Sakurai Kokeshi, traditional Kokeshi Craftsmakers

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Contribution to craftsmanship

Kokeshi is a traditional product of Miyagi. This craft is designated as a national traditional craft of Japan. Kokeshi is a fully hand-made wooden doll with a painted human-like face. The Sakurai Kokeshi company is located in Naruko-Onsen, a retreat and wellness place for hot springs. Kokeshi began as a souvenir and developed in that way.

In the Sakurai family, Kokeshi are decorated with very carefully and skillfully painted flowers, which gives the product an elegant and refined look. It comes from the fact that the Sakurai family originally found lots of inspiration from their artistic sides. That made the Sakurai family’s craftspeople more likely to explore various designs.

What is the hardest part in training to become a Kokeshi maker?

For Sakurai Akihiro, the father, wood carving is the most technical step. In addition there is the difficulty of turning your imagination into a living Kokeshi; “it is difficult to realize what you are imagining”.

Motivations for becoming a Kokeshi craftsperson

Sakurai Kokeshi has been a family business for five generations. Sakurai Akihiro, the father, grew up “watching [his] father work with Kokeshi”. When a passion arises, there is no need to justify it: “I just simply like making things”. His son, Sakurai Naomichi, initially went his own professional way before coming back to the family business. Together, they are thinking about innovative ways to develop their craft.

Making the Kokeshi business more sustainable

The first way is expanding market territory. That is why the Sakurai Kokeshi company now offers international shipping. However, utilizing domestic talent remains a trusted source when it comes to being united. Sakurai Kokeshi was part of some collaborative projects organised by the Japanese Ministry of Trade Economy, in which domestic designers were involved. Some cross-disciplinary collaborations with artists lead to electronic music performances that included samples of wood carving (!).

Valuing local communities

There is definitely a community of Kokeshi makers. They unite for the local Kokeshi festival in Naruko. Sometimes, they go together to Tokyo, to showcase their products or take part in events. They also act together on a business-level, for example co-purchasing raw material.

This sense of community is not known only to Kokeshi makers. Naomichi also collaborates with other talent, thanks to the Koshiki Project. In this project, he shares what he feels is important, rich and unique about Naruko and its citizens: “I wanted to contribute to the Naruko community with Kokeshi”, Naomichi explains.

Cultural highlights about Japan

Historically, being an apprentice in Japan and learning a craft meant the master “just look[ed] at you work on Kokeshi, and they figure out themselves”, Naomichi states. So, no matter how an apprentice learns how to see through their master’s back, there is a time when “l’élève dépasse le maître” [the apprentice becomes more skilled than his or her master]. This French saying seems very appropriate here. However, “stealing the skill of your master is not necessarily a bad thing; that is what you have to do”, Naomichi explains. However, this might lead to complex issues regarding industrial property. In earlier times, for instance, there was no way for the Sakurai family to protect their unique flower designs.

Useful tips for someone who wants to become a Kokeshi craftsperson

You can start by attending Kokeshi painting workshops to experience and express your creativity! If you are really into Kokeshi making, the simplest task remains wood preparation – peeling off the wood. Moreover, in the future, Sakurai Kokeshi plans to open up to the most motivated and curious people, nationals and internationals. Sakurai Kokeshi company is currently working on how to integrate this new kind of workforce. Learning by doing remains the motto! If you really want to become a Kokeshi apprentice, and, later on, a master, start making your own tools! Just like a fountain pen is tinged with his owner’s gestures and influences writing style, each Kokeshi craftsperson makes his or her own personalised tools. Let’s call it a personal “toolprint”! “So each person’s characteristics is reflected on the tool”, Akihiro explains. That is what brings this vibrancy in the Kokeshi – as well as the spontaneous and generous laugh of Akihiro that resonates in the shop!

 

Special thanks to Sakurai Akihiro, Sakurai Naomichi, Saito Takaharu, Tanaka Ulala, Roger Smith for making this visit happen! 

For more Kokeshi stories, please visit Sakurai Kokeshi’s website: http://en.sakuraikokeshiten.com/ 

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