Personal growth from the handing down of tradition
Boshu uchiwa workshop instructor: Ms. Mitsue Ota
The number of Boshu uchiwa craftspeople is decreasing sharply
Tateyama City, Chiba Prefecture, produces high-quality medake bamboo. For that reason, it was once a center of material supply for the handheld round fans known as Edo uchiwa (fans that are made in the Tokyo area). However, during the Meiji Era, they started to produce uchiwa in Tateyama itself, too. They were given the name Boshu uchiwa . After the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, Edo uchiwa wholesalers and craftspeople moved to Tateyama. Since then, Boshu uchiwa has been a major industry. By the beginning of the Showa Era, it had reached its peak; they produced between 7,000,000 and 8,000,000 pieces a year.
“Unfortunately, in recent years, the number of Boshu uchiwa craftspeople has decreased sharply. There are now only three masters left to pass down the tradition. Therefore, each November and December, the Boshu Uchiwa Promotion Council holds ‘An Introductory Course for Boshu Uchiwa Learners’. The Boshu Uchiwa Denfuku Association organizes courses for delegates to continue to learn after the introductory course, since we want them to keep learning. We want people with disabilities to learn the craft technique, too.”
That was Mr. Yamamoto of Boshu-do, who has organized the uchiwa courses for three years now, talking about the current situation of Boshu uchiwa. The current production is about 20,000 pieces a year. Just like other traditional Japanese crafts, maintaining production and fostering successors are issues that need to be dealt with urgently.
Students from various generations, backgrounds, and professions
The whole process of making Boshu uchiwa is roughly divided into twenty-one steps (however, it’s necessary to add ten more steps if you include small details). On the day of this interview, they were peeling the bamboo, which was cut down during the cold winter months. They snipped off the buds that would otherwise become branches, and then they peeled. A somber but important process is to make the handle and the ribs of the uchiwa. They spread blue sheets on the workshop floor. The instructor, Ms. Mitsue Ota, and five students were working there. We interviewed them when they took a break from working.
“When I was a child, at the traditional Bon dance festival, a Boshu uchiwa with a cylindrical bamboo handle was very special for me. I heard that the number of craftspeople was decreasing. I want this tradition to stay alive. So I decided to participate in this course. I would like to get to the stage where I can hand down the tradition.”
(Ms. Kira in the first year)
“I like making crafts. When I moved from Saitama to Chiba, I learned about the Boshu uchiwa tradition, and I decided to give it a try. I have now learned all of the steps.”
(Mr. Yanagida in the third year)
In this class, there are also people who took the introductory course, and people who have practiced elsewhere in the past.
“I participated in the introductory course about 5 years ago. After that, I obtained some bamboo, and tried to make uchiwa by myself. But it didn’t work well. Then, I worked on the step of ‘attaching’ for two years. Now I want to try the step of making ribs, which is the step before the attaching. Although it’s been nearly four years since I learned the steps of working with bamboo, I returned to it in just January of this year, and started this course.”
(Ms. Miyaoka in the first month)
“After I retired as a local government employee, I thought that I would still be able to learn a new craft if I was going to live twenty more years. Thus, I decided to take on the challenge of making uchiwa. For about two years I learned with another master, but then he quit because he was getting too old. This course started at just the right time for me. I have already learned all the steps. I sell my uchiwa at events and at roadside stations.”
(Mr. Shibata in the fifth year)
Foreigners participate, too.
“It has been nineteen years since I came to Japan from Costa Rica. And I have lived fifteen years here in Tateyama. I have just started learning to make uchiwa. It is fun. I enjoy making crafts. I thought I should give it a try, because I happened to live in the area where they produce Boshu uchiwa.”
(Ms. Deguchi in the first month of the course)
A person with a disability participates, too. Unfortunately, he was absent on the day of the interviews. They say he has improved a lot, and he has already mastered some of the steps of making uchiwa.
Bit by bit, training successors is bearing fruit
Ms. Mitsue Ota is the only certified traditional craftsperson making Boshu uchiwa, and she is also one of the masters. While working, she carefully answers the students’ questions.
“I am the fourth-generation owner. I hadn’t planned to take over, but I grew up watching what my parents were working on. They didn’t teach me, nor train me. Whenever I tried to make uchiwa, my parents would just take a look and say, ‘That’s okay.’ They never scolded me.”
In the days when there were many craftspeople under a master, his or her job might have been as modest as packing and writing delivery notes, invoices, and receipts.
“It’s not like that anymore. If I didn’t know how to perform all of the steps of the process, then I wouldn’t be able to teach them; nor would I be able to tell a good uchiwa-making practice from a bad one. Unless I continue to train craftspeople, I worry that this tradition might die out.”
Therefore, the purpose of this workshop is to train people to be able to carry out the entire process. Those who are trained in this way can work independently, and they can also train new students.
“Uchiwa-making is not something that you can learn in a day or two. It takes about three years, even for a really motivated person. There are many steps to learn, and you have to become skilled in every step. But all of my students are hard-working. So, I am looking forward to the future. I hope to mold my students into traditional craftspeople.”
They can certainly learn the basic method of making uchiwa in this course. However, how could they then become craftspeople after that?
“At the beginning, it’ll be all they can do just to make uchiwa that are good enough. But when they’re asked by customers to make a certain type of uchiwa, that’s when they’ll start trying to make unique uchiwa; ones that are a little different from the traditional ones. It was like that for me. So I assume that they too will try to create a new style of their own without changing the basics. Just like my father began to attach yukata cloth to his uchiwa, instead of paper. In a sense, it’s the customers who train the craftspeople.”
Actively expanding the market while preserving traditions
In terms of fostering successors, Boshu uchiwa sees light at the end of the tunnel. But those successors must increase sales, too, going forward. To that end, it’s essential to raise awareness, says Mr. Yamamoto of Boshu-do.
“An exhibition of traditional crafts. For example, I would like to exhibit again in the exhibition at Haneda Airport, which targets travelers from overseas. I would also actively participate in any other relevant exhibitions. There is also a plan to have designers who are active overseas design uchiwa patterns, and sell them under an original brand name overseas.”
In order to make a living making uchiwa, first of all we must increase sales. Once sales are increasing, we must then increase production. Then, in order to do so, we need to increase the number of successors, because this is a handicraft, and automated manufacture is out of the question. The project of Boshu Uchiwa Promotion Council, to which Ms. Ota and Mr. Yamamoto belong, has really only just begun. We’re in it for the long haul, and looking to the future.
Boshu Uchiwa workshop instructor: Ms. Mitsue Ota
What is Boshu uchiwa?
Boshu uchiwa is one of Japan’s three major uchiwa, together with Kyo Uchiwa and Marugame Uchiwa. The morphological features of Boshu uchiwa include a cylindrical handle made of bamboo, ribs that are made by splitting bamboo uniformly into 48 or 64 sticks, and semi-circular windows that are threaded on to separate the ribs. Designs on the textile vary: tie-dyeing, Yuzen dyeing, Okinawa Bingata fabric, yukata cloth, and so on. Boshu uchiwa has been recognized as a National Traditional Craft since 2003.
Ota-ya once produced Edo uchiwa in Tokyo. It was World War II that caused them to move to the Boshu region. Currently, Ms. Mitsue Ota, the fourth-generation owner, runs the company, and produces hand-crafted uchiwa.
- 1193 Tadara, Tomiura-cho, Minamiboso-shi,
Chiba 604-0093, Japan
- HP http://ota-ya.net/