Our meeting with the director general, Rie Doi and the executive director Seiji Hatta took place in the middle of the 7 day annual Festival of Traditional Crafts so we had a chance to see live demonstrations of master craftsmen at work and were able to ask a few questions about the work the museum are doing to preserve ancient traditions and see how their projects plus the work of the council/city have developed the craft industry around Kyoto.

It is evident that in Japan but especially here in Kyoto, traditional crafts are officially recognised and protected. We discovered that around 10 years ago, it was decided by the Ministry of Economy, central government that the definition of craft must be the item has to be entirely made by hand and the process of making not changed for over 100 years. The craft must also be closely related to Japan’s traditional culture and must take place in Kyoto city.

Rie stressed that her belief is that hand crafted items should be used in our modern day lives and not be specially reserved for museums pieces or as it was in the past, made for kings and nobility. Craft should have connection to the user But it’s creating a market and being able to convert the ancient skills to make items tha fit into our day to day lives that will enable the Survival of our important heritage skills. 

Japanese craftmanship is obviously stunning but it is also extremely technically beautiful as we have seen in great detail.  Here in Japan, they have a master craftsman for each process so the attention to detail and division of labour makes the it even more perfect. Yuzen (hand painted and dyed silk) for example employs 11 different craftsmen which make up the whole process as it is so labour intensive.

She also talked about craft being taught in more schools and stressed again that there needs to be more practical and technical teaching and not taught as a historical pieces of the past. The demonstrations here in the museum are a great way to show people the different processes and help others understand the workmanship involved.

Another important factor, is people’s general understanding of craftmanship. Here in Japan for example, much like the £1 shop in the UK they have the 100¥ shop where you can get almost anything at a fraction of the price which is really corrupting our relationship to products and devaluing our need to pass down or repair items. After all, for 100¥ what does it matter of it breaks, you can just buy another one can’t you?

One of the biggest struggles master craftsmen face, as we have heard many times elsewhere, is that the production of tools is facing an all time low which is one of the biggest challenges at the moment. One of the positive technological advances is actually helping this problem in Japan and there is a small movement going on as they experiment by using a 3d printer to recreate the tools needed.

The museum is also working hard to collaborate modern design with traditional craft, for example some hand painted Yuzen fabric is now being used in Dior shops as decorative wallpaper. One of the areas they are working in most is to create workshops for young high school students to participate with traditional craftsmen to help innovate new, modern uses for the work or invent new designs.

When I asked what Rie sees as the most important of all the challenges in keeping ancient craftmanship alive here in Japan she said they have very recently been collaborating with travel agencies and international tours and are busy convincing the craftsmen to open up their workshops for visitors over the busy seasons. She brought out a small pocket size comprehensive booklet of postcards detailing each of the crafts which they are planning to have available soon. They are also soon to be opening a website for this particular venture.

During the interview we got a chance to see some of the craftsmen working away, here is a few of the many interesrting ones we saw.

This man had a natural fascination for the Craft of braided cord so he has been learning for the past 30 years, he tells us with a smile. This craft is more than 1000 years old.

Here is a another master craftsman practising Kyo Zogan or Damascene, a 5th century form of decorating precious metals with gold or silver, originally from Syria. It was brought to Japan along with Buddhism through the Silk Road and is virtually unchanged in its methods. These patterns are obtained by engraving deep, patterned cuts into steel and then placing a gold foil into the lines of the design. This foil is hammered until the gold (or silver) penetrates into the cuts forming the design. It used to be used for decorating Japanese swords and armour, Then 600 years ago the gun arrived in Japan and the amount of practising craftsmen declined. Nowadays there is 25 designated craftsmen, 10 of whom are young craftsmen, 3 are apprentices.

Just to finish off the day, We also had an opportunity to see Nihon Buyo, a traditional Japanese dance performance.

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