Japan’s inspiring artisan culture

Monpe picTwo hundred years ago, as legend goes, a 12-year-old Japanese girl from the town of Kurume found an imperfection in her kimono. Part of it had not been properly dyed. To the undiscerning, the imperfection was an aberration. Instead, the little girl wondered if the accidental pattern could be reproduced to make an interesting design.

She tied off the threads at equal lengths before dyeing them in indigo. After untying the knots and weaving the threads into fabric, she produced a beautiful motif called kasuri which became popular all over Japan. Local communities each developed their own way of making it. Kasuri was used to make ‘monpe’, traditional loose fitting pants that can still be seen being worn today by mostly female agricultural field-workers. Its closest equivalent in Western culture is the denim material used to make blue jeans.

Mike Abelson loved the story of the little girl. He’s an American product designer living in Japan who integrates traditional Japanese fine art into products of everyday use. So touched was he by her ingenuity and accomplishment that he decided to incorporate kasuri made in the traditional manner into the covers of a line of notebooks produced by his Tokyo design company, POSTALCO.

It was only by chance 15 years ago that Abelson discovered the network of artisans in Japan able to produce the quality of workmanship he sought. Then he had only a few design prototypes which he had stitched together on a sewing machine. The prototypes were made in his Brooklyn apartment from where Abelson had started the business with his Japanese wife.

To get Beacon Reports delivered to your inbox:

About that time US manufacturers were disappearing (Note: Today they are coming back). Those that remained produced goods of questionable quality. So Abelson tried to source goods in China and Taiwan. Manufacturers would make samples free, but after making them four or five times, the samples came back wrong. He lost one year trying to deal with factories in the US and Far East before giving up.

Then, on a trip to Japan visiting relatives, Abelson explained his production woes to one of his wife’s friends who designed shoes. The shoe designer suggested he manufacture in Japan. Through a series of referrals and introductions, Abelson soon found himself discovering a whole new world – a living network of Japanese artisans.

The quality of the craftsmanship Abelson found in Japan was superb. For example, he had a product that needed a precise stitch. He asked the craftsmen if he could make just one more stitch and then stop. To his amazement, the reply was “yes.” Japanese craftsmen can work to fine detail on small leather goods, where slight variations would otherwise stand out.

In comparison, US makers would typically complain about the precision stitching. They didn’t want to sew the small extra stitches Abelson’s designs called for. They said they would not finish production if they had to do so. US makers also said that it was impossible to sew so close to the edge or to source a particular hard-to-find thread. On the contrary, craftsmen in Japan could do all that and more with their strong tradition, ability and attention to detail.

Abelson closed the Brooklyn apartment and moved to Tokyo. He began working with the artisans. Once they understood what he wanted, he did not have to push for better quality. They already produced to a high standard. Instead, they taught Abelson better production techniques he never knew existed.

Many artisans were older people who had learned their craft in their youth. Most worked at their own pace from a tatami room within their homes. They cherish their privacy, typically conducting business only through local intermediaries. That created a challenge for Abelson, who could only explain the unusual construction of his designs by making a prototype and bringing it to them.

Not only did Abelson have to overcome the language barrier, but he found employing the American attitude of ‘customer as king’ counterproductive. Here, the artisans take great pride in their craft. Many told him they weren’t working for the money. Their pride was easily punctured when Abelson, a younger and more inexperienced person, explained the samples they had made were ‘wrong’. Eventually he learned humbleness and humility and by it gained the cooperation he needed.

One craftsman, a wallet maker aged in his late 60s whose home Abelson visited, had tiny baby clothing strung up on a clothesline above his sewing machine. His daughter had just given birth. She had recently moved back into her parents home with the baby.

Abelson watched the elderly wallet maker perform his craft on the sewing machine. Only when he saw the way the artisan worked the material with his hands could he understand how such beautiful products could be made. “It is impossible to make a wallet as good as someone who has been doing it for 50 or 60 years,” notes Abelson.

Today, Abelson continues to work with Japanese craftsmen who make the stationery, leatherwear and outerwear products he designs. His aim is to integrate beautiful and traditional objects made by the artisans back into people’s lives…. not by putting them on the shelf to look at, but rather by turning them into useful items for daily use.


Beacon Reports reveals Japan through the lens of thought leaders. Subscribe free!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.