Kinkoen is located in a quiet residential area in the center of Nara City. The craftsmen at Kinkoen have been in the family of sumi ink makers for generations, and it is a long-established business with a history of more than 100 years. Upon entering the workshop through the black “Sumi” curtain, we were greeted by the aroma of sumi ink and the smiling face of Mutsumi Nagano, the seventh generation sumi ink artisan. He welcomed us very warmly, and his hands were black and stained with ink. “I’m going to go wash my hands because they are a little dirty!” Mr. Nagano said as he made a short run for the washbasin. I felt a little warmth in my heart when I imagined that those hands were holding together a long-standing tradition. When Mr. Nagano came back, his fingernails were still covered with ink, and I thought I saw a glimpse of an ink artisan. We asked Mr. Nagano about his thoughts on sumi ink production.
- —Please tell us about your background.
Originally, I was born here in Nara, in a family that has been in the sumi-shop business for generations. After graduating from university, I left home and went to work for an ordinary company in Tokyo, which had nothing to do with sumi ink. After that, I quit my job and took over the family business.
- —Is there any reason why you did not take over the family business straight way after your graduation?
Not really. I just felt that I would probably take over the business someday. However, when I was a college student, I had a part-time job in the restaurant industry, and around that time I was interested in the sector. So, I decided to work for a company in the food service industry, where I worked for more than 10 years.
- —What made you become an ink craftsman?
My father and grandfather were ink makers, so seeing them making ink was an usual environment for me. When I thought it was the time to take over the family business, my father was opposed to me taking over the family business because he said he planned to close it down. He was quite right in his opinion that there is no reason to come to an industry with an uncertain future. The answer was simple: “Because my father, grandfather, and other craftsmen lived by making black ink all day long,” and that was the only reason I decided to take over the business.
- —Did you have a desire to work with sumi ink?
I was born and raised here, and since I was a small child, I have seen ink craftsman’s work every day. Also, I was raised by my father who was working for sumi ink and I thought that it would be normal for me to support my family in the future by working with the ink business. It was not something that I wanted to do or that I had to do, but I always thought it would be natural for me to do it.
- ―What is the current circumstance of the ink industry?
The sumi ink industry is much smaller than you think. It is in a very difficult situation. Our customers and retailers are going out of business, the number of craftsmen is decreasing, and now there are less than 10 sumi shops.
- —Is there any reason why you have been able to preserve your business and tradition in the midst of the declining industry?
About 15 to 20 years ago, I started an ink making class, which was requested by a customer. Thankfully, we have had some foreigners come to the class, and I think it has been a good opportunity for them to learn about sumi ink.
- —What is the important thing to preserve Nara sumi in the world from now on?
I think it is more important to pass on the tradition than to make it. I think that teaching the tradition is more important than making it, and I try to achieve it through activities such as going to schools to give classes about sumi ink or offering sumi ink making classes online. I believe that without such activities, the ink industry will not be able to survive in the future so that I emphasize the importance of teaching the great things about sumi ink.
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