From Aircraft Designer to Chochin Craftsman
“The secret to writing something beautifully is to focus on its balance. Anyone can do it if they write slowly with an awareness of evenly spaced letters” Kenichiro Murata, whom we interviewed this time, told us with a big smile. He was actually not good at writing letters even after he became a chochin (Japanese lantern) craftsman. His modest and kindhearted character oozed out of him. We interviewed Mr. Murata about his background and vision for future.
- ―What made you become a craftsman?
In my case, my family business was a lantern shop, so I became a craftsman by necessity. I have always loved making something; I used to build plastic models and so on. When I was in elementary and junior high school, I liked technology rather than art, and I was not good at writing or drawing. As I got older, I felt that I would not be able to close down the traditional craft business that had been in the family for generations. This is the main reason why I decided to take over the business.
- ―What was your career path after graduating from junior high school?
I went to an aviation technical college for high school and studied airplane design. At the time, I did not have a clear idea of taking over the family business, but the family business was one of the options for my future career.
- ―Did you know at the time that you wanted to work in aviation?
Yes, I did. At the time, I was hoping to become an engineer building airplane. I thought about graduating from high school at the age of 20 and getting a job in something other than the family business, but I thought it would be better to become a craftsman as soon as possible. This is why I joined the family business right after graduation.
- ―So you went into the family business right away! How did you really feel about joining the family business?
I wanted to spend some time helping in the family business and thinking about whether it would be a right option for me, so I also worked part-time as a pastry chef for a year. We had “making” things in common, and I had a yearning for the amazing world of pastry. I also liked sweets, so it was good environment for me (laughs).
- ―What made you decide to become a chochin craftsman after experience working as pâtissier?
I was attracted to the depth of the lantern craftsmanship after working as both a pâtissier and in the family business for a year, and as I said at the beginning, I decided to become a lantern craftsman because I felt it would be a shame to close the family business after my generation. My father did not ask me to take over the business, and he had always told me to do what I wanted. In fact, if he had asked me to take over the business, I might not have done so.
- ―How did you feel when you actually became a chochin craftsman?
I couldn’t do anything more than I had imagined. I thought I could do it because the work looked so easy, but when I tried it, I found I couldn’t do it. In the chochin industry, it is said that it takes about 10 years to become a professional. It took me quite a long time to be able to write something by myself. I am now 35 years old and have been writing for 15 years, so it feels like I have only recently become proficient.
- ―Did there ever come a time when you thought about quitting?
There were many times. In addition to the fact that the industry is declining, printing technology has developed, and the demand for hand-painting has disappeared. There was a time when we received dozens of orders every day for store opening gifts, but that is no longer the case. However, once I made the decision of being chochin craftsman, I am determined to keep doing the job.
- ―What do you enjoy most about making chochin?
I start with a blank sheet of washi paper, so I feel the letters filling in as I go along, and when it’s finished, I feel great.
- ―What is the most important part of making chochin?
I think it is the balance of the letters. I am good at copying family crests and designs that have already been decided, but writing letters is difficult, even after 15 years of work. At first, I had my father write samples for me, but after 10 years, having him write samples for me was not good for my improvement, so I blackmailed myself into practicing a lot. As my father’s handwriting is strong and clear, I have been working hard to improve it. My father is also very particular about drawing family crest and even made a booklet about it himself. My father also told me that I had to keep drawing family crests for three years before I could become a full-fledged craftsman, and I have continued to do so. I think I should learn my father’s attitude toward making lanterns, and I am trying to be particular about it as well.
- ―After working as a craftsman for 15 years, is there any creed that you consider important?
I think it is “to keep on working hard”. I tend to want to see results in a day or two, but I believe that reality is not that easy. In my case, I use the degree of growth of writing letters as an indicator. When I compare the letters, I wrote last year with the ones I wrote this year, I get the feeling that I am getting a little better. I believe that I can grow by taking such a slightly longer view and continuing to do what I need to do steadily every day.
- ―What is your plan for the future?
I believe that there are many people, even in Japan, who do not know about Edo hand-painted paper lanterns. I think there are people who know that the chochin exist, but don’t even know that they are handwritten on the lanterns. Since people often think it is printed, I hope that people know that there are people who make hand-painted chochin, and that they can enjoy the unique flavor of hand-painting. I would also like to create an environment in which my own children can say they want to work with lanterns. My son is four years old now, and I don’t want to force him to take over the business, but I would be happy if he did. Even if he does take over, I think he would have to do a good job, so I think the key will be to see how far I can build the business in my generation.
- ―Lastly, do you have a message for young people who want to enter the craft industry?
I think it is important to be patient and keep practicing because it is not something that you can learn right away. In addition, we live in an age where it is no longer possible to get a job simply by acquiring skills. I believe that we live in an age in which we must transmit information, so I need to work hard on my creative activities!
After the interview
Mr. Murata was interested in various occupations, such as airplane design and pâtissier, before finally taking over the family business. We were able to see his twists and turns and struggles he had to go through before he was able to do what he wanted to do, which was to become the craftsman. His patience, dedication and continuous effort were something we should learn from him not only as a craftsman, but also as a human being. Murata-san’s lanterns can be purchased from Suigenkyo online store, and also accept custom-made order for each individual. Please check the link below if you are interested.
You can watch the Making process on YouTube!
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