by Steve Beimel Japan continues to delight, surprise and fulfill me after nearly 50 years. About two years ago, a group of about a dozen American and British friends joined together to support me in my efforts to identify needs and give strategic support to small, key projects that encourage traditional Japanese crafts to flourish in the 21st century.
This past year, I have continued to advise a Japanese-run non-profit that supports crafts. This helped to broaden our network and taught me how well-established Japanese-run groups function. One of the activities that I particularly liked brought together young crafts people from all over the country to meet with university professors, gallery owners and successful business people for discussion and networking.
I have also continued to work with Tomohiro Naito, who over the past 4 years has progressed from being an independent carpenter to running his own construction company. He has transformed a dilapidated little house in Kyoto’s Gion district into a stunning carpentry showroom, obtained his license as a wood structure architect and is planning to build the first wooden machiya (traditional Kyoto dwelling) in Kyoto in 80 years.
This past year we identified a severe shortage of highly trained traditional master carpenters in Japan. Our solution: we have assisted Naito-san in creating a specialized school to raise the skill level of young working carpenters. Opening this past November, the school meets on two Sundays each month. Additionally, we started a support group in Tokyo to pay for the salaries of the master carpenter teachers. We raised $12,000, allowing 6 students to attend the school for one year, free-of-charge. A second class of 10 young carpenters will begin in April, bringing the total number of students to 16.
Our next project involves bamboo crafts people. Whereas there are about 30 high level Japanese bamboo artists selling their work internationally, there are very few young people who have both exceptional design sensibility and high production skill level. We are now working on a project with a bamboo art expert that we hope will pair an architect with a top-level bamboo artist to collaborate on a bamboo installation for a construction project. The artist would then directly mentor a young bamboo crafts person to develop the skills to create it. If this is successful, it could create a trend for future installations and collaborations.
I have also been working for 2 years with the owner of 1200 acres of farm forested cedar trees. Japanese farmers cannot compete with cheap imports from North America, resulting in tens of thousands of acres of ecologically imbalanced mono-culture farm forest sitting idle and overgrowing. We have just begun a project to replace 100 acres of cedar with a natural mixed forest and eventually open it to the public to enjoy in a sustainable way.
There are literally hundreds of weaving, dyeing and embroidery techniques that have ceased flourishing here during the past 10-20 years. In addition to working with silk and cotton, weavers in Japan traditionally used a variety of fibers including hemp, rami, shifu (washi paper woven with either silk, cotton or hemp), wisteria, linden bark, kudzu and banana leaf. Some of these arts are only practiced by just one or two people who have long since passed retirement age. We are now putting together a database of these remarkable people to make these crafts known, both domestically and internationally. A possible future project would be to host an exhibition of these works or to set up a “school without walls” where we could match teachers with prospective students and support them in keeping some of these arts alive.
Please check in with this blog. I plan to post updates about this project going forward.