Heir to Four Centuries of Tradition

Koichi Ozeki checkes to see that the bamboo ribs are perfectly straight.
(Photos by Masatsugu Yokoyama)
In Japan it is thought that the color red has the power to ward off evil spirits. In the Edo Period (1603-1868), umbrellas painted deep red were essential items for use in shrine and temple ceremonies. The most prized umbrellas were called kurai-gasa (rank umbrellas) because only persons of rank were allowed to carry them.
 In the modern era, traditional umbrellas covered with washi (Japanese paper) began to be used in garden settings for the tea ceremony, and became popular among the general public after the second world war. Together with the red carpet, these umbrellas became essential items that enhanced the beauty and solemnity of the ceremony.
 Today the Ozeki family, with a history dating back four centuries, is the only full-time maker of these traditional umbrellas (tsuma-ori-gasa) in Japan. Koichi Ozeki, the fourteenth-generation head of the family, works in a century-old wooden workshop using handmade tools passed down from his ancestors.
 The bamboo ribs for the umbrellas are painstakingly straightened over a charcoal fire. Ozeki's face gleams with sweat as his hands move with great dexterity over the red hot coals. The polished skill of the craftsman is apparent in the way he straightens a bamboo rib removing a slight curve that would be invisible to the unexperienced eye.
 Ozeki describes the difficulty of his task without taking his eyes off the bamboo in his hands. "Each piece of bamboo has a distinctive shape, so it is difficult to make them all uniformly straight. You can't heat them too much since the surface will char. And the ribs are no good if they revert to their original shape after they cool."
 The basic production tasks involve preparing the framework, coloring and applying the washi, and decorating the sliding parts. This amounts to over 60 separate processes, all carried out by hand, and takes approximately a month to complete one umbrella. The most difficult process comes at the end, when the paper is creased to allow the umbrella to be folded. Before this process, each umbrella is left to gather moisture by being exposed to dew.
 "He makes the creases one by one with his fingers," says Ozeki's mother Nobuko, "and this is enough to make his fingerprints wear off. The skin on his fingers gets thinner and thinner, and eventually they start to bleed."
 "Umbrellas that have been moistened artificially aren't the same," adds Koichi. "This may seem like a simple task, but the care we take gives it meaning." It appears that obtaining the right bamboo and washi for the umbrellas is becoming more difficult. "The life of the umbrella is in the paper. If we don't use good paper, we can't get good-quality coloring, and the umbrella will lack strength. Unfortunately there are fewer and fewer people producing handmade paper, and it's difficult to find suitable materials."
 With a full order book, Ozeki is quite concerned about being able to secure such materials. Each year Ozeki makes about 400 umbrellas, no two of which are identical. "If I'm not entirely satisfied with a product, it never leaves my workshop." The soul of the craftsman, handed down through the generations, is reflected in these uncompromising words.
 Ozeki himself has been making umbrellas for 26 years. He became the fourteenth in line of the family trade five years ago after the death of his father, Masamitsu. Ozeki's mother now helps out by attaching the decorative tassels to the sliding parts, and another craftsman applies the paper to the frames. Apart from these, all of the processes are handled by Ozeki.
 He claims he learned his craft quite naturally by watching his father work as a child. "But there were aspects of the work that didn't become apparent to me until I took over the business and became more experienced. Perhaps that's what people mean when they talk about the 'inner depths' of a craft."
 These words seem to sum up the modesty and uncompromising dedication of an artisan, who says his immediate goal is to be "as good as my old man."