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Vol.13 Sakai Craftsmanship and the Crafts Fair

by Okayama Taku


The Town of Sakai

Situated in the southern part of the Osaka Plain, Sakai derives its name from its location on the border between the three old countries of Settsu, Kawachi, and Izumi. In addition to being the site of various historical events since ancient times, and the Mozu Burial Mounds, which include Emperor Nintoku's Tumulus, one of the three largest tombs in the world, the city is also home to storied craftsmanship.1

Flourishing as a corporate town autonomously managed by a group of merchants and an outpost for international trade with Asian and European nations during the Warring States Period (late 15th-late 16th century), the latest technology and culture became concentrated in the city, inspiring the legend, "Sakai: Where Everything Begins."

As a production center for cutlery and the sole manufacturer of firearms, the city has a long tradition of metalworking. These techniques have continued without interruption to the present day with the production of bicycle frames since the Meiji Period of the later 19th century. One might say that craftsmanship is synonymous with creating value, for if these pursuits meet a certain social need, the region attains a privileged status.



Culture, the Product of Multifaceted People


The Jesuit missionary Gaspar Vilela, who visited Japan at the end of the Muromachi Period, called Sakai "the Venice of the East." This famous epithet was based on an atmosphere created by the self-governing merchants and the success of the city as a trading port located on the sea. The healthy government and economy served as the perfect foundation for the cultivation of culture, and a local assembly composed of wealthy merchants transcended the boundaries of business to produce a new type of personality. One example is the Momoyama-era tea master Sen no Rikyu. Said to have perfected the art of tea ceremony, Rikyu was a multifaceted figure who cannot be summed up in a single phrase.

Thinking that it is usually multifaceted people like Rikyu who are responsible for creating culture, I decided to talk to a couple of contemporary people who seem to fit that definition, Katagiri Atsunobu and Tsujino Takeshi. Katagiri, the head of the Misasagi school of ikebana flower arrangement, refurbished his house to open a gallery called Mondo Shobo, and while organizing cutting-edge exhibitions of contemporary art, also pursues a career as an artist.2 Meanwhile, Tsujino, along with overseeing a glass-making studio called Fresco, launched and manages a crafts fair called Tomoshibito no Tsudoi (lit., "gathering of light people") at Daisen Park, located in the center of Sakai, in 2009. Katagiri is also involved in the fair as a member of the committee that selects participating artists.


The Sakai Crafts Fair: Tomoshibito no Tsudoi

The word "tomoshibito" was coined to refer to those who create things that bring a bit of light to people's lives. It was born out of the notion that the careful and diligent creation of things would bring back a sense of relaxation and richness to everyday life. As its symbol, the group has adopted the lighthouse that stands in the old Sakai Port area in the hope that people's spirit will light the way to a new era.

In my first meeting with Tsujino, he said, "Since Sakai was supposed to be the beginning of everything, this area prospered in terms of craftsmanship, but the city has since been eclipsed, so I thought I'd like to do something to bring it back to the fore. And although there are lots of venues to present items of this type in the Kanto area, local people don't often have a chance to see them. The crafts fair format is enjoying something of a boom and you can find quite a number of them throughout the country, but since Sakai is a city of craftsmanship, I thought I'd like to create a fair that emphasized the strengths of professional craftsmen. And since this area is also associated with Sen no Rikyu, and people who are connoisseurs in the tea world are quite powerful, it seemed important to focus on the aspect of selection (or help foster the ability to judge)." In fact, people from all over the country would like to open a stall at the fair, but in addition to the event's steering committee, there is a selection committee made up of specialists in each field, limiting the number of participants to those who can satisfy the strict requirements. Tsujino says this is a way of displaying the strength of professionals and differentiating Sakai from other cities that are associated with craftsmanship.

At the same time, Katagiri has already begun to hold special exhibitions in collaboration with different types of artists at Mondo Shobo. He explains, "My interest in developing the town without relying on the government served as an inspiration, and I started out with the idea that it didn't matter whether people came to the gallery or not. On the other hand, if they did show up, I would go out of my way to show them something intriguing. I thought that rather than having a lot of people come, it would be better to start by attracting people who were really interested. I thought I'd steadily work away at changing the town on my own, but before I knew it, this led to a big project like Tomoshibito no Tsudoi."

Without attempting to stress Sakai-like aspects or unique qualities, Tsujino explains that the fair "requires a natural form of feedback from the people involved. And since a chemical reaction is bound to occur with a variety of things emanating from the site by virtue of creating an event there, original things will emerge simply through carrying on with the event. It will be necessary to set aside a lot of time to cultivate the fair by listening to people's reactions in a sensitive manner. Then as we looking back on things, we should be able to see where we're headed. I think that later we'll be able to say that this was a good approach."

When asked about the difference between arts and crafts, Tsujino says, "A crafts fair is something that can't be bundled together with art. Partly this is because it deals with things that are used in daily life. Also, if you don't buy art, you can't keep it, and simply keeping a painting and putting it away in a box without hanging it up isn't any fun. If someone who likes cooking, for example, is looking for a pot, they can go to a crafts fair to find one. This is perhaps the easiest way to acquire something beautiful and keep it on hand."

Katagiri adds, "Crafts today must function as a reflection of mass production and simple consumption. There are lots of people who have come to realize this, and would like to use high-quality things over a long period of time. I would like to provide the things that these people desire. A lifestyle surrounded by things like this can be manifested through a form of composite art. I think this is an aesthetic sensibility that Japanese people originally valued. If you think of Western art as something that is detached from a concept, couldn't you then say that Japanese crafts are the expression of a certain aesthetic or value in a space? In the same way that tea culture can't be completely separated from ceramic vessels, Rikyu, who happened to have been born in Sakai, was someone who devoted himself to elevating tea to an art as an extension of everyday life."

Due to the acceptance of modern Western thinking in the Meiji era, craftsmanship in Japan was divided into genres such as industrial arts, handicrafts, and fine art. But in everyday life, the overarching approach to craftsmanship is still favored on an emotional level. The Japanese word for sensitivity might seem overly vague, but the English equivalent adds a more expansive feel. The Tomoshibito no Tsudoi fair is the perfect place to encounter such a sensibility. Katagiri explains, "Instead of asking people to enter a building, we hope people will visit the event in the course of a walk, and just poke their head inside and glance at the things on offer in a very casual way. We're doing the event at Daisen Park in the hope that people might make a new discovery, and that this might in turn inspire an interest in the world of arts and crafts." It will be interesting to see how this attitude toward fomenting a cultural sensibility based on craftsmanship, in which people start by surrounding themselves with small items of beauty and then gradually change their entire environment, develops over time in Sakai.


Sakai Profiles

Who is Katagiri Atsunobu?

Head of the Misasagi school of ikebana flower arrangement

Born in Sakai. After returning to Japan in 1994 from a period as an exchange student in the U.S., Katagiri became the head of the ikebana school at the exceptionally young age of 24. He held a solo exhibition of his work at Hirokawa Temple in 2001. Besides teaching ikebana, he established the Mondo Shobo gallery in 2005 to present unique exhibitions. He showed his work at the Biwako Biennale in 2007. In 2008, he published his first collection of works using cherry blossoms titled Miokuri/Kotoba (Farewell/Words). He is also engaged in a variety of collaborations with artists from a wide range of fields.

Who is Tsujino Takeshi?

Glass artist, director of Fresco, chairman of the Tomoshibito no Tsudoi executive committee

Born in Osaka. After graduating from the Osaka Designers' College, Tsujino went to the U.S., where he studied glassblowing at several schools and studios, including the Pilchuck Glass School. He established the Fresco glass studio in Izumi City in 2001. As the chairman of the event's executive committee, he launched the Tomoshibito no Tsudoi Sakai Crafts Fair in 2009.

(English translation by Christopher Stephens)


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