TOKYO — When my 6-year-old son not too long ago joined a native kendo membership, I discovered myself at Yamato Budogu, a household store that first specialised in tools for the traditional Japanese martial artwork within the Thirties.
Kendo — the Japanese characters imply “the way of the sword” — is a type of fencing that makes use of bamboo swords and protecting armor. And tools for what is taken into account fashionable kendo originated within the 1700s.
My son wanted a newbie’s outfit: a shinai, or bamboo sword; a dogi, the kimono-like high; and hakama, wide-leg trousers. A uniform for an older or extra superior practitioner has 4 extra gadgets: a males, a kind of face masks with metallic bars to guard the pinnacle and shoulders; a do, or breastplate; kote, gloves to cowl fingers and forearms; and a tare, a thick material belt with flaps to guard the hip space.
“I can make every part of the uniform and repair everything,” stated Kiichiro Ito, 83, the president of Yamato Budogu Seisakusho and a bogu craftsman (bogu is an inclusive time period for kendo tools).
His specialty is the boys, the face masks. Its fabrication begins with two preparatory steps: layering items of cotton, wool and different materials to type a protecting pad and wrapping rice straw across the rim of a manufactured metallic face grill, referred to as the mengane. The straw offers a base so the pad could be hand stitched to the grill, and the sides of the entire meeting is then sure with strips of rawhide to strengthen the construction and enhance the piece’s general look, Mr. Ito stated.
The course of takes about two weeks of labor to provide the fundamental mannequin, whereas higher-end fashions, which require finer stitches and ornament, can take so long as three to 6 months.
Mr. Ito additionally collaborates with different bogu craftsmen round Japan: For instance, one in every of them, in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, focuses on aizome, or indigo dye. The artisan dyes textiles thread by thread after which sends rolls of cloth to Mr. Ito’s atelier, the place it’s minimize and added to protecting pads. (Other indigo-dyed textiles from artisans in different prefectures are used for the cotton dogi and hakama set.)
The household enterprise was began by Mr. Ito’s grandfather in 1936 in Aoyama-itchome, an space in southwestern Tokyo. Over the a long time the workshop moved, shifted to equestrian tools when some martial arts had been banned after World War II and, within the Nineteen Seventies, was rebranded as Yamato Budogu by Mr. Ito’s father.
Mr. Ito joined the enterprise in 1957, at age 19, and his youthful brother, Tsuyoshi, got here into the enterprise a few years later. They took over the store when their father died in 1980.
“Kendo is usually a family business,” Mr. Ito stated. “I learned from my father, who was also a bogu craftsman. It’s not something you can learn at school. Some particular techniques or skills are related to certain families and handed down.”
The store and the atelier are in Mr. Ito’s home, within the Shibuya ward, one other space in southwestern Tokyo (“We used to be able to see Mount Fuji from here, but now all the buildings block the view.”). The store, on the bottom ground, is so small that two folks can barely get inside: Once they slide open the entrance glass door, there’s simply a small genkan, or entry manner, with bamboo swords and uniform items saved in glass case shows.
But once they take off their sneakers, step up and stroll via a doorway, there’s the atelier, a massive room that measures virtually 900 sq. toes and has been outfitted with tatami mats and two lengthy tables the place the reducing and stitching are carried out by Mr. Ito, an apprentice and two feminine staff, 86 and 73, who’re kin of Mr. Ito.
Rolls of textiles, bottles of lacquers, cardboard containers and small picket drawers full of instruments have been crammed into any obtainable area. Until its current demise, a massive black and white cat named Fuku roamed round or napped by the gasoline heater.
Mr. Ito often sits close to the window on a zabuton, a Japanese ground cushion, with a blanket on his lap and a small picket worktable close by. Next to him is one other zabuton — however that work area has been left empty for the final two years, ever since Tsuyoshi Ito died. “I wish you could have met my younger brother,” Mr. Ito stated. “He was very entertaining and talkative.”
Yean Han, the 33-year-old apprentice, sits throughout from Mr. Ito. He is from Brunei, and had met Tsuyoshi Ito at a workshop in Malaysia in 2013. “I was already interested in how bogu is made since I was training for kendo,” he stated.
When Mr. Han moved to Tokyo in 2016 to review robotics at Waseda University, his frequent visits to the atelier slowly changed into a coaching program.
“I became so interested and naturally I just sat here,” Mr. Han stated. “Sometimes he would just throw small things at me, like ‘Try this, try that’,” he stated. (Mr. Han first realized from Mr. Ito’s brother, however now Mr. Ito trains him.)
“We talk a lot sometimes. Other times he just does his work and I sit across from him for one hour or two and I just watch,” he stated.
Mr. Ito appears to understand his apprentice: “Mr. Han is the one who welcomes customers. He speaks Japanese very well.”
Mr. Han stated he was nonetheless studying expertise. “I still have a certain way to go before I can be entirely responsible for making something. What Sensei will do when he creates something and thinks he can trust me with certain parts of the process, he will ask me to do one part,” he stated, referring to Mr. Ito as sensei, a time period of respect for somebody who has attained a sure degree of mastery. (He doesn’t prepare any longer, as Mr. Ito gave him a alternative: observe kendo or make bogu.)
Mr. Ito’s handcrafted bogu is a rarity: Today, he stated, lower than one % of the world’s kendo gear is made in Japan; different Asian international locations, corresponding to China and South Korea, manufacture it. Yet within the Nineteen Seventies and ‘80s, when kendo was particularly popular in Japan, his shop had 14 employees and would distribute to vendors. Now it does business with individual customers.
According to Alexander Bennett, a professor of Japanese history at Kansai University and editor in chief of Kendo World magazine, “The golden age for kendo in Japan was in the 1970s and 1980s for children. There would have been a waiting list to get your child into kendo.” Now, however, the country’s low birthrate means there are fewer youngsters, and kendo will not be as interesting as soccer or baseball.
“Kendo is traditionally known for discipline and for teaching children good manners,” he stated. “But nowadays parents give their children more freedom of choice, and parents do not see the value of kendo the same way they used to.” Still, he stated, the All Japan Kendo Federation estimates there are 1.5 million practitioners in Japan at this time; the inhabitants is round 126 million. (For comparability, there have been 4 million to 5 million practitioners within the Nineteen Seventies and ’80s.)
Mr. Ito is apprehensive the previous methods will disappear. “Martial arts are too ‘old school’,” he instructed me. “And compared to other martial arts, kendo is expensive, probably the most expensive, which could be a factor. You have to think about the costs in the long-run if your son continues kendo.”
My son’s easy cotton set and shinai, or sword, price lower than the equal of $100, whereas his trainer’s clothes, purchased from Mr. Ito, had been round $300 and a full outfit, with shinai, can price $500 to $1,000, relying on the standard.
But well-crafted bogu can final: Mr. Ito talked about a shopper who has stored his uniform for greater than 40 years. “High-quality, handcrafted items can be repaired and used for a long time,” he stated as he repaired a kote, or glove, for a ladies’ kendo workforce at a native highschool. The kote was lined with deer leather-based, which is definitely worn out and will should be changed as typically as 5 instances a 12 months as a result of the workforce practices each day. But Mr. Ito replaces only one small space so the workforce doesn’t need to hold shopping for new ones.
Mr. Ito’s spouse, Yasuko, 79, is also a part of the enterprise: She used to maintain the deliveries, however now handles administrative duties. “A lot of burden goes to my wife,” Mr. Ito stated, and he or she is in cost once they all take a break for oyatsu, or afternoon snack, at 3 p.m. every workday, handing out cups of tea and sweets. “The sweet is different every day,” Mr. Han stated.
Mr. Ito doesn’t take a lot day without work. He stated he doesn’t have any hobbies, however he loves the annual matsuri, a conventional competition held in September in Shinjuku, one in every of Tokyo’s leisure and enterprise districts. “If you allowed me to talk about it, I could talk about it forever,” he stated.
Even although the official enterprise hours of the store are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday via Saturday, Mr. Ito often works late within the atelier. “There is no end time,” he stated.
“At my age, I’m often asked if I still do this as a hobby or for pleasure, but I do this to make a living,” he stated. “I don’t receive any pension money like people who used to work in big companies. As a craftsman I don’t have that, so I have to keep working.”
“I’m the last bogu craftsman in Tokyo,” he stated. “When I pass away, there won’t be anyone.”