As alluring as Mt. Fuji, sushi, ramen, or the Shibuya scrambled crossing, Japanese crafts also keep the tourist’s curious eyes gleaming with that clinging delight that could come from anything - from a single Japanese product’s smoothly polished bamboo material; its graceful curves that often exude a pinch of soft fragility; its Wabi-Sabi natural, calm colors that bring the scent of nature close to the skin; to simply the distinct mark of the ‘Japanese appeal’ that quickly makes a consumer desire to hold the product.
There is, indeed, a particularly irresistible magic that blooms from finely crafted Japanese products, and more so when one patiently scrutinizes its origin, its craftsman and technique. The global market may be over consumed with the so-called trendy Japanese craft wares sitting on shelves of bric-a-brac stores, souvenir shops, household sections of department stores and online shops. However, how sharp are your eyes to truly detect the authenticity of a genuinely crafted product handmade by an excellent Japanese craftsman? These products, on the contrary, rarely find a spot on your everyday commercial shelf. Such craftsmen may prefer to sell their wares to exclusive galleries, or only in credited exhibitions, or nowhere outside their own company domain.
Japanese Crafts Co., Ltd. is one such company that introduces these severely crafted products by highly acclaimed Japanese craftsmen to the rest of the world. By also studying the technical and cultural background of the products, the company is able to present the heart and mind of the Japanese culture that lie beneath the products. At the same time, it contributes to the active development of the Japanese craft industry, which is in dire need of propagation, protection and nourishment.
Nariyuki Matsuzawa, President of the Japanese Crafts Co., Ltd., deeply believes in the preservation and reinvention of Japanese crafts for consumption and appreciation for the modern daily lifestyle. He gives his insights on the current market and future direction of Japanese crafts.
Present condition of the Japanese crafts market in Japan.
NM: “The Japanese domestic crafts market is unfortunately shrinking. Records in the past twenty years have proven a 1/3 shrink. This reflects a change in the people’s lifestyle and the declining retail price of products due to cheap and functional items coming in from overseas (mainly China). Based on these facts, the availability of principal Japanese craft products has also declined, replacing the market with other goods. However, in recent years it seems that the product development of Japanese crafts is being conducted to fit the needs of the market. In some goods shops, bookstores, or apparel stores, for example, products that capture the needs of the local workshops and manufacturers are becoming more visible. I think these items satisfy a new breed of needs. In addition, there has been a wide interest and increase in hands-on workshops and factory tours. The contents of these hands-on experience workshops and tours are not limited to those solely found in guidebooks, but are also customized to meet the demands of the people who wish to fully enjoy the experience”.
Current trend of popular crafts.
NM: “The Nousaku brand of cast products from Takaoka, Toyama City and Aomori's Hokuyo Glass products have become popular among consumers today, showing a remarkable rise in sales performance. Nousaku items attract attention especially in the new crafts movement, and succeed in opening franchise stores and conducting factory visits. Hokuyo Glass uses very effective product specifications with a high sales review on the Internet. Its ‘polite’ approach to the public, focusing on good communication, seems to function very well”.
Japanese crafts’ appeal to the young generation.
NM: “I would like to expect that a new type of experience derived from workshops and visits to manufacturing sites would hopefully expand further. I think that overseas visitors and those who are culturally moved by Japanese crafts may rethink about their own culture. When rediscovering about themselves, for instance, in the form of finding a different place to read books, or from watching movies, the young can feel free to touch such craft items. We also want to increase venues where the young would be able to touch crafts with their own hands, simultaneously enjoying the worldwide boom of saké drinking and Japanese food consumption.
I think that it is necessary to include the crafts’ regional history and its geographical elements in the school education. I think this result will ignite interest in the craft industry, especially in the local market, since students will acquire a deep understanding of the local area, and therefore, be able to develop a local consciousness about the product and its environment. Product redevelopment is necessary to allow the craft to adapt to the modern life scene. In the past, there have been Buddhist altars dedicated to the traditional crafts that represented respective regions. This instilled a deep connection with the local culture. However, the custom no longer meets the size of current living spaces. Further, sales performance could not be maintained consistently compared to the existing products. Nevertheless, if some people still need to retain this cultural tradition, they would have to do with a smaller and fancier type of altar. In effect, such modern Buddhist altars with minimal height and depth have been produced, that do not even resemble a typical Buddhist altar, but more like ‘fashionable furniture’. When the altar is opened, the proper functional Buddhist tools are seen, but from the outside it looks like something else. This is just one case of how producers and manufacturers can grasp the current needs and function of a product, and develop goods that can appropriately appeal to young people”.
Greatest challenges in the present sales market of Japanese crafts.
NM: “I think that the declining frequency of use of traditional crafts accompanied by changes in modern lifestyle habits is the most challenging aspect of the Japanese crafts market. One factor is also a sales decline in department stores, which in the past, were the main sales source of crafts. Craftwork in the past represented both function and beauty. However, today the sales declined due to price-oriented goods sold at cheaper prices, especially those coming from China and mass retailers. Whereas crafts could be evaluated by their materials, background, and the attention given to the craftsmen in order to deliver high quality wares to consumers, these days, it has rather become necessary to make decisions on product purchase based solely on price, inviting therefore, a reduction in demand”.
Product development by family generations and individuals.
NM: “I do not think that the problem of less usage of traditional crafts lies in the Japanese tradition of the craft industry being dominated by family generations. Instead, the issue is in being able to meet the existing needs of the people, and also being able to form an environment that promotes new challenges and new creation of products. It is a merit if this is easy to achieve by depending on family generations to continue their craft, yet it also seems to pose a problem if that goal hinders it. Manufacturers that aggressively adapt new technologies, whether by their parents or their children, can change creative methods and seek ways to employ a different approach. This is the greatest challenge for shaping a new future for craft products”.
Personal involvement in the Japanese crafts market.
NM: “I was a senior buying manager in the housewares category at the former EC division of Amazon. It was a business department that handled furniture, cookware, dishes, beddings, and other miscellaneous goods. Around 2012 the number of items handled then was only about 100,000 items that expanded to 2 million products in four and a half years. We made purchase negotiations with manufacturers nationwide, or introduced makers via banks or credit banks to expand the number of products sold. Eventually, I negotiated with over 2,500 companies and connected with more than half of them to run the commercial flow in Amazon. In that business activity, I had the opportunity to visit the factories of many crafts studios and craftsmen. Among them, we saw many attractive products that craftsmen could manufacture but not in large volume. This is contrary to EC-oriented products seeking a single large quantity. I strongly felt that I wanted to carry on a job that I could be attracted to due to the attraction towards these charming products. I began to think of ways that would make crafts makers and craftsmen powerful not just by depending on existing distribution, but ways to solve product sales targets using the craftsmen’s strengths, and to support them to sell their creation, which altogether would be the starting line of a business”.
Japanese crafts for the foreign market.
NM: “It would be very nice for foreign consumers to taste the beauty of functionality and form. Japanese craft items are developed in various regions across Japan, thus, they are tied to history and geography. This aspect can be an attractive point for the foreign market, to be able to use the products lovingly while understanding the cultural and geographical background of the crafts”.
Objectives of Japanese Crafts Co., Ltd. and promotion for domestic and foreign markets.
NM: “Our most important purpose is to revitalize Japanese crafts - this means expanding the market to allow the craftsmen’s excellent skills to survive. Products representing Japanese culture will be continually maintained and developed, and I intend to realize this mission. To achieve this, I think that it is crucial to develop a process of enabling Japanese consumers to fully understand crafts. Further, it is important to deliver product information to people, such as overseas avid ‘fans’ of Japan, since the domestic market sits on a fierce competitive environment. Our company is currently working on a transboundary EC (Cross Border EC) whereby we explain about the Japanese crafts and make them available for purchase. Presently, we have about 100 carefully selected items, which will be increased in the years to come. We also supply goods to stores and online sellers of Japanese crafts through overseas exhibitions. Currently we collaborate with China, USA, Germany, and others. We can introduce a variety of small craft items, such as tableware, cutlery, ironware, etc., from all over Japan to such distributors and customize the contents according to the customer's request and sales condition. We hope to be able to target about 100 handlers around the world in the future, and we are quite close to achieving this feasibility”.