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zen hand drawing

Brand story

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Hello. My name is Ryohei Yamamoto. I’m the proprietor and producer behind zen hand drawing.
The story started on January 2011 when I took over my father’s business.

From web to Kimono

After I graduated from college with a diploma in Applied Commercial Web Development, I worked as a web designer for a couple years in Japan and Canada.

When I was working in Tokyo in 2010, my father phoned me and he said he got sick so he needed a help. I was really surprised that he talked to me about his own business and needed to work together rather than that he got sick. It’s because he had never talked that he wanted me to take over or help it. He always said “do whatever you want”. So right after I heard that, I quit a job and came back to Kyoto.

Kimono is nothing special for me, but…

My grandfather “Usaburo Yamamoto” started his business called Yamamoto U dye-works in 1939 and my uncle took it over on Usaburo’s death in 2003.

So since I was a kid, I often saw they dyed Kimono and my father sold it. Though everyone didn’t wear Kimono except very special days and it was not rare that some people even hadn’t never seen or wore it before, there were a bunch of Kimono around me everywhere.
The circumstance that I saw many Kimono was too usual so that I didn’t even think it was unusual for other people.

As I grew up, Kimono is not anything special for me and I wasn’t interested in it very much. The reason is that my father didn’t talk about his works a lot so I only knew what he was doing is something related to Kimono.

Met craftsmen of Tegaki(hand drawn) Kyo-Yuzen

I came back to Kyoto with no knowledge about Kimono.

I could pick up Kimono that still working on or deliver it. But I had no any idea if craftsmen asked me something they wanted to make sure or didn’t get what I meant. I think my knowledge of Kimono was much less than girls who dressed Kimono before.

After I watched and followed my father’s works and went to see craftsmen’s works in each their workplace together for a half year, somehow I slowly have understood how our products are made.

Craftsmen should be very difficult people?

Before I met them, I imagined they should be

  • stubborn
  • bossy
  • upset soon if I ask silly questions
  • very strict

In Japan, I think most people also think that “craftsmen” seemed to be like above.

But when I met and talked to them, I realized what I was thinking was so wrong.
They are very friendly, nice and modest to me who don’t know much about Kimono and Tegaki Kyo-Yuzen.

I’m surprised what I was thinking of them was completely different in a good way. And every time I have something I wondered or didn’t understand, they answered questions so gently.

Are you sure you make things like this?

As I write a post here How we make, I was amazed how products are made and watched while craftsmen work every single moment.

I knew they made products by hand. But when I actually see them working like

  • Rough drawing/Design-draw the design by hand without using a computer.
  • Masking-mix the glue up to suit craftsman’s taste without a getting ready-made glue.
  • Glue contouring-avoid color leaking out the area as a protection.
  • Background color dyeing-change the density of dyes to drop by drop until the color turns to be the right one.
  • Painting designs-create a gradient by hand.
  • Gold placing-put 1/10,000mm gold leaf to give a three-dimensional appearance or make it look elegant.

Whenever I looked at the manufacturing process (and of course, not only at this) I, who had no knowledge of any business field but IT, could not help but feeling surprised and saying to myself “What a really laborious work they are doing!” or “They even do that with their hands!” However, at the same time, I realized that this was not a job that could be done with a computer, and that even if one was to attempt to, the result would really lack in depth – I am deeply impressed by the profundity of the traditional industry.

Literally, the only one in the world

Our products are not mass-produced. Each and every one of them is handmade, and even if the design may be the same, there are no two equal pieces.
After painting
You may not notice when just glancing over, but since we use a whole roll of the white fabric typically used to make kimonos, and there is a crest (woven pattern) in the fabric, the pattern always falls in a different place, and the position of lines may vary too, from being slightly inward to outward. These same lines could be done perfectly if we used a machine, but having them handmade gives the final result a good “human touch“.

This same concept is one of the charms of Tegaki(hand drawn) Kyo-Yuzen dyeing technique.

Traditionally, but interestingly

zen hand drawing creates products that will start a conversation for everybody that touches them.

Those who use our products will put them on and want to talk about them, and will be asked things like “That looks so nice! Where did you buy it?”, which will make them want to wear them again – we use the old traditional fabrication methods to create and offer new products that do not look old-fashioned.
Of course, within the group of those people who touch our products, we also include our craftsmen who make them. “This looks interesting,” “I wonder what happened to that product afterwards…,” “Wouldn’t it be better if we do it this way?” – we would like our products to be the kind of thing one feels interested in and wants to talk about in this way.

The separation of functions is the main advantage of Tegaki(hand drawn) Kyo-Yuzen, and an craftsman will basically focus and specialize in the process he is in charge of and polish his skills over decades. Then, producers like us, after the crafstman’s work is done, will take the product for the next process, and since at every step there is an craftsman who has mastered his correspondent technique, the final product turns out very good. This is a really wonderful system to effectively to make products of various designs with a high quality.

However, since every craftsmen gets to only see his part of the job, those who only work in the first half of the process do not really know what the final result looks like, or even what colors will be used.

This may be normal in this industry, but I still feel it is a little bit sad – not being able to see the final shape of something you have been working on. This is why, even though it may be a really small action, we show the completed products to all the craftsmen who have worked on it, and have them look forward to this as part of their motivation.

We do not just use old kimono patterns to create our products, but we also use Tegaki(hand drawn) Kyo-Yuzen to create modern expression of a product that will match the situation and lifestyle of the customer who will use it.

We want to create opportunities

What is the average working age in your company?

In the IT company where I was working before, they were in their late twenties.

However, to become a Tegaki(hand drawn) Kyo-Yuzen craftsman, one needs a skilled technique and experience. Most of them train for over 10 years before they become independent. The craftsmen who surround us have an experience of 30-50 years, and their average age is 65 years old.

What surprised me the most when I first entered this field of business was, needless to say, the elevated age, and also the problem of successors. Times have changed, and since the number of people who wear kimono, as well as the opportunities to wear it, have decreased, it would not be out of place to say that Kyo-Yuzen is in a precarious situation, like a candle flickering in the wind.

According to a “Survey Report on the Production of Kyo-Yuzen and Kyo-Komon”,
Kyo-Yuzen Production
the production of Kyo-Yuzen (not only hand-drawn but also printed, machine printed and ink jet products) has decreased as follows:

  • 446,636 rolls in 2012, which amount to only 2.7% of the 16,524,684 rolls that were produced at its peak in 1971.
  • Even compared to 2002, 10 years ago, it has decreased to a 52% of 847,294 rolls.

If we focus on the production of Tegaki(hand drawn) Kyo-Yuzen only, the situation becomes more harsh, going down from 185,907 rolls in 2002, to 69,614 rolls in 2012, a 37% in 10 years.

Tell people what Tegaki(hand drawn) Kyo-Yuzen is

With no demand, suppliers – in this case the craftsmen – also decrease. Even craftsmen who used to have apprentices before are now working by themselves, and have no funds to bring up a successor.

Having nobody to take after the business means that, if things keep going this way, this important culture, who ought to keep being transmitted, will be lost. I thought this would be awful.

Young people nowadays, unlike ages ago, have a wide variety of options. Moreover, if they like, they can even go on living one way or another without even working. This is exactly why I would like them to know what craftsmen do, and the process by which unique (one of a kind) products that cannot be mass-produced are created.

By putting out into the world many of our special products, I believe we can create opportunities for young people to come across a kind of work that may “click” to them so craftsmen will again increase in numbers, culture will be rejuvenated and we will become able to spread a wonderful culture to the world and surely liven up the traditional industry.