Well greetings everyone, today I have a special treat for you all! Now for those who don’t know, I have an obsession in life and that obsession is urushi and maki-e. Why may you ask? Well, I have always had an admiration for the arts in general and when I discovered the beauty of urushi on my first Nakaya, I was hooked. The skill, dedication and patience required to produce lacquerware are extremely high and if you have ever heard of the famous old saying “ I’d rather watch paint dry” this is pretty much what most urushi artists do!
This was 2 years back and now my collection has grown somewhat. I have experienced pens from a few makers and manufacturers. However, today I wanted to discuss urushi and maki-e with a lady I just recently met and commissioned on Instagram. Yukari is not new to urushi or Maki-e and has had experience in the fountain pen world, working at one of Japan’s most prestigious manufacturers. So without waffling on too much, I’ll now introduce her and crack on.
Please note that Yukari is Japanese and that English is not her first language.
Firstly, Yukari I want to thank you to agreeing to this interview. I specifically wanted to pick you, as you have one of the best resources online for detailing every aspect of urushi and maki-e. Plus, your passion really shows in your work. Firstly, I’d like you to give our readers a bit of a background on your interests in urushi and maki-e and when did fountain pens begin to play a pivotal part in your life?
Nice to meet you, everyone. I am very grateful for the opportunity to respond to such a wonderful online magazine interview. And thank you for choosing me.
Then, I would like to answer the question. As an Urushi/Maki-e artist, I am now Maki-e working on various things. However, I was interested in fountain pens before Maki-e’s work. In fact, I fell in love with the Maki-e fountain pen and started learning Maki-e work.
When I started to get interested in fountain pens, it was very late. In Japan, fountain pens are not familiar from childhood as in Western countries. The first writing tool used by elementary school students is a pencil. As the grade goes up, they use a mechanical pencil. When they become university students and work part-time, they have more opportunities to use ballpoint pens. In Japan since the introduction of ballpoint pens, fountain pens are rarely used in everyday life. I grew up in the background of such writing equipment circumstances.
Along with writing, I have loved stationery since I was little. However, I had never used a fountain pen. When I became a college student and wanted to work on stationery, I researched various stationery makers. At that time, I was interested in a fountain pen that I was not familiar with. Then, I went around many fountain pen speciality stores and found out that there are many manufacturers and types. I wanted to know more about fountain pens and wanted to work at a fountain pen speciality store, so I became a fountain pen salesperson.
You mentioned that fountain pens are not very common in schools and that pencils and mechanical pencils are more commonplace. Is there a particular reason for this? And Can you also remember what your first fountain pen was? And do you still own it?
In Japan, it is still difficult for children in the lower grades of elementary school to adjust the writing pressure, and it is said that pencils are suitable. Pencils are ideal for memorizing Japanese kanji, such as stopping and bouncing. As the grade goes up, they will be able to adjust the pen pressure to some extent, and they will be able to use it without breaking the lead of the mechanical pencil.
My first fountain pen is the Montblanc 146 that my grandfather gave me. After that, I bought the Pelikan M400 myself. I still own it.
Both of those pens have a superb history!
You mentioned you worked in a fountain pen store to start off, how did you transition from working in a store to learning the beautiful art of Urushi/Maki-e?
That’s a long story. As a fountain pen salesperson, I was explaining the materials and manufacturing process of fountain pens, and eventually, I wanted to get involved in making fountain pens myself. I also liked the Pelikan fountain pen and wanted to work at the Pelikan factory. However, I couldn’t speak German, so I went to a German government-approved language school in Japan for most of my days off. After studying for about 4 years, I passed the German language test. I then contacted Pelikan directly in German and made an appointment for Pelikan’s artisan program training. I quit my job as a salesperson in Japan and went to Germany. I had a tour training (like an intern) at the factory for one month. However, although I am enthusiastic, I have no manufacturing experience, and since I am Japanese, I did not get a work permit. At the factory, they said, “Because you are Japanese, you will have a job when you return to Japan. There is no chance of getting a visa.”
Unfortunately, I decided to go back to Japan. At the factory, the kind Germans comforted me. And they said, “Japan has a traditional craft called Maki-e, which is wonderful.” They knew Maki-e because they also had Maki-e fountain pens on the market at Pelikan.
So it seemed that I was taught the wonderfulness of my own culture for the first time when I went abroad. Of course, I knew that Japanese manufacturers had Maki-e fountain pens. However, until then, I was not so interested in Maki-e and did not pursue it deeply. When I started to look up Maki-e work, I wanted to try it myself, so after returning to Japan, I immediately looked it up and went to school. It took a long detour, but my Maki-e history started here.
It’s quite amazing that at times we have to go through a journey that takes us far from home, in order to appreciate our own culture. You mentioned your time at Pelikan and how you noticed they made pens featuring maki-e. Were there any particular designs that appealed to you? And did you notice any trend in Germany to Japanese writing instruments?
What I was particularly attracted to at the time was the Pelikan Raden fountain pen. The brilliance of the shellfish is not really the same, and it was very attractive as a natural product. The charm of Raden is enormous for me, and in my work, I use shellfish very often.
I don’t know about it now, but at that time I felt that the recognition of Japanese stationery makers was very low in Germany. I saw a few at stationery stores with a large selection, but I rarely saw pens from Japanese manufacturers. Also, although the people working at the Pelikan factory knew Western manufacturers, many of them didn’t know much about Japanese manufacturers.
Certainly looking over Instagram accounts these days shellfish or raden (as it’s more commonly known amongst collectors) seem to be garnering interest. This is also reflected in the prices that Pelikan maki-e pieces can command in the used market and I have to say I am looking very much forward to receiving mine from you in the near future!
From a western perspective, Maki-e and urushi have really increased in the general interest. Do you think this attributed to the fact that Japan was very much cut off from the west of the world until the 19th century? Secondly, has social media had any impact in terms of Japanese buyers?
Thank you. I also hope to create beautiful works using shellfish.
Certainly, Japan is an island country, so I think it had some influence on the isolation policy of the 19th century. I think it has a great influence on the national character. Due to the closed environment, a culture that values harmony has developed. However, it is a culture that also loses individuality. I think it’s very big in both good and bad ways.
And even today, Japan has a population of about 120 million, so the domestic market is quite large. Japanese people can work without using English at all. It’s also closed.
Under such circumstances, I think that modern social media has had a great impact on the Japanese buyer market. Even Japanese people who have never been abroad can instantly reach out to people all over the world, so their influence is immeasurable.
In particular, Maki-e work is a handicraft, so many people work individually. It can be said that the present age when individuals can send out is an opportunity to further convey the charm of various Maki-e work.
I could of course discuss the parallels of island nations, being English myself! However, I’m sure the readers would love to know more about your skill set.
In private conversations, you’ve spoken to me about your education and it’s to my understanding that in wajima it’s commonplace for urushi craftsmen and women to concentrate on certain aspects of production. For example, you may have a person who masters the foundation stage, then someone who concentrates on the middle layers. So, when you were taught, would you have different teachers instructing you on different parts of production? And is this philosophy of mastering one particular skill set still mainly practised today?
Well, let’s talk about urushi. There are urushi production areas all over Japan. And the process is different for each production area. But the process is very long. There are various processes such as base, undercoat, middle coat, top coat, decoration (Maki-e) and polishing. It was thought that the quality would be improved by dividing this into each process and having a specialized craftsman who only did that process. But to do that, we also need the number of people to do the job. The more active the trade with foreign countries, the more Western culture entered and the Japanese lifestyle changed. Demand and the working population of urushi have decreased. There are very few production areas where the division of labour of urushi products can still be realized. Among them, Wajima is famous as a urushi-producing area.
Against this background of the times, the school for Maki-e I went to had a curriculum designed so that I could learn the whole process. In class, there are both an urushi paint teacher and a Maki-e teacher. At school, I learned from many people, not just one person. The amount of study is enormous. Of course, I still have a lot to study. However, I think that many schools where you can learn urushi are now able to learn the whole process. This is because it is not possible to complete an urushi work by yourself with only some processes. I think that is also a form of learning urushi that suits the present age. Besides, the amount of information that can be obtained in modern times is enormous, so if I have the motivation, I can study anything.
It’s superb to hear that many craftsmen are still producing in traditional methods and that there are schools dedicated to learning.
With the interest in urushi and maki-e slowly making inroads on western collectors, do you think this will eventually have an impact on what shops offer? I remember finding you through an Instagram search for maki-e but not many people I spoke to at the time of finding you were willing to produce fountain pens. Is this because these artisans are not really aware of the market possibilities? Or is there a general lack of awareness towards fountain pens?
It is wonderful that Western collectors are very interested in Maki-e, and I am very grateful as a Japanese person. However, urushi and gold powder, which are the materials for Maki-e, are very expensive. Therefore, the price of the product will inevitably increase. And because the process is long, the production volume is small. In terms of price and inventory, I don’t think the shop will be affected that much.
Also, as I mentioned before, I think the craftsmen’s awareness of fountain pens is low. And painting the curved axis of a stick-shaped fountain pen is more difficult than making a flat one. The range of the fountain pen Maki-e work is also very detailed.Regarding the potential of the market, I feel that few Japanese are actively communicating with overseas markets. Regarding Maki-e work, I try to consult in detail, but it is a very hard task because it is not my mother tongue to do such things in English.But there is a lot of learning there.I think that the market will grow as the number of people and jobs that respond to overseas markets increases.
You mentioned that English isn’t your first language, however, I’m impressed with the level you know.
In regards to applying the lacquer on a curved surface. This is something I’ve had a go at, mainly with the fuki (layers of natural urushi over wood) technique. However, I’m nowhere near proficient! Please could you explain the challenges of applying lacquer and polishing on a curved surface in more depth?
Thank you for your compliment. It was encouraging for me and I am very happy.
First, urushi is in a liquid state when applied. When urushi is applied to a curved surface, it may drip and accumulate if it is applied too thickly depending on the amount applied.If you do so, it will not dry with a uniform coating thickness. In some cases, the surface may wrinkle when it dries. You have to check the dry condition frequently.
When sharpening, it is necessary to prepare sharpening tools that follow the shape of the curved surface. I mainly sharpen with charcoal, but since it is natural charcoal, if you do not pay attention to the hardness, it will get deep scratches.
Polishing is by hand, but if it is a curved surface, such as how to move the polishing hand, the area that hits it is smaller than that of a flat surface, and the degree of force applied changes.
As mentioned above, there are more points to pay attention to in all processes such as painting, sharpening, and polishing than on flat surfaces. Even when checking, if it is a flat surface, you can see the whole. However, you cannot see all the rod-shaped curved surfaces unless you turn them.
I think that the Maki-e fountain pen is most appealing to convey in a video.
Staying on the topic of urushi and maki-e, it’s clear that symbolism is pretty synonymous with the designs that are produced on pens. As a reviewer of predominantly urushi pens, I do enjoy reading into your country’s history. The Aktisushima from Nakaya, now more commonly known as Tombow was a pen design I had no cultural understanding of. But doing a quick search really gave me more of an understanding of the artist’s intent with the pen, thus giving me more enjoyment.
In Japan, do people choose maki-e items based on cultural significance? Or do they simply choose a design based on how pretty it looks, or what brand it comes from?
Japan has four seasons. You can see cherry blossoms in spring, lotus and morning glory in summer, coloured leaves in autumn, plums and camellia in winter, and various plants in each season. In addition, many of the motifs of Maki-e are Japanese, such as those that have long been considered to be auspicious. However, in modern times, there are various motifs, so the range of Maki-e is wide.
The reasons for choosing what to buy are different for each person, but I think that many Japanese people enjoy decorating each season. Also, as with brands, in modern times, if there is a painter you like, I think that there is a big pictorial element that you like what that person draws. Many of Maki-e works have both artistic and practical elements, which I think is also interesting. It can be said that a Maki-e fountain pen is a portable work of art.
Excellent point about Maki-e on pens being portable pieces of art! This is in part why I have opted to hone my collection in this art form.
Next, I’d like to chat about the future of Maki-e! In the west, we hear there is a decline in people taking up this skill. However, the demand and interest in the art form are ever-growing, especially in the fountain pen market. Do you think that this demand could well spur interest in other people taking up Maki-e? If not, I’d there anything that could be done in regards to attracting more people in?
There are many people who are doing their best in lacquering in the art market. Kintsugi is also getting a lot of attention lately. I think that lacquer work is drawing attention from various directions. I think the fountain pen is one of them.
Also, I think it’s wonderful that people from countries other than Japan are self-taught in lacquering. Moreover, I think that the world is expanding again by making it a job. Their efforts are wonderful and I am encouraged every day.
I would like to share what I think is as good as possible. I think that sending out from a large number of people will lead to opportunities for more people to see it.
Well Yukari, I’d like to thank you for your time in regards to doing this interview! And I’d like to thank our readers for getting to this point! If you’d like to support Yukari, please head over to her Instagram account and website! Stay tuned for an upcoming article on a pen I commissioned from Yukari.