Traditional crafts find new energy in hands of women

In early January in Arita, Saga Prefecture, Mikiko Shirasu (pictured below) was rapidly turning out rice bowls on an electric potter’s wheel.

“A true craftswoman can create the same object as many times as she wants,” said Shirasu, 36, who is a master turner of Arita-yaki porcelain.

In 2013, Shirasu became the first woman to become a certified traditional artisan in the Arita-yaki turning category.

In fiscal 2014 she received the Cabinet Office’s “women’s challenge prize” given to women expected to do great things.

Certified traditional artisans are people who have passed a qualification exam for one of the state-designated traditional crafts.

Only people who have at least 12 years of practical experience can take the exams.

There are knowledge exams common throughout the country, as well as skill exams for specific production centers.

Shirasu said she was attracted to pottery because she wanted a live a life of craftsmanship.

She was having difficulty finding a workshop willing to hire a woman when she met Yozaemon Yashiki, a famous master potter. At age 22, she became his pupil.

Shirasu is only 147 centimeters tall. She is able to sit down to make a bowl, but she needs to stand to make larger items like flower vases, unlike most male artisans.

Kneading clay also takes a lot of strength, though she said she has never found the work strenuous.

“You can’t learn just by copying me,” Yashiki said in praise of Shirasu. “You need effort and imagination,”

“I’d like to have my own shop in the future and improve my decorating skills so I can create utensils that make eating more fun,” she said.

Despite being known as a “man’s world,” the number of women working in the traditional craft industries is increasing as more young people look to learn a trade and career avenues for women widen.

For industries struggling with a lack of successors and low demand for products, new energy from female artisans could be a blessing.

According to The Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries, while the total number of certified traditional artisans declined from 4,618 in 2004 to 4,280 in 2013, the number of female artisans increased from 505 to 602.

“More women want to learn a trade now,” said Kyoko Sashida, an official with the center. “People seem to be yearning for careers where they can use their creativity.”

Yoshiko Sekine described the shortage of successors in her book “Dento Kogei wo Tsugu Joseitachi” (Women carrying on traditional crafts).

“With fewer men willing to do the work, there have been more efforts to train women,” she said.

There are now female artisans who are praised for their originality.

Emika Iwashita, 41, became in 2007 the first female certified traditional artisan of Tokyo-some-komon, a form of patterned dying on cloth.

In 2008 she struck out on her own, creating the Suirinka brand in collaboration with a manufacturer.

Tokyo-some-komon was first used during the Edo period (1603-1867) in kamishimo, or ceremonial samurai dress.

To make it, artisans place patterns on top of fabric, then use spatulas to spread glue that fixes the pattern.

Iwashita, who often wears a kimono in public, has made use of her perspective as a user of the product to create more ways to wear her creations, and has devised patterns that resemble fireworks or chrysanthemums.

Her original designs have been popular with women.

“I want to maintain the traditional techniques but challenge myself with new designs,” she said.

About ¥104 billion in state-designated traditional crafts were created in 2012, only one-fifth the amount produced in 1983, according to the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry.

“Female artisans have an advantage because they also possess the sensibility of someone who uses the product,” said an official with the ministry’s daily necessities and traditional craft office. “I hope they can create products younger people and people from other countries will like.”

A place to exchange ideas

Although there are more female artisans now, they still make up only a small proportion of the total.

With few opportunities to discuss issues related to working as a female artisan, it can be a lonely career even outside of trying to figure out what products and designs the market wants.

To address these concerns, The Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries has held an annual exhibition in Tokyo for female artisans 40 years old or younger since 2004.

Starting in 2013, the exhibition has included a public forum where female artisans can share their thoughts about their jobs.

“It’s a place for female artisans of different fields to interact. It also gives artisans a chance to see what people think of their products, such as by talking with attendees,” said a craft center official who handles the exhibition.

“It’s invigorating to feel other craftswomen’s sensibilities,” said Mako Yamada, 35, who is a Yamanaka shikki lacquerware artisan in Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture. “Having a young woman buy one of my creations and say, ‘I want to use this as a cafe au lait mug,’ also gave my confidence a boost.”

Source – Yomiuri Shimbun.



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