“There are some craftspeople in Japan who don’t really know how to get their name out there in the world, or are so involved in their craft, they don’t have the time or interest in promoting it,” says Irwin Wong, the author of “Handmade in Japan: The Pursuit of Perfection in Traditional Crafts.”
“That’s not to say they aren’t keen to share their work, though. It was surprisingly easy to visit them, talk to them and take photos.”
Wong, an editorial and commercial photographer based in Tokyo, humbly says that he is “by no means an expert” on Japan’s traditional crafts. “Handmade in Japan,” he explains, is the culmination of a personal project that began with taking photos of craftspeople he admired, and developed into a strong desire to help promote them to a wider audience.
“I was once sent to photograph a kimono dyer for an editorial, and I found him and his studio fascinating,” Wong says, recalling the first artisan he photographed. “Watching him at work was inspiring, and that was what got me interested in traditional crafts.”
Over a span of three years, and in between his regular work, Wong visited around 50 artisans across Japan, 33 of which are featured in his book of photo essays, accompanied by text detailing craft history, methods and, at times, their modern applications. Split into regions, from Kyushu to Hokkaido, the book also includes geographical insights and imagery, combined with historical context, making it an informative journey across Japan, rather than an encyclopedic volume of crafts.
“It’s important and relevant to put artisans in the context of their setting,” Wong says. “Kyushu, for example, was a gateway to foreign cultures that influenced its craft production for centuries. Porcelain was introduced to Arita (in present-day Saga Prefecture) by Korean potters, and the Shimazu clan of Miyazaki Prefecture, which prided itself on its warrior skills, left the area specialized in making weaponry. Then, of course, there’s Kyoto in Kansai. As the old capital and an affluent seat of power, naturally, its crafts flourished.”
Wong’s experience as a perceptive observer of crafts lends his writing an unfussy yet factual style. Packed with explanations of tools and processes, the book is kept lively and personal with comments from the artisans, and reinforced with striking portrait shots and closeups that document techniques and methodologies. A foreword by architect Kengo Kuma and essays by art historian Antje Papist-Matsuo that focus on materials — bamboo, textiles, washi (traditional Japanese paper), wood, metal, ceramics and lacquer — round out the volume with insightful commentary.
The range of professions featured is wide — from internationally well-known practices, such as washi papermaking, indigo dyeing and katana swordsmithing, to the more obscure arts of onishi (demon head) roof tile carving, sumac berry wax candlemaking and Tokyo-style kitemaking.
“Gestalten, the publisher, and I tried to offer a bigger picture of the state of traditional crafts,” says Wong. “Many are struggling in Japan, so some were included because without apprentices or a market for the goods, they are in danger of fading away. But there are also young makers using traditional techniques in innovative ways who are getting attention internationally.”
Indeed, there are stories of hope. In one section, Wong dives into wagasa, oil-treated paper umbrellas, made in Gifu Prefecture. Originally a side job for lower-ranking samurai, crafting wagasa became an art form by the Edo Period (1603-1868), only to be neglected after the introduction of cheaper fabric and plastic alternatives. Wong introduces Ikumi Kawaguchi of Organ, a nonprofit organization committed to revitalizing the craft, who points out that it was non-Japanese appreciation of wagasa that made artisans realize the value of their craft. Each umbrella involves several craftspeople to create its components, and more young artisans are now joining the ranks to redesign canopy shapes and patterns to fit a contemporary market.
There is also an inevitable poignancy to some stories. Satoshi Tachibana, at nearly 80 years old, is one of Japan’s few remaining samurai armorers, yet Wong says his forge has been untouched for many years.
“Samurai armor is, of course, not something that is used on a daily basis, and it’s really expensive and time-consuming to make,” the author says. “When I interviewed Tachibana, there was an air of sadness. There always will be a need for someone to make samurai armor — for ceremonies, films and festivals — but it’s not a growth market. Tachibana is virtually retired, he only does repairs and doesn’t have an apprentice.”
With the recent rise in organizations and initiatives aimed at preserving traditional crafts in Japan, however, Wong is still hopeful about their future.
“Japan isn’t going to let all its crafts fall to the wayside,” he says. “Sadly, not of all them will survive, but some will, and we can help stop as many as possible from going under by raising awareness.”
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