Renowned designer Takenobu Igarashi asked me to write the story of his work with some of Japan's oldest local industrial workshops in 1990. I was interviewing him for a Graphis profile, and felt I ought to decline, since I was pregnant with my first child. Months later, when I was in the US, just a short while after giving birth to Hannah Jane, he called me and asked me once again if I would travel around Japan meeting and interviewing the CEOs of small but hopeful companies whose traditional markets-for lacquerware, cast iron, stainless steel and ceramics--had dried up in Japan's continuing Westernization. And so Hannah and I discovered the countryside of Japan, and the great time-warp between it and the cities.
This is a story of individuals, of personalities, and of dreams. Coincidentally, it is also a story about business--about making enough money to maintain a lifestyle. And despite the prices some of the products introduced here fetch in the international marketplace, it is not about maintaining habits of extravagant spending. It is about preserving the lifestyle of the craftsperson, and of the client who respects his work. It is about forging a partnership between our modern selves and the past, as embodied in traditional methods and materials that in an era of global interaction can become part of a collective treasury. It is an argument for support, for appreciation, and yes, for luxury--the luxury of participating in an age-old conversation between the craftsman and the patron. The luxury of holding, beholding, using, and sharing the products of centuries of workmanship.
The guardians of this history, the 'jiba sangyo' or local industries, and 'dento kogei' or traditional crafts, of Japan are suffering in a number of ways. Takenobu Igarashi, product designer and consultant for Y.M.D., explains it: "They have no budget to develop new products, no information network to tell them what the international market wants, and no contacts in the design world." They also have an acute labor shortage. Or, more specifically, a shortage of youth. In every workshop involved in the Y.M.D. project, the average employee age is between 40 and 50. Furthermore, local industries are generally, and unfortunately, described by a phrase that translates into English as 'the three D's: dark, dangerous, and difficult.' In the days of the anonymous craftsman-designer, when kids were not comparing a lifetime of hand crafting with the possibility of working part time in a convenience store, this was not the case; children would be apprenticed at the age of 13, and be expected to acquire enough skill to go independent seven years later, by the age of 20. Today hand crafting is a salaried career, but pays less and is less glamorous than almost any other future available to the young people in Japan's tight labor market. In order to rescue their fathers'' companies, most of the leaders of these local industries abandoned dreams of joining the white-collar, secure world in which corporate employees earn fixed incomes, and the current situation makes them very nervous. For many, asking themselves the question of whether their own sons will be able to carry on is a luxury they cannot afford.
Meanwhile, several other men also in the alter halves of their lives, but who have found their occupations in that white-collar, and urban, world, have established with these local craftsmen unique working relationships. As I questioned these men (Igarashi included), whom I thought of as the artisans' guides to the modern, international market, it was the little comments--the asides, the answers that trailed off--that identified them as men of the same era. Common memories of a Japan in which craft was an integral part of life have given them a shared sense of crisis and the drive to recover the familiar values.
In the six essays that follow are introduced the individuals without whose unflagging effort none of these great ideas would have been realized: The Yamada brothers, Teruo and Mitsuo, who together run the Yamada Shomei Lighting Co., Ltd., from which Y.M.D. gets its name; Seiji Suzuki, who was instrumental in locating the production shops; Yoshihiro Iwanaga, who honed the advertising concept that delineated the 'playful spirit and courage' of the Y.M.D. line; Masaru Mera, whose admiration for the designer allowed him to capture both the sharp lines and human warmth of the products; Stephan and Grenata Fischer von Poturzyn and Kirk and Joyce Shimazu, the European and U.S. distributors who have made Y.M.D. an international brand; designer Takenobu Igarashi, the link between the traditional producer and the urban customer; and finally, the managers and artisans who have kept Japan's local and traditional industries going, and lent their traditions and skills to the Y.M.D. project.
With what seems to be a generosity unattainable in many other professions, the craftsmen I met at all the workshops involved in this enterprise so carefully explained the parameters of their art that I began to imagine that working with one's hands naturally instills the desire and ability to educate others in the craft. In every case, and from both sides, the overwhelming impression I got concerning the collaborations detailed in this book--between Igarashi and every manufacturer; between the Yamada brothers and Igarashi; and, most surprisingly, between the distributors and the craftsmen, was of a mutual education--something so vital in this throwaway age.
STAINLESS: Truly Flat Flatware
Metal working in Tsubame, in Niigata Prefecture, employs a world- famous technique with a tradition of more than 350 years. This refined technique requires processes of more than 30 steps--even for a spoon. More...
CERAMICS: A Circle and A Square
Aichi (Seto) has long been known as one source of the world's finest potter's clay. For over a millennium, the tradition and techniques have been passed down, continuously evolving. More...
TAKAOKA: Geometric Perfection
The metal industry was established in the district of Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture during the Keicho Period (1595-1615). Takenaka Works Co., Ltd. is the largest metalworks in Takaoka, a city whose population is about 170,000 and has the greatest output on the Japan Sea Coast, even compared to industries based in much larger cities. More...