Arts & Tradition

Cherishing Japan’s ‘Living National Treasure’ Tradition

BY Lorraine Ferrier TIMEApril 14, 2022 PRINT

Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi has captured a serene and timeless scene as silk-weaver Sonoko Saskia kneels while she spins silk floss into yarn on her spinning wheel. Sonoko’s traditional kimono and spinning wheel hark back to the past, yet she makes her raw silk, known as “pongee,” today.

Sonoko uses traditional methods. She makes dyes from leaves and grasses to color her yarn, and then she uses the tsumugi-ori weaving technique that utilizes discarded silkworm cocoons to make her cloth.

Homo Faber 2022
Award-winning Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi’s exhibition “The Ateliers of Wonders, 2020” is now on display in the Cypress Cloister, as part of “Homo Faber Event 2022” at the Giorgio Cini Foundation in Venice, Italy. (Rinko Kawauchi/Michelangelo Foundation)

Sonoko is one of the 12 Japanese artisans that Rinko photographed at work in their ateliers for her photography series “The Ateliers of Wonders, 2020.”  The 12 artisans are Living National Treasures, a lifetime honor awarded to artisans by the Japanese government since World War II to protect and preserve the country’s traditions. There are only 116 award recipients, each one gets an annual stipend, and artisans can only make the list once someone listed dies.

Homo Faber 2022
Japanese ceramicist Imaemon Imaizumi XIV draws a design on a piece of porcelain. Imaemon is the 14th generation of his family to inherit the secret to his family’s traditional overglaze. “Imaemon Imaizumi XIV, from ‘The Ateliers of Wonders Series, 2020,’” by photographer Rinko Kawauchi. (Rinko Kawauchi/Michelangelo Foundation)

A Peek Into Traditional Japanese Craftsmanship

Rinko’s photographs highlight Japan’s rich, ancient traditions. Her insightful images capture weavers, ceramicists, textile dyers, kimono makers, cabinetmakers, and a doll maker at work.

Homo Faber 2022
Japanese bamboo artist Noboru Fujinuma looks for the perfect bamboo plant to weave or braid into an object. “Noboru Fujinuma, from ‘The Ateliers of Wonders Series, 2020,’” by photographer Rinko Kawauchi. (Rinko Kawauchi/Michelangelo Foundation)

In one photograph, bamboo artist Noboru Fujinuma crouches on the ground with one hand resting on a bamboo plant. He looks like a doctor taking his patient’s pulse. But instead of listening for heartbeats, Noboru looks at each bamboo plant’s diameter, curvature, and the distance between each node to find the right plant for each object he makes. He can look at hundreds of bamboo plants before finding the right one for weaving or braiding into an object, using an 8th-century Tang Dynasty (Chinese) technique.

Homo Faber 2022
“Spring Tide,” by Noboru Fujinuma. Bamboo flower basket; 15 3/4 inches by 21 5/8 inches by 28 inches. Part of the “12 Stone Garden” exhibition at “Homo Faber Event, 2022,” in Venice. (Gerald Le Van Chau/Michelangelo Foundation)
Homo Faber 2022
Noboru Fujinuma weaves or braids his bamboo baskets using traditional techniques. “Noboru Fujinuma, from ‘The Ateliers of Wonders Series, 2020,’” by photographer Rinko Kawauchi. (Rinko Kawauchi/Michelangelo Foundation)

Rinko also photographed Komao Hayashi, who creates toso dolls using 17th-century techniques. He carves the doll’s body from paulownia wood, a lightweight hardwood with a higher strength-to-weight ratio than balsa wood. He then mixes paulownia sawdust with different wheat starches to create toso, a modeling media that hardens when dried. Komao shapes the doll’s body by applying layers of toso to the wooden body. When it has dried, Komao carves the doll’s features into the toso. He uses washi paper or crushed seashell powder called “gofun” to mimic skin. And then he dresses the doll in either fabric or washi paper.

Homo Faber 2022
Japanese doll maker Komao Hayashi carves a toso doll using 17th-century techniques that include making a modeling paste made from the sawdust of the paulownia tree. “Komao Hayashi, from ‘The Ateliers of Wonders Series, 2020,’” by Rinko Kawauchi. (Rinko Kawauchi/Michelangelo Foundation)

According to the “Handbook for the Appreciation of Japanese Traditional Crafts,” dolls have been part of Japanese culture for centuries. The early 11th-century Japanese masterpiece “The Tale of Genji” tells of children playing with dolls. Dollmaking thrived in Japan’s Edo period (1603–1867), and every aspect of Japanese culture is reflected in the dolls.

Komao’s toso dolls take their poses, gestures, and expressions from traditional Japanese performing arts such as Noh theater; kyomai, a Kyoto-style dance based on the Kyoto court; or kyogen, the comic interludes used between acts of Noh theater performances, to name a few.

Homo Faber 2022
“Lady Enjoying the Moon-Viewing Party in the Court,” by Komao Hayashi. Toso, a modeling media made from paulownia sawdust and different wheat starches, over a wooden core, and paper. Part of the “12 Stone Garden” exhibition at “Homo Faber Event, 2022,” in Venice. (Japan Kogei Association)

Visitors to Venice, Italy, can see Rinko’s photographs in “The Ateliers of Wonders” exhibition in the Renaissance-style Cypress Cloister of the Giorgio Cini Foundation. Objects made by the 12 Japanese artisans are also onsite in the “12 Stone Garden” exhibition nearby, which is curated by Naoto Fukasawa and Tokugo Uchida. The works include kimonos, a lacquered harp, a bamboo flower basket, Bizen ware or Imbe ware that comes from Japan’s Okayama prefecture (formerly Bizen) and is one of the country’s six ancient pottery styles, and intarsia wooden boxes (boxes with inlays of wood or other materials such as ivory or mother of pearl).

Homo Faber 2022
“Journey to the West,” by Kazumi Murose. Maki-e lacquer ware with inlay decoration. Maki-e is an 8th-century decorative technique whereby artists spray or sprinkle metallic powder onto wet lacquer to create their designs. Part of the “12 Stone Garden” exhibition at “Homo Faber Event, 2022,” in Venice. (Alessandra Chemollo/Michelangelo Foundation)

Exhibition visitors can gain an unprecedented peek into how Japanese ancient crafts are cherished and hopefully preserved for centuries to come.

Both exhibitions are part of the “Homo Faber Event 2022.” Covering nearly an acre of the Giorgio Cini Foundation on San Giorgio Maggiore, “Homo Faber” is host to 15 exhibitions that this year focuses on European fine craftsmanship and Japan’s Living National Treasures. Organized by the Geneva-based nonprofit Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsmanship, the event brings the finest of European craftsmanship to Venice until May 30. To find out more, visit HomoFaber.com

Lorraine Ferrier writes about fine arts and craftsmanship for The Epoch Times. She focuses on artists and artisans, primarily in North America and Europe, who imbue their works with beauty and traditional values. She's especially interested in giving a voice to the rare and lesser-known arts and crafts, in the hope that we can preserve our traditional art heritage. She lives and writes in a London suburb, in England.
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