In a raining day in the middle of December, I visited Artisan Isao Uchida, at Shiroko (白子), where is a heart of Ise-Katagami production and 40 mins away from Nagoya by train. He is a leading Ise-Katagami sculptor of the day,
The atelier of Artisan Uchida is situated at the corner of his house. Cozy tatami-mat room. Sitting on a floor cushion by facing a low table. He was working on his last piece before ending year 2014.
The room was filled with his long-time relationship with Ise-Katagami. The bookcases couldn’t hold all books on Katagami patterns, so some of them was stacked on the floor. Loads of ‘tried-and-true’ knives and tools. A large copy machine……..
The room seems expressing his pride as an artisan and his devotion to Ise-Katagami.
When I think of an artisan, I always imagine a difficult person with sullen looks. I was a little nervous and was wondering how I could start our conversation when I met him, but I realized that I was over-anxious soon after I met him. He was actually a very cheerful person and was eager to speak about Ise-Katagami. I was simply interested in the richness of patterns and countless number of geometric designs, therefore, my main purpose of the visit was to look at as many katagami patterns as possible. However, it didn’t take too long to become fascinated by the craftsmanship and an artistic value of Ise-Katagami itself. His work using ‘tsukibori technique’ is so delicate and creates elegant curves that capitalize on sensitivity. Persimmon tanned paper has a particular smoky scent that made me feel nostalgic. Artisan Uchida told me that it takes 20 days for completing a paper stencil of a little larger than A3 size, therefore, he can’t make any mistake before its completion and he normally doesn’t.
Artisan Uchida began studying katagami in 1965. Being an independent artisan, it has an apprentice system of about 6 years. An apprentice learns techniques from master and improve skills sufficient to be independent by taking 3-4 years, and then spends another 2-3 years for serving himself for master’s business for return before his apprenticeship expires. In the Japanese apprentice system, a master normally doesn’t teach techniques, therefore, an apprentice needs to ‘steal’ the techniques by carefully watching the master’s work and practicing himself.
“The technique, which has endured for about 1000 years, is about to run its course during our era. What we are charged to do is to cultivate our successors.”
Katagami artisans are aging. Artisan Uchida is now 70 years old. There are just 20 Katagami artisans in Japan and only 2 or 3 of them are in their 60s, and the youngest. Stencil production has been getting more and more replaced by computer graphics. Katagami industry is having a significant problem to attract successors. Although all artisans invested time and energy to learn the techniques to become a professional by taking the severe apprentice system, Artisan Uchida said that he doesn’t mind giving every possible help to an apprentice in learning techniques side by side, if he can receive such an apprentice. Artisan Uchida doesn’t sit and wait for an opportunity to promote Ise-Katagami. He often travels all over Japan and sometimes even to abroad to demonstrate and teach the Katagami creation technique as many people as possible. There are also some regular pupils who are amateur but enjoy learning techniques from him.
Photo by NONOKA
Stencil itself can be replaced by a new technology, but great devotion of the time, pride and perfection that an artisan put into the work isn’t replaceable. Katagami captures the heritage of 1000 years that people inherited carefully….. and all these are the value of craftsmanship. “Can Katagami survive?” I left Shiroko by being puzzled but determined to get one katagami for my place in new year.
Artisan Isao Uchida
Artisan Uchida is a member of the society of the Nationally-designated Important Intangible Cultural Property. He received the Minister of Economy Trade and Industry Minister Award to Recognize Contributions to Traditional Craft Industries in 2013.