Mingeye: dans l’oeil de l’artisan




After three months of research in Miyagi-ken, Japan, my artist-in-residence program is coming to an end. As a sum-up, I build Mingeye, a one-person-at-a-time-yes-you-can-touch exhibition to let visitors experience how it feels to be a Japanese craftsperson nowadays.

This mobile is made of six craftspeople’s portraits, tools and gestures pictures I captures during my meetings and interviews with them in the prefecture of Miyagi. It is one way of summing up my research in this area. This art piece can act as a conversation starter for the guests visiting MORIUMIUS, a sustainable center located in Ogatsu, Ishinomaki – along with arousing their interest for The Dorayaki Project.

Mingeye is composed bymingei” (Japanese word for “folk arts”, “arts of the people”, a specific kind of crafts) and “eye“, emphasizing the power of looking at people straight in the eye and facing a situation with honesty and courage.

When you enter the circle, you may feel lonely – just as these craftspeople I met, each being ‘”the last one” of their category. You might feel strange having all these eyes watching you – just like everyone watching these craftspeople, filming them, taking pictures and saving some of their pieces in museum to maintain the memory.

How will you feel? 

You can experience Mingeye exhibited on a daily basis at MORIUMIUS, Ogatsu, Miyagi, if you have a chance to visit Japan!



[Interview Highlights] Matsue Chiba & Soichiro Chiba, Shouaihiyashizome (indigo dye) craftspeople


At first, Matsue and Soichiro (Matsue’s son) were reluctant to let me meet them, visit their workshop and carry out an interview. Now that I know more about them and about their work, I do understand: this is the most stressful time of the year for Shouaihiyashizome (indigo dye). If this step does not work as planned, the color will not come out properly and will not stick onto the fabric. Therefore, all work and effort made during the whole year would be vain. Let’s jump in the blue, blue dye.


Unlike many other craftspeople I previously met, Matsue and Soichiro do not depend on Shouaihiyashizome to make a living. Resources they benefit from come from farming and other jobs. To put it in other words: they do not do Shouaihiyashizome for money, they do it for passion. Or, more accurately, to maintain the tradition and keep the craft tradition alive. “Because this technique is something that is disappearing, what I want more than anything else is making sure that it continues on”, Matsue states.


Handing knowledge over?

When I ask about who will take over the indigo dye work, Soichiro tells me “I have a niece who will continue”. They would prefer to keep the knowledge and practice within the family, rather than teaching to an apprentice who would not be part of the family. There is no actual indigo dye community: “There is another place, in which we taught how to do it, so they probably do the same way as here, but I haven’t have talked to them in a long time, so I don’t know exactly how they are doing it now, if they are doing it the same way or not, but originally we taught them”, Soichiro says.


A simple recipe for a difficult word

“We use the indigo plant and ash from charcoal, and water, that is the three things we need really”. Amazing. “You could do it pretty much anywhere!”. However, the most difficult part is not getting a piece of land or building facilities. It is about mastering the gestures and techniques of the craft. “People think it can be done very easily, and then we explain how to use the ash and how to do the fermentation and all kind of things, then usually people think “oh no, that sounds too difficult”, so, they don’t want to do it”, Soichiro notes .


The most stressful time of the year

As I wrote in introduction, indigo dye challenge is to reach the right texture, otherwise it will not stick to the fabric. As a result, “everything has to be really clean. And if it’s not, then something might stop the fermentation happening properly and so color doesn’t come out”. Handcream, dust or dirt are to be avoided at all costs.

“Two year ago, we had troubles with the color. So – because there was a lot of rain, that year, there was floods, and so the mud came into the fields, so the plant got dirty from that. The whole year’s work is like, gone, because of that. There was nothing that we could do that year”


Global warming

On the top of this critical issue comes global warming, related to indigo growing and harvesting. “The thing that I worry about the most is climate change. Because what we’ve been taught all over the years is when to plant, harvest and everything, but now the climate is changing, I am worried that we’ll have to change that, so I need to study a bit more and see if we should change the schedule to fit the way the climate is changing. We might have to change what we have been doing for hundreds of years”, Soichiro highlights.


Difference between factory-made and handmade indigo dye

For someone who does not know so much about indigo dye, they could not tell the difference between (hand-made) Shouaihiyashizome and factory-made indigo dye. Moreover, “you can make any color if you use artificial dye, the artificial dye is like poisonous”, Soichiro specifies. The difference I found the most interesting though, was that Shouaihiyashizome as made by Chiba family is non-toxic! The liquid part of indigo waste can be thrown in the river. And it is perfectly legal.


The pleasant sides of being a craftsman

“When we make something nice, when it comes out really nice and pretty, it makes us feel happy”, Soichiro says. The most interesting things being that they do it the same way every year and the outcome is always a bit different. They cannot really control that. There is a part left to chance!


Hard to master or modesty?

At age 68, Soichiro is not sure if he could do Shouaihiyashizome alone. Since a couple of years, he really started doing indigo dye full-time. He retired from his job, so he has been doing it as his main occupation for the last two years. However, if was is told to do it by himself, he doesn’t think he could. “Even if I have been watching them doing since he was a little boy”. We cannot really be sure how long it would take to master the craft. My guess is: a lifetime.


Ayano Chiba

Ayano Chiba was the grandmother of Matsude’s husband. She was recognized as a National Treasure in 1955. Matsue also received a distinction. “I felt happy that I was able to protect the tradition and then I felt the importance of maintaining. So, it was a reward for all the hard work and all. Everything that I had to do.”


Color fade

“When you dye, it looks really good… then the color looks weaker and weaker, so we have to let it rest for a while, let it rest a day or two, and then the color comes back again, and we make it dye again”. The indigo is a living thing! When I came up with the idea of a painting on canvas and recording a timelapse video to capture colors changing, it seems that I went against the will of the indigo god. “If you do strange funny things [with the indigo dye], the indigo god would get angry”, Soichiro says.


How can The Dorayaki Project help Shouaihiyashizome?

“I would like you to say in the blog, to anybody, that this is probably the only place in the whole world they do this and so, they really want to protect it and keep it going”. Soichiro’s words.


Many thanks to Matsue Chiba and Soichiro Chiba! 


You can visit their shop in Kurihara, Miyagi

112 Kajiya, Kurikomamonji, Kurihara-shi, Miyagi
989-5361 JAPAN




[Conversation Highlights] Fumie Sato, Yanagiu washi craftswoman, Sendai, Japan



There is a season for everything and washi paper follows the rule. In winter, the weather is suitable for washi making whereas in summer, Sato-san changes job and turns into a farmer. When I visited the workshop a couple of weeks ago, it was already too hot to make washi, so I could not witness the whole washi-making process. However, I was invited to come back during next winter. What a great time I had with Sato-san and her family! Besides giving me a couple of hours of her time and sharing her story, adorable ninety-year-old Sato-san also tried to evaluate the possibilities of me marrying a Japanese man and treated the interpreter and I with nice dishes and drinks. Overall, it was more like a casual conversation rather than a formal research interview, as I usually carry out. Anyway, some interesting insights were brought up by Sato-san during our conversation, so I will share them in this article!

“Washi” is Japanese paper made by hand, piece by piece. There are various kind of washi, light to strong, white to brown, rough to soft-touch but all of them are part of Japanese traditional know-how. Yanagiu washi is of far superior quality and costs more than twice the price of factory-produced paper. Nowadays, people are more likely to buy cheap and mass-produced paper. All the other Yanagiu washi producers went bankrupt and this very workshop is the last one of its kind. Why did this company made it year after year, in spite of challenging economic background? “Because it was the biggest one in the area!”. As a result, “we get all the orders and we are busy all year around”. Sato-san is faced with all the responsibilities towards customers and passion for her craft: “I cannot die!”, she acknowledges.

Business-to-consumer is the business model, meaning that Sato-san does not sell the washi she produces to shops and retailers but instead customers come straight to this location to buy some. The beautiful house with adjoining workshop and garden makes it worth the experience of paying a visit.

On transmission and learning

What kind of tasks can be done by students or volunteers who come for one day at Sato-san’s workshop? Unfortunately, there is nothing they can be helpful with. Every gesture requires time and practice before they can be mastered. However, Sato-san welcomes local or international groups of students and helps them getting an experience of Yanagiu washi. The next guests will learn how to make postcards for instance. On the top of that, Yanagiu washi company members teach and share their experience of craftsmanship with children in schools.

Sato-san was not a washi-paper craftswoman from the beginning. When she was around forty, Sato-san started by helping her parents-in-law with their business “My parents-in-law were aging, so I gave them a hand. I tried, I imitated their gestures, I trained”… and finally mastered washi.

Both tradition and experimentation as a mindset

Not only is washi hand-made but it is also hand-dyed. Sato-san loves experimenting with techniques and pigments. She used onions and even soot to make colorful paper. “I thought the paper would turn out black when using the soot and actually it came out green!”

This positive, energetic and playful mindsets seems to be key to a long and rich life: “my mind stays clear because I talk a lot and I work a lot, too”, Sato-san joyfully claims.


Many thanks, Sato-san! 






[Interview Highlights] Hirooki Ōtomo, writing brushes maker, Sendai, Japan




The unique art of making Ofude

Ōtomo-san is making high-end brushes for calligraphy specialists. When you buy one of the brushes he makes, you can be sure you are going for the best quality as he puts all his heart and skills into making each one. Plus, you can use it for thirty years. Thirty years! These brushes used to be made of Japanese animals – mostly horses. Nowadays, Ōtomo-san is using white goats from China. Only never-ever-shaved goats can offer the required hairs for making brushes. The subtle art of making Sendai Ofude lies into the care one must put when making the brush. It is about carefully selecting animal hairs when composing the “head” of the brush. Indeed, there are different qualities according to which part of the animal hairs come from.
In one month, he can only make twenty of these high-end brushes.


The only one left

Ōtomo-san takes care of the production from beginning to end – alone. Meaning, no apprentice helps him. He is the only craftsman for this kind of brushes in Sendai – and in all of Tohoku area. He only makes the best quality, at a cost. In Hiroshima though, cheaper brushes are available, mostly used by students or primary school pupils.
Why does Ōtomo-san focus on making only the best quality products?

Aiming for excellence for every Ofude customer

Ōtomo-san is of prestigious descent. “My ancestors were Samurai. At first, Samurai were in charge of making brushes”. He respects the Samurai’s mindset: “rigorous, disciplined, doing things as they should be done…”. “That is what made brushes from Sendai so famous and beautiful.” So, he is not trying to make things easier. “The result would be the same if I would mix the hairs only twice, however it should be done three times, so I am doing accordingly”. “The important thing is to respect tradition”. It seems like the journey is as important as the destination.
Moreover, Ōtomo-san would notice if things would not be perfect – and he will not compromise on that. “Average people wouldn’t notice, but I would”. “Botching the job is definitely not an option”
So, is it about offering excellence to everyone? It seems like it!

Duty & devotion

« When my father died, here were like twenty employees at the shop at that time”. The family was in debt, so Ōtomo-san had no choice but to take the business over and train hard to become a talented brush maker. He inherited the know-how from the best employee of the shop – who himself leant from Ōtomo-san’s father. When I ask whether this very employee opened his own business afterwards, Ōtomo-san replies: “he stayed with me until the end”. That teaches a lot about passion and dedication, doesn’t it?

On the future of Sendai Ofude making

Times are changing. Ōtomo-san’s children work in various different fields and no one has taken over the family business. Moreover, since the disaster in March 2011, orders dramatically collapsed. However, Ōtomo-san sounds quite optimistic: “Oh, it is fine, people in Hiroshima will keep on making brushes…”.

On the art of writing

Back in the days, everyone would need a brush to write. Nowadays, it seems like computers have overcame. The irony being, “computers enable you to write with a brush effect”. What about the art of writing letters? Usually people use their computers to write nengajo (New Year’s greeting cards). Ōtomo-san uses his own brushes for writing them. Two hundred of them each year!

Japanese tradition

In Japan, sometimes people would make a brush out of their baby’s hair – that have never been cut before. “It is not a really good brushes though – better keep it as a cherished reminder of the child!”


Many thanks, Ōtomo-san! 





[Interview Highlights] Hariu Kenba, Tsutsumi ceramics maker, Sendai, Japan



During my quest of trying to understand what it means to be a craftsperson today, and what it suggests for tomorrow, I managed to get an interview time with Hariu-san. He is part of the Tsutsumi yaki family business that makes this craft since ten generation. Hariu-san was nice enough to book three hours of his time for talking with me and showing me the kiln. It is very important to me as it is the first ceramics maker I meet here in Japan – and I am quite a fan. I believe that surrounding ourselves with beautifully crafted objects can help to make life more joyful. Collecting ceramics while traveling on a restricted capacity such as… a backpack makes it obvious that sometimes, I should just look at them. And sometimes, carefully choose to buy one and carry it with me! I am also very curious to discover Hariu-san’s point of view on topics such as tradition, innovation and dedication.

Materials is key to Tsutsumi yaki

“The Tsutsumi Yaki is defined really by the materials, which are gotten from around here”, so it makes the company strictly rooted in Sendai area. They quality and uniqueness of their craft relies on the glazes and clay they find in the soil. They had to move the kiln around fifty years ago because houses were to be built in the previous location. However, a geological professor had investigated the area and told them that there was the same kind of geological layers in the new location. Safe!

On Hariu-san’s professional path 

Hariu-san quotes one of his friends, who is a washi paper maker: “he was born into it”. Moreover, “when I was younger, there was nothing to do but play with the clay”. An early appeal that has been confirmed thanks to a trial-and-error life process. Indeed, Hariu-san tried a lot of different jobs, such as “truck driver of door-to-door salesman”, he made his own experience before he makes the enlightened decision of taking over the family business.

The will for becoming a craftsman

“It’s much easier to become a normal company employee or something like that.”
“It’s much better, if you like pottery, just to do it as a hobby”

What is at stake here is mainly financial uncertainty. “There are no guarantees whatsoever that you are gonna make a living out of it. And so, you have to be really firm in your own mind that it is what you wanna do”

“Out of the fifty people in total who have been apprentice here, about half of those are making pottery to sell as a business.”

The only one left

Years ago, there were like twenty or thirty places like this that used to make the Tsutsumi yaki. “We cannot stop because we are the only ones left”, even though “now, compared to the most busy time from years ago, it is about one tenth of the volume”.

The perfect apprentice’s skills set

It takes ten years to become a proper apprentice at Tsutsumi yaki. “But you can probably master the basics in about three years.”. We are talking about a long-term commitment here. Plus, discipline: “When I was working here, like, as an apprentice, and with my father, whether they were here or whether they were at home, I called him “sensei””. Plus, perseverance: “apprentices might be told to do the same thing for three years. Just do the same thing over and over again.”

That is something young generations do not want to do anymore.

Nowadays, Hariu-san is teaching his nephew about how to become a Tsustumi yaki craftsman.it’s a bit different. I make my nephew think for himself and get his opinions on things, so it’s not as strict as it was with my father”

The Mingei movement

Two generations before, when Sōetsu Yanagi (philosopher) and Hamada Shōji (ceramist) came to Tohoku, “my grandfather met with them”. “Through the mingei movement, the Tsutsumi yaki and Tohoku pottery became more well-known, a lot more people became aware of it”

Aesthetics of daily life

“My father used to tell us that we should pay most attention and take the most care when we make the everyday articles.”, which they might be selling for one hundred or two hundred yens, but those things are very important too. Nowadays, Hariu-san still follows this golden rule: making the customers satisfied makes him happy

Improvement of gestures and technique

“So, [the products] are easy to use and they feel nice in your hand – good things – that is the satisfaction of making it.”

The funny thing is, it always gets back to the basics: “over a ten-year period, some things might change, and after ten years come back to the way it was before. We probably have the best shapes, because it’s a three-hundred year’s process”

Wabi sabi?

Hariu-san can describe the feeling of the pieces he and his father made: “the object itself has a strong presence, it has a lightness about it as well. It is Delicate.”

You can visit their shop in Sendai to see for yourself:

Tsutsumiyaki Kenba kiln
8-4 Akasaka Kamiyagari Izumi-ku, Sendai, Miyagi
981-312 JAPAN

When I ask about wabi-sabi feeling in Tsytsumi yaki products, Hariu-san confesses that “most Japanese don’t understand wabi-sabi so… if you go and live in Kyoto for a long time, maybe you will understand.”

Many thanks, Hariu-san!