[Interview Highlights] Hirooki Ōtomo, writing brushes maker, Sendai, Japan

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The unique art of making Ofude

Ōtomo-san is making high-end brushes for calligraphy specialists. When you buy one of the brushes he makes, you can be sure you are going for the best quality as he puts all his heart and skills into making each one. Plus, you can use it for thirty years. Thirty years! These brushes used to be made of Japanese animals – mostly horses. Nowadays, Ōtomo-san is using white goats from China. Only never-ever-shaved goats can offer the required hairs for making brushes. The subtle art of making Sendai Ofude lies into the care one must put when making the brush. It is about carefully selecting animal hairs when composing the “head” of the brush. Indeed, there are different qualities according to which part of the animal hairs come from.
In one month, he can only make twenty of these high-end brushes.

 

The only one left

Ōtomo-san takes care of the production from beginning to end – alone. Meaning, no apprentice helps him. He is the only craftsman for this kind of brushes in Sendai – and in all of Tohoku area. He only makes the best quality, at a cost. In Hiroshima though, cheaper brushes are available, mostly used by students or primary school pupils.
Why does Ōtomo-san focus on making only the best quality products?


Aiming for excellence for every Ofude customer

Ōtomo-san is of prestigious descent. “My ancestors were Samurai. At first, Samurai were in charge of making brushes”. He respects the Samurai’s mindset: “rigorous, disciplined, doing things as they should be done…”. “That is what made brushes from Sendai so famous and beautiful.” So, he is not trying to make things easier. “The result would be the same if I would mix the hairs only twice, however it should be done three times, so I am doing accordingly”. “The important thing is to respect tradition”. It seems like the journey is as important as the destination.
Moreover, Ōtomo-san would notice if things would not be perfect – and he will not compromise on that. “Average people wouldn’t notice, but I would”. “Botching the job is definitely not an option”
So, is it about offering excellence to everyone? It seems like it!


Duty & devotion

« When my father died, here were like twenty employees at the shop at that time”. The family was in debt, so Ōtomo-san had no choice but to take the business over and train hard to become a talented brush maker. He inherited the know-how from the best employee of the shop – who himself leant from Ōtomo-san’s father. When I ask whether this very employee opened his own business afterwards, Ōtomo-san replies: “he stayed with me until the end”. That teaches a lot about passion and dedication, doesn’t it?


On the future of Sendai Ofude making

Times are changing. Ōtomo-san’s children work in various different fields and no one has taken over the family business. Moreover, since the disaster in March 2011, orders dramatically collapsed. However, Ōtomo-san sounds quite optimistic: “Oh, it is fine, people in Hiroshima will keep on making brushes…”.


On the art of writing

Back in the days, everyone would need a brush to write. Nowadays, it seems like computers have overcame. The irony being, “computers enable you to write with a brush effect”. What about the art of writing letters? Usually people use their computers to write nengajo (New Year’s greeting cards). Ōtomo-san uses his own brushes for writing them. Two hundred of them each year!


Japanese tradition

In Japan, sometimes people would make a brush out of their baby’s hair – that have never been cut before. “It is not a really good brushes though – better keep it as a cherished reminder of the child!”

 

Many thanks, Ōtomo-san! 

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