Kumakura subtly varies the size of the tiny rice grains he engraves. It is hard to tell the difference, but herein lies the secret of the exquisite pattern.
“Engraving 1 millimeter off (the line where it should be) would kill my work,” he says. “We’re in a world where 0.1 millimeter matters a lot.”
Such skill has been noticed, with Kumakura’s kometsunagi pattern wine glasses being selected by the government as gifts to world leaders at the Group of Eight summit in Hokkaido in 2008 and for foreign dignitaries on other occasions.
Unlike many traditional craft workshops, which have been plagued by a shortage of successors, Kumakura’s workshop in the Kameido neighborhood of Tokyo’s Koto Ward is full of young men and women aspiring to learn and master his techniques. As a mentor, he dismisses the wisdom offered by many traditional craftspeople that newcomers must learn by “stealing” seniors’ techniques through careful observation.
“It’s so outdated,” says Kumakura, who holds an extra training session every week after work to help his young staff hone their skills. “Our studio’s motto is accuracy and speed.”
According to the Edo-kiriko Cooperative Association, the origin of Edo-kiriko can be traced back to 1834, when the master craftsman Kagaya Kyubei, who was working at a glassware store in Edo, made an engraving on a surface of glass with an emery grinder. Later, such cut glass was also produced in Satsuma, now Kagoshima Prefecture, under the leadership of Shimazu Nariakira, a Satsuma Domain feudal lord.
Satsuma-kiriko soon gained a reputation for its quality but, according to local Satsuma-kiriko artisans, production came to a halt not long after the death of the lord in 1858 and the destruction of factories during the Bombardment of Kagoshima (also known as the Anglo-Satsuma War) in 1863.
The present style of Edo-kiriko was established after a group of Japanese craftspeople took lessons from a visiting English cut-glass technician in 1881.
While Satsuma-kiriko disappeared for more than a century before local craftsmen revived production in the mid-1980s, Edo-kiriko survived in artisans’ workshops in Tokyo. It was designated by the government as an official traditional craft in 2002.
Today, around 90 Edo-kiriko craft workers still practice their art in workshops, which are mostly located in Koto and nearby wards just to the east of central Tokyo. While Kumakura’s studio faces no shortage of young workers ready to carry on his craft, the overall traditional crafts industry in Japan still faces a shortage of successors.The Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries states that the number of people engaged in industries designated by the government as traditional crafts fell to 64,889 in 2015, less than one-fourth of the level seen in 1979.
Japan’s 230 designated traditional crafts are mostly produced by individuals or small firms. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry warns that changing lifestyles and the influx of cheap imports has placed the craft industry in a “critical situation,” with fewer artisans able to pass on traditional production skills to the next generation,.
Customer preferences have changed with the times, says Kumakura. Fewer Japanese houses have a Japanese-style tatami room, which typically has a tokonoma display space, and the demand for large flower vases and decorative dishes has dropped. Instead, practical items such as sake and wine glasses have become the vogue, he says.
Kumakura’s family business, founded by his father, Mokichi, has been manufacturing glassware for about 70 years. He opened his own retail store, called Hanashyo, in the ’80s, following the bankruptcy of a glass company to which he used to supply products. His products gradually built up a reputation through word of mouth. The store’s sales grew 2½-fold over the past decade and most of the customers return often. The store, he says, helps him keep in touch with what customers want. Small sake glasses sold in various colors at his shop cost from around ¥9,000 to ¥120,000.
His studio now employs 10 men and women, mostly in their 20s and 30s. One staff member, Kazuki Yusa, 27, says at the beginning of his glass-carving career he had trouble figuring out how to blink while keeping his eyes focused.
“We have to watch the center of the blade (of a motor-powered wheel) through glass but I couldn’t see it at all in the beginning,” he says. “I forgot to blink as I was concentrating on (the center) so much.”
Kumakura’s studio uses its own engraving equipment and polishing method for a brilliant finish. He also doesn’t hesitate to collaborate with other traditional artisans of different genres and has worked with an Arita-yaki ceramics maker in Saga Prefecture to create a lamp with an Edo-kiriko shade and ceramic base.
“We make unique patterns and products using our original techniques,” he says. “I believe they aren’t something that can be copied easily.”