Mr.Toru Ito, an Ise-katagami carving artisan
“Handiwork has its own warmth”.
It is great to meet you. First, what kind of work do you do?
In our workplace, we used to curve patterns by using tsuki-bori. Now, however, we use hiki-bori method instead. Place a cardboard on a plastic sheet and curve from back to forward. Let me explain the tool we use. The edge of each tool is in the shape of various patterns. For example, there is a winding edged tool. The edges of these tools are firmly tied up with strings in order to fasten them. Therefore, we need to sharpen tools by following each shape. Special whetstones are needed to do so, of course.
That’s a surprise. How long have you worked for Ise-katagami?
About 58 years, I guess. It is since when I was fifteen. When I was in training, I used to work from 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. At that time, we had quite a lot of work to do, and I had many colleagues, too. There were about fifty people making Ise-katagami just in the neighbourhood, but I am actually the only one who keeps working here now. There were about 300 or more staffs in our union, but recently, there are only about twenty. The average age is around seventy, I suppose.
There were so many artisans working together in the past!
That’s right. And this means that we had many work to do. At that time, we treated quite a lot of patterns, too. Nowadays, we can use pictures and printing machine. It is true that machines can print more accurately than handiwork. However, as far as the appearance, handicrafts are much better since patterns made by machines are always just flat and sometimes boring. On the other hand, handiwork has its own warmth.
It’s hard to make a living by working as an Ise-katagami artisan.
That’s the good point of handmade patterns. Do you get work from wholesalers?
Well, before wholesalers, we work with designers. Then paper store staffs and cardboard store staffs. Wholesalers comes after these people. Wholesaler will be a pivotal person of all works. He bring carved sheets from carving staffs to dyeing staffs. Then, the product will be delivered from the wholesaler to another wholesaler. There are so many wholesalers relating to one product before reaching customers. So I would say that if the number of wholesalers decreased, we, artisans also cannot keep doing this job.
So the division of labour causes the problem.
That’s right. There are about 20 artisans, but I guess the number will decrease in the future. When I was young, work to do came to us without doing sales promotion. We could work without any concerns. The reason why I can keep working now is actually my pension. The pension is based on my job and that is the reason why I can work now. Our average age is about seventy, because these people get a pension. We don’t have people at the age of 50 or 60, because they don’t get a pension yet. It is quite hard to make a living by doing this job. So I tell young people not to choose this job. It is happy to hear that young people are interested in, of course, but I am sure that they cannot earn a livelihood by being Ise-katagami artisans.
Do you still think that we should preserve Ise-katagami?
Well, I think we don’t have to preserve it. I have to think so. If we think about the necessity of the inheritance, we need to train many artisans. In the current situation, however, it is very difficult to do so.
I see. But is there anyone who wants to learn from you?
Yes, even now, there are some people who come here to be our pupils. But I still cannot find the artisan who has the proficient skill. If I took pupils, I would take the responsibility to raise them. As I said before, we are in the hard situation now, so I cannot afford to take care of other people. I don’t want to escape from the responsibility, neither. Dyeing stores are also in the hard situation, so we cannot introduce people to dyeing stores. So I always tell young people not to choose this job.
Technique is not the finished product but its process.
You are in the very difficult situation to inherit your technique.
I believe that my own skill cannot be inherited. Some people insist that we must inherit our technique, but I personally think that it is impossible to hand my own skill to the next generation. And I am quite happy about that, too. I don’t think technique is something which can be inherited. And I don’t consider my skill as”technique,” neither.
So is your skill different from “technique”?
I mean, I cannot “teach” my skill to other people. They should learn on their own by using their own sense. If I teach how to carve a round shape, the person would carve with his own sensitivity. The circle I carve should be different from the one another person carve. And it is not a bad thing. if someone carve a nice shape, other artisans would do trial and error again and again in order to find out how to carve that shape.
What do you think is “technique”?
Well, I can’t define clearly. But I believe that technique is not the finished product, but its process. The process of carving is the technique. We need to adapt ourselves to every shape by applying the basic skills. If you know how to carve straight and draw curves, you can apply the skill to any shapes. I believe that is the technique. It is your sensitivity. When I carve, I feel that sensitivity with my mind and fingertips. So it is very difficult to teach. People cannot copy it. The only thing they can do is to look at what I am doing carefully and steal the skill by themselves.
“I am going to work till the day I die.”
I see. Then, do you want to do anything with your own skill in the future?
Not really. I am going to work till the day I die. My only wish is to keep working. I don’t seek other fields for expanding the work, because I am not good at marketing. In old days, we could get work without doing sales promotion. I know it is difficult to do so nowadays, though. But I have kept this style for more than some ten years, so I cannot change this style anymore. Happily, there are still some work to do now. Since this is the job I really wanted to do, I would love to work till the day I die.
Ejimahommachi, Suzuka-shi, Mie, 510-0234, Japan
Katagami is a cardboard which used for dyeing textiles. It is made of multiple layers of washi papers bonded with shibugami, a glue extracted from persimmon. Various beautiful patterns are carved on the cardboard. It has been used for making kimono fabrics with a fine pattern. Shirako area of Suzuka City, Mie Prefecture has been widely known for its production of katagami cardboard. Patterns produced in this area are called “Ise-Katagami,” meaning patterns of Ise area. There are four ways of curving, tsuki-bori, kiri-bori, hiki-bori, and dogu-bori. Different tools are needed for different ways.
about the writer