We went to see Kakizawa-san at his home near Lake Katanuma. It was raining heavily…
He showed us his skills as a carver and a painter. He is quite young (1974) and is only a 2nd generation kokeshi-maker. His grandfather was a fishmonger in Kawatabi, but his father is a kokeshi maker and he apprenticed with his father. He started at 18, just after high school, and it took him 5 years of apprenticeship to learn how to carve, paint, and make his own tools, then another 5 years to become truly good at what he does. He has been making kokeshi for 18 years, exactly half of his life, as he turned 36 the day after we interviewed him!
In his workshop there are two stations, the only shop we have seen with that arrangement. He and his father sit side-by-side every day producing the kokeshi. He will often start at 8 or 9, work until 5, and if there is lots of work, will come back and work until 8 or 9 at night. So, he puts in really long hours at the shop.
In high school, he was unclear what he wanted to do. He had no desire to have the predictable life of a salaryman, and when he graduated, he decided to work with his father. Interestingly, in high school, he did not like art class. Painting the kokeshi is still really difficult for him, especially the face. If he feels he has gotten the face wrong, he will abandon that particular kokeshi and will start from scratch.
He is married and has 2 sons, the older is 10. We asked if he sons aspire to be kokeshi-makers and he said that at the moment they think it is cool, and when they see him in the shop every day, hanging out with their grandfather, it looks deceptively easy. He would tell them that it is difficult work.
Between the pressures of running your own business, especially in a declining area and in a depressed economy, and the challenge of making the kokeshi, it is a tough job.
We asked if sells his kokeshi anywhere other than his shop, and he says he sells them in Sendai and as far away as Tokyo. He will often travel down to Tokyo and exhibit his wares, there, especially during trade shows.
We then relocated to his shop. The factory was originally in the house, but a few years ago, they relocated the factory across the street to its present location and they turned the factory into a showroom. It looks new, and is neat and clean, especially compared to most of the shops we have seen, where boxes, kokeshi, and sawdust drip around in piles. This one looks like an actual store.
As far as he is aware, he is the only Naruko kokeshi maker of his generation. So, while tradition says that kokeshi originated in Naruko or at least somewhere in the Tohoku region (kokeshi are now made throughout Japan), all the makers we have seen are elderly, and while he is still in his 30s and by far the youngest kokeshi maker we have met, he may also be the LAST kokeshi maker in the area from where they came.
He has been to America twice (to Tacoma, WA and Kansas City) both times for the WWC (World Woodcarvers Conference) to exhibit his kokeshi-making. He found it interesting there, as did we, that when watching American craftsmen, they are very open in exhibiting their techniques and letting everyone see their products being made. In Japan, a master often will hide his technique for fear of being copied. When his father was an apprentice, back in the days of the Kokeshi Boom, there were so many kokeshi makers, making them so quickly, that often they would make them assembly-line style: one would make the heads, one would make the bodies, and the master would paint them. The master would hide his technique, because making the heads and bodies were relatively simple, but if the apprentices could copy the paint style, they could strike out on their own and steal business. His father would practice painting on lightbulbs in secret, as it was inappropriate for an apprentice to start painting before his time. If someone was coming, we would wipe the paint off the lightbulb.
When Kakizawa-san showed us the brochure for his business, it was surprising to see photos of BOTH of his parents carving, as well as himself. Although he apprenticed to his father, and we have heard of women painting to finish kokeshi, his mother is pictured actually carving. He said that during the boom, the demand was so high, his father trained his mother so they could double their family output. He especially wanted to train her to make the huge kokeshi as they sell for much more money, but she wasn’t very good at that. She actually specializes in making the tiny kokeshi, smaller than the average size.
Living in the mountain, he feels if he was to always stay there, his craft would never develop and his painting would never progress, which is why he likes to attend the conferences. He likes to show off his work, the more he shows kokeshi (especially to younger people), the more people he can interest in the artform, primarily as consumers, but perhaps even inspire someone to become a producer. He is able to network with other woodworkers, to get ideas for new products, to talk to customers to see what they might want, and that will keep his product line fresh. As long as he sticks to traditional methods and materials, he doesn’t feel that he only has to make kokeshi. He showed us a few other items he has made with kokeshi motifs: a top, a game… as diversification of his product line, they are still wooden toys, they are still very simple. If a child plays with a kokeshi top, that they see an actual kokeshi later, it will introduce them to an artform at a younger age. People think the new products are cute and exciting, but he didn’t say if it increased sales.
When we asked him if he felt any pressure as the last keeper of the Naruko kokeshi craft, he was very modest. He does not see himself as being the repository of this knowledge, but in many ways he is. The average Naruko artisan is a senior citizen, and with the length of the apprenticeship, he may be the end of the line.
It would be too bad to have kokeshi-making going from part of the fabric of everyday life, the making of the kokeshi exhibited in shop windows all around town, to being something of a museum piece, just a demo of a technique…
He has lived in Naruko his entire life, he loves Katanuma Lake, which isn’t a tourist attraction for him, but a feature of his neighborhood.
Overall, there is not as much business as before, but there is enough to sustain them for the moment. He doesn’t think the boom will ever come again, but demand is high enough to support his family. He is laid-back about the craft, maybe because he doesn’t have a zealous passion, it is more of a craft to him.
August 14, 2010