These days, most people use disposable plastic umbrellas that only cost a few hundred yen. However, even in this disposable era, there is still a professional craftsman who makes “real” umbrellas. This man learned the family trade from his father, and makes each beautiful umbrella by hand, one at a time. What is it like to spend your whole life hand-crafting this common item which most people take for granted?
Interviewed by：Takafumi Suzuki
Translated by Claire Tanaka
He stitches with an unwavering hand
Slowly and surely, one stitch at a time
How much time do you spend at your work, as an umbrella craftsman?
I usually start my workday at about ten in the morning. I work until lunch and then sometimes I nap for two or three hours after lunch. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Then, I work until about 12 midnight most days. I’m always sitting in the same position, and now my neck won’t turn anymore. That never used to happen to me when I was younger. Working from morning to night in the same position. It’s tough.
It seems like you spend a lot of effort to make them. How much does one go for?
One umbrella costs 8,000 yen. At my age, I don’t really need to make a lot of money. It’s more like volunteer work, really. Lately, some magazines in Tokyo have been printing articles about me and I’ve had trouble keeping up with the demand. Now, it takes about three months to fill an order.
Your shop looks really old.
The shop was built in 1877. That’s 130 years ago now. It used to be an oil shop. Back then, people lit their houses with oil. When electricity came along, there was no point in continuing the oil business. After that, my grandfather was traveling all around Japan in his job, and he happened to go to Yokohama port, and there were these international gentlemen carrying umbrellas. In those days most people used straw umbrellas or paper ones at best. He asked, “What’s this?” and they told him “It’s a Western-style umbrella.” He went straight to Asakusa in Tokyo, learned out how to make them, and came back here and opened the shop.
Mr. Kitazawa, how many generations have run the shop now?
I’m the third generation. The founder’s name was Kitazawa Mankichi, so the next generation, my father, he changed his name to Mankichi too, so he was Kitazawa Mankichi II. I’m the third generation but I’ve kept my name and I’m just working under my own name.
How did you learn the trade?
I started when I was seventeen. I learned from watching my father. Passing things from father to son, that’s how it was done in the old days. He never said “this is how you do it”. For the first five or six years, until I was about 22, I never actually made an umbrella. At first, I just watched over the shop, did little errands, that’s all I did. He wouldn’t teach me anything, so I just had to watch and learn that way. My dad used the old measurements like shaku (approx. 30.3cm) and sun (approx. 3.03cm), but he taught me to use meters and centimeters.
What is the most difficult part about making an umbrella?
There is nothing simpler than making an umbrella. But it’s very deep. The difficult stuff is the part you can’t teach. You have to undergo the training and then you are finally able to make something that you feel good about selling. You can’t sell it if you don’t feel good about it. But you know, it’s very rare that I am completely satisfied with something I’ve made. I’ve been doing this for decades, and still I am rarely satisfied with what I make.
How long does a handmade umbrella last?
The feature of our product is that we do everything from production to sales. We also do repairs. There’s no use in making it if you don’t do repairs too. It’s like a married daughter who has come back home to have her baby when we get one of our umbrellas in for a repair. But since they’re handmade, they’re very strong and don’t break easily. We make them to last about thirty years. People who get one as a wedding present are already old and bent themselves before they come back for a repair. If you let them dry out in the sun properly after you’ve used them, they will last for thirty years.
Thirty years! A well-made umbrella certainly is a different creature.It’s totally different. It may seem expensive, but really good one can cost about 16,000 yen. It’s important to carry a good umbrella. I always say, “Men who carry a high-quality umbrella will move up in life. Women who carry a high-quality umbrella will be showered in happiness.” It’s the truth. The umbrella above your head, the belt that goes around your middle, and the shoes you use to trod the earth, if those three things are of high quality, you can’t go wrong. The people I’ve met in my life, pretty much all the men are of good status, and the women are happy. It’s a funny thing, though, isn’t it? Umbrellas and life are connected. It’s really very deep.
Do you do all the work involved in making an umbrella yourself?
I couldn’t do it all myself. I need my wife to help out. I cut the material into triangular pieces, and she puts them through the sewing machine. That’s why I can never get in a fight with my wife. If I make her mad, I can’t make my umbrellas. I’m so grateful to her. I’m grateful to my neighbors too. We really depend on each other. I’m the head of the neighborhood association around here. Lately, they ask me to get out and do all kinds of things. There’s this local event, called the Engawa Daigaku, which is a community learning program like the temple schools we used to have in the old days. They asked me to speak at that, so I did that a while ago. Those kinds of events are getting more and more popular. The young people come, and the older people teach them. I think it’s really important.
Mr. Kitazawa, do you have a successor lined up?
One thing that happens when I get written up in magazines, is that young people contact me from all over, asking me to teach them the craft. Sure, I can teach you. I’ll teach it all. But that’s not the problem. You hear about people who don’t have anyone to take over the family business, but I don’t have that worry. I’m glad to have them come, but there’s no money for them. That’s the problem. Just a while ago, a young couple in their twenties came from Tokyo. I said, “I won’t be able to pay you enough to survive for the first three years, so what are you going to do?” And the wife said, “I’ll take care of living expenses somehow. Please teach us.” What’s the world coming to! (laughs) On top of that, you can’t just go making a mediocre product. It takes about five years before you can make something of saleable quality.
Your children won’t take over the business from you?
I do have one son, but he’s moved away. He’s managing the branch of a bank. I think he’ll come back someday to take over. It’s not enough money to live on, so I don’t think he’ll be coming back anytime soon, though.
How were you able to continue as an umbrella maker for so long? What’s your secret?
When my customers tell me, “Thank you so much.” That’s when I feel glad that I’ve continued to make umbrellas all these years.
Mikawaya Umbrella Specialty Shop
500 Nishinomon, Naganonishi Ohaza, Nagano-city, Nagano prefecture
Born 1933 in Nagano City, Nagano. Umbrella Craftsman