Tin is a material made from tin ore. The bright, silvery, delicate metal has been used for years in making tinware sake cups and tea-related goods, flower vases, and religious paraphernalia. Satsuma tinware is a traditional craft of Kagoshima prefecture. This week, PingMag MAKE visited a shop in Kagoshima City called Ootsuji Asahi-do. The shop was founded in 1912. This old, historic shop is run by a man with a heart full of love for modern science, and the combination is a surprisingly good one.
Interview by Takafumi Suzuki
Translation by Claire Tanaka
I had no idea there was such beautiful tinware in the Satsuma region.
There used to be a mine about twenty kilometers south of Kagoshima City called the Taniyama Mine, and it came into being during the Edo period. The finely carved finish, the frosted finish, and the pale lacquer accents are all features of Satsuma tinware.
The surface texture is so beautiful.
Our tinware has won several awards. But, it’s not exactly traditional Satsuma tinware. If I may speak plainly, this is a result of techniques I developed myself. I used old techniques as a base and analyzed them and evolved the techniques.
Could you give me an example of one of your original techniques?
One technique, called “Kagayaki” consists of small scattered cut lines which are physically cut into the metal. The light reflecting off the fine lines becomes the design itself. Another one is called “Tsuchime” and it consists of carving the metal by hand. It’s a very rare method. Look, the inner side still shows the lines from where it was carved. Isn’t that beautiful?
So it’s not necessarily techniques that have been passed down through the generations after all, then?
I came back here when I was forty, and the techniques they were using were so corny, from my point of view they seemed pretty spoiled. That’s why I decided that it was time to revise the old sloppy techniques that they’d been using. For example, the nitric acid that is used to make a frosted finish on the tin: I started controlling the temperature and specific gravity of it. Then the things that came out of it, my father said, “I’ve never seen such a wonderful piece.” All I could think was, “Of course you haven’t!” (laughs) I mean really, the craftsmen we had back then had no qualms about saying “Today just wasn’t my day” when they failed to make a good product. If you’re a manufacturer working for a corporation, you can’t get away with that kind of talk.
Mr. Otsujii, what were you doing before you took over the family business?
I worked making parts as a technician at a manufacturer. I just naturally developed a modern, scientific way of thinking while working at the company. In the world of traditional craft, once you hit on one case of success, that becomes a traditional technique and it gets set in stone. Of course, the public only ever sees the finished product. But if you don’t analyze the processes which contribute to the improvement of the product, make careful comparisons, build hypotheses, and apply a modern way of thinking, then the process of evolution will just stop.
Had you wanted to become a technician ever since you were a child?
The act of making things was a part of daily life for me. I didn’t like people, and I was what they called “yasenbo” in the local Kagoshima dialect. People made fun of me because I was so quiet. At playtime, I either played house with the girls or made things. But you know, give me enough time and I’d make anything. When I was in Junior High, I even made a pistol. (laughs) But even so, I wasn’t particularly good with my hands. Until I got good enough, I burned off all my hair in a chemical fire and made lots of other mistakes too. I did a lot of trial-and-error.
Did you take over the family business because you’re the oldest son?
No. Actually, I’m the fourth son. My father wanted to get his eldest son to take over the business. And he sent him to the Kyoto Institute of Technology and had him study design. But when he came back and started work, my brother who had just come back from learning the latest technology at school, and my father, a true craftsman to the bone, just couldn’t see eye-to-eye. So my eldest brother wound up working for the government. My father’s second son wasn’t interested in tin at all so he didn’t do it. The third son was raised spoiled and even when he tried to take over the business he never did any work and always skipped out. So that’s how I ended up being the one to take over the family business. (laughs)
Were you upset that you had to quit the technician’s job that you loved?
Yes, I was. But both my wife and I were born in Kagoshima, and we wanted to move back here. The thing that pushed me to come back was when we had a conversation about, “My future is to become the factory manager, and then that will be it.” And then after a while, my father called me up and said “Hey, come back here. We can’t make anything good and we’re in trouble. You’ve got to solve the problem.” Right then I’d been thinking about my inevitable future and work was very stable and I was feeling bored. I’d say it was perfect timing.
But wasn’t it hard to come from a different field and jump into the world of the craftsman?
I went through a lot at first. I’d try to introduce something new and of course the old craftsmen would reject it. They’d all spent years learning how to cast metal, and years more learning how to carve it, which seemed totally over the top to me. But there I was, thinking I could master it all in a month. (laughs) My thinking was that I was a technician, not a craftsman. I figured that if I could understand the theory then that was enough. But the craftsmen got angry and wouldn’t listen to a word I said.
And then what did you do?
Well it’s very simple. I improved their work environment. Their old workplace environment was very rough. The sound of the lathe motor was terribly loud, so loud you couldn’t listen to the radio. Plus, it was so hot and humid in the summer. So I put the lathe up on some cement blocks and cut out a lot of the noise, and made it so they could listen to the radio. Then, I fixed the roof and improved the air circulation. I made lots of little changes like that. That gave them a bit of a surprise. Then they started to listen to what I had to say. (laughs)
I think it must be very hard to introduce new techniques into a traditional craft, but it must also be hard to make sure things get carried on to the next generation.
I’ve got to raise a successor, I’ve thought about that plenty myself, and I also hear it from others a lot. But, traditional techniques, they are something that stay inside individual people, and it’s not something you can teach. That’s why it’s not just a matter of simply passing it all down to someone. If you want to help traditional craft progress and stay relevant, you’ve got to have an interest in all kinds of things in the world. You’ve got to have curiosity, a scientific mind, and a sense of a goal or you’ll never make it.
Nishida 2-17-17, Kagoshima City, Kagoshima
Born in Kagoshima City in 1935.