Fujii Genjiro-san: Master Kyoto Brush Maker

Fujii Genjiro-san is almost 90 years old, yet he is clear, strong and full of warmth and energy.  He has been a Kyoto brush maker for most of his long life.  As Kyoto has been an arts center for 1200 years, there is a vast variety of brushes available here:  long hair fude brushes for calligraphy and painting, and, short hair hake brushes for textile painting, dyeing and mounting.

For years, Japanese art restoration experts visiting museums around the world—places like the Metropolitan, Boston M.F.A, Leiden in Holland, the Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian, the British Museum–invariably saw magnificent brushes used for the restoration of paintings and scrolls made with washi paper.  When they ask where the brushes came from, the answer is always the same:  Mr. Fujii in Kyoto.

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“I am the 6th generation brush maker, living in this same house in downtown Kyoto.  The first generation brush maker in our family made cosmetic brushes.  In addition to mounting brushes for screens and scrolls, he made brushes for the Imperial Family.  The second generation did the same, but also made brushes for bonding gold leaf to washi paper which is then slit and wrapped around silk thread for weaving.  I specialized in making brushes for mounting and restoration.

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“In my youth, the first son never questioned that he would take over the house business.  But my progressive father did not push me.  My grandfather, on the other hand, wanted me to continue the family business and start learning the trade early, before my sense of self got too strong and my thinking became less flexible.

“When I was 21, I was drafted into the Imperial army.  My job was to calculate calories for nutritional menus.  Eventually our unit was sent to Manchuria, but as the war wound down, we just waited around until the war ended because we had no planes.  In 1945, we were captured by the Soviets and taken to Uzbekistan for three years to work in coal mines.

“There were 1500 of us who were shipped to Uzbekistan, crammed in 40 freight cars.  Sometimes the train would sit for a half day.  Young, strong men in their 20s, sitting in cramped cars—40-50 people in a car.  Couldn’t go to the toilet.  We were all afraid of dying.  We had to carry all our lice-ridden belongings that we used for sitting.  Once we began working at the mines, many men died, crushed when the cart ropes broke.

“The Soviets allowed the weaker ones go home.  Others among us were gradually released, but we could not figure out the criteria for letting people leave.  One day, I heard the name Fujii Genjiro being called.  I excitedly stepped forward, but they were calling a man named Fujii Kenjiro.  I was very disappointed.

“We were given big breakfasts so they could work us all day.  Dinner was just a lousy soup—lots of water to create volume.  Prisoners in American camps ate really well, but we ate frogs, snakes.  We were also sent to do labor for construction.  One day while on a work assignment, we saw a big scary looking dog.  It was dead.  The men in my group insisted that we take it back and cook it.  I told them no, but they did it anyway.  I did try a little.  It tasted like chicken.

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“Then they asked for volunteers to go work on a farm.  (He is really laughing at this point.)  About 150 of us were sent to reclaim swamp land and slash reeds.  It was like walking on a mountain of needles.  The wet mud was frozen.  It was very hard labor.  If we didn’t finish the work, we weren’t fed.  While working, we picked and ate small watery tomatoes.  One could easily eat 20-30.  One man said he ate 100.  We all became good friends.

“People who joined the Communist party received preferential treatment.  Some Japanese became supervisors.  Some of the men among us were spies, so we needed to be careful of what we said.  We were made to sing Communist songs.  We tried to appear cooperative to get early discharge.  The resistant men had time added to their stays.  Some succumbed to the brainwashing and chose not to return to Japan.  I have almost never talked about this before.

“On one hand, we thought that most of the guards were incredibly dumb (he says while laughing hard.)  We were always looking for ways to outsmart them.  But they continuously upped our work quotas.

“I returned to Japan in December, 1948.  My family did not know where I had been for those three years.  All my friends, relatives and neighbors came to greet me at Kyoto Station, but my father was not there.  My mother said that he had caught cold and was sleeping at home.  When I finally got home and I walked inside, I saw his ashes, sitting in a box in the tokonoma alcove.  My grandfather had also died during the war as did my younger brother, in Okinawa.  Only my mother and sister remained.

“I had to learn brush making by myself.  I was 30 when I returned from the war after 10 years.  Although I had three years of experience before the war, it normally took 8-10 years to become a brush maker and no one was left to teach me.  My mother advised me the best she could, but I had to really figure it all out by myself.

“I eventually learned how to make uchibake (pounding brush.)  The year before last, I made my 1000th uchibake.  They have been sold all over the world to conservators who repair old works of Asian art.  Modern chemicals and bonds do not produce invisible repairs.  When a new piece of washi paper is applied to a hole in an old work, pounding my brush on the repair binds together the fibers in the old and new washi, leaving no seam at all.”

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In Collaboration with Photographer, Helen Hasenfeld

© Photos by Helen Hasenfeld