About 4 months ago, I visited Ise-Katagami artisan Isao Uchida in Shiroko and wrote about it here. Today, there was a workshop with him in Tokyo and I had an another chance to hear his story.
The topic flew from his apprenticeship period to the rise and fall of katagami industry.
At the peak period during 1970-1975, he had orders of katagami (paper stencil) production as much as he couldn’t have enough time to sleep. Order mainly came from Kyoto, where had a demand for semi-formal kimonos for women.
For making one kimono, some dozens to hundreds of katagami are required. There was a middleman between a dyer and a katagami artisan and the final design and colors were not often fully shared, therefore, engraving the stencil by imagining how the colors and design patterns are combined was really a complex work. Good katagami artisan needs to be clever enough. The peak period was over after 5,6 years when Nylon made stencil took it over. Artisan Uchida will be 71 years old this year and he still feels he is inferior. Most of his junior left the business due to the fall in the industry. He is one of the youngest among 20 some existing katagami artisans.
There are katagami, which even an accomplished artisan as Uchida highly appreciates. Such katagami has its hold on life. The drawn flowers and leafs are vivid and have vigor.
The patterns on katagami are so refined and tiny. It may be difficult to find such a difference in detail for an ordinary person.
In Japan, there is a saying, “what an artisan earns by day he spends by night”. It is because an artisan becomes lazy and stop working once he earns enough money. If he stops working, he loses his touch. Therefore, he shouldn’t keep his earnings and continue to work to keep up his skills.
First step of making katagami is to develop ‘shouhon (小本)’, which is about the size of 12cmx12cm square. Katagami patterns are repetition of this square. Artisan Uchida says that once he develops shouhon, a half of his work is over.
Until recently, the order of katagami development came from a middleman, therefore, it was often the case that a katagami artisan has never seen the final product-the dyed kimono with his katagami. But today, artisan Uchida tries to directly work with a dyer.
He created “Gonin-gumi (composed of 5 persons)” with other katagami artisans and dyers and develop kimono textiles together. I found this an interesting movement as producing kimono textiles used to be a role of kimono wholesale dealers and they were the one who took the most part of margins from the sales. Now they do not involve such dealers.
This initiative came from a compelling succession issue. There is no sufficient demand for katagami production as much as an artisan can live only relying on this.
When Artisan Uchida was still in his apprentice, his master earned good money as a katagami artisan. Artisan Uchida naturally desired to be like his master and it was his key motivation to eagerly learn and be the skillful artisan. But now, he can’t propose such a attractive vision to his apprentices, therefore, they do not put their effort to master skills. If the current situation continues, the techniques of katagami artisan will definitely disappear soon. Artisan Uchida wants to present a new way of living as a katagami artisan through ‘Gonin-gumi”s initiative.
I recalled his words from my last visit to Shiroko.
“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.”
More young Japanese has been showing interests in kimono, but the little increase won’t be able to cultivate enough demands to sustain the katagami industry. The market is globe. Perhaps, foreign blood could discover completely new purposes of using the paper stencils skills and find a way to survive? My wishful thinking….