The Specialist

Men at Work: Artisans of Old Japan

The Specialist

Men at Work: Artisans of Old Japan

The Specialist
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Jan. 30 2009 7:05 AM

Men at Work: Artisans of Old Japan

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Click here to launch a slide show on day 5.

Master brush-maker Yoshio Tanabe spent the first 10 minutes of our acquaintance explaining why the appointment was futile: His knowledge of brushes, calligraphy, and the properties and characteristics of animal hair was vast, and my capacity for understanding was small. It was hard to argue—what could I possibly comprehend of his craft when I can't write a single Japanese character?—but he relented when I brought out a dog-eared photocopy of the chapter in Edo Craftsmen that profiled the family business and featured many shots of his photogenic father, Matsuzo. I was a fan! Besides, he'd just finished up a batch of brushes, so he had some time on his hands, and Tanabe Bunkaido, his little shop in the Nezu district of Tokyo, was empty. So, why not?

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June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.

Later, I realized that reluctance was a family tradition. The only touch of color on the calligraphy-filled shop walls came from a vomit of primary colors in a small painting by Joan Miró. Apparently, the Catalan artist once came to the store while Yoshio's father was still alive, asking for brushes. Matsuzo initially refused the sale. His brushes were intended for calligraphy, not painting; what's more, he had intended to pass them on to Yoshio rather than sell them. But like his son the hesitant interview subject, he eventually relented, and Miró left the store with a parcel under his arm. (Yoshio speaks unsentimentally about his father, but he keeps a whole cabinet full of his dad's brushes in the store. At this point, they're probably too old to sell, but from the way he caressed them as he demonstrated their qualities, they're clearly among his most prized possessions.)

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Yoshio Tanabe is such an imposing man—broad-shouldered and strong—that it's hard to imagine him spending half a century selecting, separating, and combing animal hairs, but that has been his life. He's a talkative, gregarious guy—after his initial show of playing hard to get, he spent two and a half hours answering questions and demonstrating his skills—and yet since his father died 20 years ago, he has worked alone in a small workshop behind the display cases, getting to his feet only for lunch or the bathroom. "When I was younger, I wondered why I had to do this," he admitted, indicating the cramped quarters.

To my Western way of thinking, "guilt" is the explanation. Matsuzo Tanabe, whose only schooling after the age of 7 had been his brush-making apprenticeship, pushed his son into the family business. Yoshio's rebellion was to insist that he be allowed to graduate from college before he moved into the workshop, but once installed, he never left. Nothing has changed in his five decades of brush-making. Is he bored, I asked. "Yes," he answered flatly, though he didn't seem to consider that such a terrible fate.

So, what is the reward? The accumulation of knowledge and the satisfaction of creation: "Making a brush is like calligraphy itself. When you really look at it, you can see the skill and all the work that's gone into it." And, of course, praise from the cognoscenti. "When a calligrapher says to me, 'Good brush!' I am satisfied."

Tanabe's wares are expensive. The cheapest thing he makes himself is a beginner's calligraphy brush of horse and sheep hair that retails for $60. (He also sells brushes made by former students of his father's.) The softer and rarer the hair, the more expensive the brush—and the greater the skill needed to wield it. One of the priciest pieces in the store is a $22,000 brush made by Matsuzo Tanabe from black Japanese horsehair; it took years just to collect the long, soft hairs it required. It seems churlish to wonder if art supplies are worth thousands of dollars; it's like asking if anyone needs a Patek Philippe when a Timex tells the time just as well. Nevertheless, a $1,000 brush wouldn't improve my kanji, and there can't be many calligraphers whose skills could cause a significant reduction in Tanabe Bunkaido's inventory.

Among the thousands of brushes displayed in the store are a few with ivory handles. Tanabe is slightly embarrassed by them—they're old, he stresses, not for sale—but where better for an endangered material than an endangered store? There's no doubting Tanabe's skill as a brush-maker, but it's hardly a growth industry. During our long visit, no one so much as looked in the store window, much less came inside. Computers and competition are killing calligraphy—these days, people print out labels rather than address New Year's cards by hand, and the private calligraphy schools that once taught Japanese youngsters the arcane arts of lettering have been replaced by cram schools where kids study for Japan's university entrance exams. Calligraphy schools have gone the way of abacus schools; they're no longer needed.

Perhaps that's why Tanabe seems sincerely unsentimental about the fate of the family business. Although it's hard to believe, he's 71. He has no children, and he never took on an apprentice. When he can no longer work, it will all come to an end. We guests—including interpreter Michiyo—exclaim how sad this is. Tanabe-san simply smiles. It's just how it is.

In the end, I'm not sure how much I learned about work from my visits with these men. I already knew how lucky I was. For all the talk of Japanese respect for tradition, the proud craftsmen seemed all but abandoned. But there was something positive about their isolation: the silence. My vacation was blissfully peaceful. I didn't watch any television while I was in Japan; since I couldn't understand the words, the noise felt offensive and clamorous. One Sunday afternoon, I even found myself kneeling in a teahouse, pondering a scroll. My host explained that the calligraphy described the sound of the wind moving through trees. Outside, it was quiet enough to hear the breeze.