• Masters of their craft: Japanese artisans go abroad to preserve a cultural tradition

Masters of their craft: Japanese artisans go abroad to preserve a cultural tradition

By Kathryn Wortley
The Japan Times
December 25, 2020

Teruki Kamiya is a professional member of The Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain, holding three of its four qualifications and permission to provide lessons to candidates ahead of their travel to England for testing. | COURTESY OF TERUKI KAMIYA

Teruki Kamiya needs to travel further than most to hone his skills.

As the founder and most experienced member of the Dry Stone Walling Association of Japan, the Aichi Prefecture-based craftsman’s only option is to return to the United Kingdom to learn under the master craftsmen who first taught him the ancient craft of drystone walling more than 10 years ago. At that time, he became the first person to travel from Asia to learn the ancient skill, which dates from the Neolithic age.

To many craftspeople, the construction of walls and other structures without any binding agent is synonymous with the United Kingdom. Although evidence shows that drystone walls have been prevalent throughout history in Europe, the Middle East, North America and Oceania, some of the oldest examples of the craft are in Cornwall, southern England, dating from 5,000 B.C.

Kamiya dreams of returning to his training grounds of Wales and England to maintain their drystone walls — only 13% of the 193,000 kilometers of drystone field walls in the United Kingdom are in good condition — but his time is limited. He is dedicated to his business, Kamiya Landscaping, and to training the next generation of craftspeople.

Still, he is inexhaustible in upskilling, always taking on increasingly difficult projects, for clients and for his love of the craft. Unlike drystone walling craftsmen in the United Kingdom who mostly repair walls, his work centers around making garden features such as arches, which he does nationwide.

His motivation is twofold: to preserve the art of drystone walling, which he says is an important part of British culture, and to inspire the dwindling number of Japanese ishizumi (stonework) masons to stop their craft being lost.

An ishizumi mason (and landscape gardener) before encountering drystone walling in 2008, Kamiya has seen firsthand how the traditional practices of ishizumi are being eroded.

Teruki Kamiya wants to preserve the art of drystone walling, which he says is an important part of British culture. | COURTESY OF TERUKI KAMIYA

“The techniques of drystone walling and ishizumi are fundamentally the same but, in Japan, ishizumi is seen more and more as dangerous. In private gardens, big stones like those at castles aren’t used, yet builders are encouraged to use blocks or even concrete rather than drystone walling techniques. This is so sad and means we are losing ishizumi,” he says from a job site in Hokkaido where he constructed the facade of an English-style house.

The future of British drystone walling also remains uncertain. In 2019, The Heritage Crafts Association, a charity that supports endangered British crafts, categorized it as a “currently viable craft” but noted that few trainee placements are available, as most practitioners are sole traders with limited resources. Furthermore, there are estimated to be fewer than 500 people left in the United Kingdom with the skill.

The Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain is working to counter the lack of human resources and safeguard the craft, particularly in Scotland, northern Wales and northern England where there are historically significant drystone walls in rural and hilly areas.

Teruki Kamiya has drawn on his masonry skills in both Japanese and British cultures to develop a drystone walling technique that can withstand earthquakes. | COURTESY OF TERUKI KAMIYA

Kamiya is a professional member of the association, holding three of its four qualifications and permission to provide lessons to candidates ahead of their travel to England for testing. By teaching the content in Japanese, he aims to remove any language barrier to learning. In the past five years, he has taught 50 students who have all passed first time.

Teruki Kamiya is confident that Japan will further
embrace British-style drystone walling features based
on the growth in his business in the past few years. |

“The examiners said my students and I have all been incredibly detailed and painstaking in our approach. I think that’s part of our national character,” he says. “When teaching, I certainly encourage my students to keep trying to reduce the gaps between stones, so the finished product is even more beautiful.”

Kamiya has drawn on his masonry skills in both cultures to develop a drystone walling technique that will withstand earthquakes. He shared his research with his colleagues in the United Kingdom and hopes that it will spur interest in drystone walling features in Japan.

He is confident that Japan will further embrace British-style drystone walling features based on the growth in his business in the past few years, some of which he attributes to his joint award of runner-up with staff member Yoshinobu Washimi in the association’s 50th anniversary global competition in 2018.

The pair hope their efforts can help both drystone walling and ishizumi.

“I’m so impressed with the work in the U.K. to leave behind the skill for future generations,” Kamiya says. “Japan is not good at protecting crafts — the number of artisans overall is decreasing — and the British approach can be a valuable lesson.

Washimi agrees.

“I would like ishizumi to be recognized and protected in the same way that the U.K. recognizes and protects drystone walling,” he says.

Another person seeking preservation of her craft is Saeko Ando, a son mai lacquer artist who has been based in Vietnam since 1995. After apprenticeships under an artist, lacquer master and lacquer craftsman, Aichi Prefecture-born Ando developed a passion for the craft and has made it her life’s work.

Lacquer artist Saeko Ando at work in Hoi An, Vietnam | COURTESY OF SAEKO ANDO

Her masters instructed her in the traditional style of son ta (natural lacquer) rather than synthetic lacquer, which is commonly known as son Nhat and has become somewhat prolific in the past couple of decades. Ando estimates that synthetic lacquer is now used by almost all lacquer product manufacturers as well as many artists, although the exact use is unknown, as artists tend to be guarded about their choice of materials.

The result, says Ando, is misconceptions about the health of Vietnam’s son mai, which she hopes to remedy by utilizing her skills in the craft and knowledge gleaned from two decades of hands-on research alongside international lacquer experts.

“Son mai has developed into a form of art that is recognized in the global art market. Nowadays there are so many artists who create son mai paintings in Vietnam, so it appears to the public that the art is flourishing and has a great future. But time-honored natural lacquer techniques are dying out,” she says. “Demand for natural lacquer is not enough for most lacquer farmers to survive and many have stopped cultivating lacquer trees.”

Based in Hoi An in central Vietnam, Ando attributes the decline of natural lacquer to a lack of understanding about the great results it can achieve and a disinterest or inability to train in how to use it due to limited time or finances.

Lacquer artist Saeko Ando at work in Hoi An, Vietnam | COURTESY OF SAEKO ANDO

“As natural lacquer is an agricultural product, it’s different every time we buy it from a craftsman or farmer,” she says, adding that learning how to treat these variances takes years. Synthetic lacquer, on the other hand, “allows people with no experience to make products in a very short period of time.”

Synthetic lacquer is also valued for its lighter color compared to natural lacquer, which artists often find more difficult to control. While Ando admits that “material is not the most important thing in fine art” and her peers can make beautiful pieces using synthetic lacquer, she believes that using natural lacquer can produce more or as stunning art. Its softness and slowness to dry compared to Japanese urushi lacquer, for example, allows the build-up of many layers before sanding to reveal various colors and patterns. Immensely transparent, natural lacquer also makes colors very vivid and provides a glossy finish.

Ando is a firm believer that the more she knows, the more effectively she can use son ta’s characteristics in her art. She continues to learn everything she can about natural lacquer, meeting craftspeople and artists and visiting farms where the lacquer is made from the sap of the Rhus succedanea, a deciduous tree used exclusively for Vietnamese lacquer production. She has even supported and collaborated with researchers from Japanese institutions, including Meiji University and Urasoe City Art Museum in Okinawa, as well as those in other parts of the world. By doing so, she says she can gain a deeper knowledge of her craft by comparing it to other lacquers.

Her ability to speak Japanese, Vietnamese and English enables her to bridge a language gap that has long hindered the sharing of Vietnam–Japan insights on lacquer. Due to Vietnam’s history of importing cashew-derived lacquer in huge volumes from a Japanese company in Southeast Asia, all synthetic lacquer in Vietnam is called son Nhat, which means “Japanese lacquer.” When translated into Japanese by someone unfamiliar with the lacquer field, visiting researchers assume the reference is to urushi, Japan’s traditional and natural lacquer, so Ando steps in to provide the essential context.

Lacquer artist Saeko Ando's 'Galaxy Flakes' | COURTESY OF SAEKO ANDO

Training young people in son ta is also part of Ando’s work. As the owner of a small workshop, she admits it is a struggle because much investment is required before apprentices can produce art good enough to generate income. Many also drop out due to pressure to earn a better wage. Today she has one student left from the five she recruited last year.

Still, she continues. Her hope is that her advocacy of natural lacquer can “help the Vietnamese to re-appreciate their own cultural heritage and see new potential in it.” To this end, she has established a company to make and sell only 100% natural lacquer products.

“I am determined to be successful and established so that my voice can be heard when I share my story about son mai and son ta,” she says. “I am trying to start a movement.”

With growing esteem in Vietnam and abroad via presentations and exhibitions, including in London, Hong Kong and Singapore, it seems Ando is on track to achieve her goal.

Hitomi Nomura, meanwhile, is at the start of her journey to promote the craft she loves — kilt-making. She returned from Scotland in November 2019 after apprenticing under a kilt-maker in Edinburgh, and set up a company offering made-to-measure kilts and tartan skirts as well as kilt repairs.

A prototype tartan kimono by Hitomi Nomura | COURTESY OF HITOMI NOMURA

“This is my third year of kilt-making and I feel I am getting better. I was not creative before my training and my master had to teach me every stitch first, before we moved on to working on the kilt,” Nomura says with a laugh from her Gifu Prefecture workshop, which is decorated with tartan and other Scottish items, including a huge national flag.

For Nomura, her fledgling business is a way to celebrate her fascination with not only tartan but also Scottish history, culture and lifestyle, while sharing it with her countrymen.

“The kilt has a deep history and it has been loved for a long time,” she says. “However, in Scotland I learned that the kilt-makers’ profit is incredibly low compared to the time and cost involved in their work. That makes practicing the craft difficult.”

Nomura’s reaction was to do what she could to “continue this wonderful culture.” With the notion that she would see little demand for kilts in Japan, she launched her flagship product: a pleated tartan skirt for ladies that moves like a kilt. Her hope is that it will stimulate people to find out more about its origins.

“The kilt has the power to fascinate people — I know because it happened to me — so I think my work can trigger interest in Scotland,” she says.

Nomura believes that, if introduced to the background of Scotland’s national dress, Japanese people will see its affinity with the kimono. Both were designed to be easy to wear, in all weathers, before becoming highly stylized and worn mostly for special occasions. They are also expressions of identity; historical families each have their own tartan from the days of the clans, while family crests were frequently featured in kimono patterns. Aesthetically, they are both also distinctive and impressive.

A men's kilt by Hitomi Nomura | COURTESY OF HITOMI NOMURA

Nomura’s confidence in making an impact in Japan has been boosted with the receipt of kilt-making orders. Using her language skills, she has made a kilt for an Australian with Cornish roots who is living in Kyoto as well as a Japanese graduate of the University of Glasgow based in Kobe.

She is currently proficient in making six types of kilt, including the highland dancer kilt and the military box pleated kilt, which requires a high level of skill. Still, as a relative newcomer to the craft she remains eager to learn more and receives online training from her teacher in Edinburgh on a semi-regular basis.

“I’m fortunate that I can continue kilt-making in Japan,” she says. “I’m happy if by doing so I can help the future of kilt-making even a little.”

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