Photojournalism, Travel
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Japan Handicrafts: Koto – Japanese Harp

I have been touring Japan photographing craftspeople and artisans for my upcoming book to be published by Gestalten this year (out next month, preorder here!!). In total I managed to photograph some 70 artisans, all of them wonderful, however due to space constraints in the book not all of them were able to make it into the final cut.

I plan to introduce some of the ones that we unfortunately couldn’t include here, so I hope you’re in the mood to learn about some crafts!

The koto, or Japanese harp, is a large instrument in addition to being extremely demanding on performers. Traditional kotos were instruments of the court and the nobility, and were set on the floor where musicians would kneel to perform. It is equally comfortable with being a solo instrument as well as being part of an ensemble. With a standard complement of thirteen strings (or more, for modern iterations), the virtuosity required of the performers is staggering, however the bewitching tone of the plucked strings is unlike any other in the repertoire of Japanese musical instruments.

This sentiment was shared by the daimyo of the Fukuyama clan, Mizuno Katsunari, whose fiefdom occupied an eastern part of modern day Hiroshima Prefecture. After establishing his castle in 1622, he encouraged his samurai caste and female townsfolk alike in the  study of artistic pursuits, especially music and song. The area, now known as Fukuyama city, became a major manufacturing hub for koto. This industry was further boosted with one of the koto’s most skilled virtuoso being born in Fukuyama – a musician named Kuzuhara Koutou who helped put Fukuyama on the map as the go-to town for koto in Japan. At the peak of the industry in the 1970s, koto production in Fukuyama reached a high of 30,000 units a year. That number has since fallen to 3000 a year, although this still accounts for 70% of the national share of the Japanese market. 

Fujii Yoshiaki, born in 1943, has been making koto for over sixty years in Fukuyama. Finishing junior high school and faced with few career options, he originally joined a local koto company that was geared towards mass production of the instruments. Leaving the company at the age of twenty-one, he started his own business with an emphasis on maintaining the hand-crafted aspects of koto production. ‘Koto used to be mainly an indoor instrument,’ says Fujii-san. ‘Nowadays it’s not strange to have live performances outdoors, so I’ve been experimenting with ways of increasing the sound output of my products.’ 

The first step is one of the most crucial – choosing the wood for the body of the instrument. Fujii-san exclusively uses kiri – paulownia wood – from Aizu, in Fukushima Prefecture. ‘Aizu is cold, so the trees grow slower but with denser wood and smaller spaces between annual rings, which makes for a richer sound.’ Other criteria is stringently checked before selection – the burls, knots, curvature and grain direction – anything that could affect the sound of the resulting instrument is considered. Selected logs are cut into the rough shape and left to dry outdoors for one to three years. Through rain and shine, this natural seasoning hardens the wood and prevents warping in later years, as well as leaches tannins from the wood. 

Using a large selection of specialized kanna woodplanes, Fujii-san then carves the shell of the koto into a smooth curved shaped, before hollowing out the interior and shaving away excess wood that would dampen sound vibrations. Near the end of this process, an intricate beveling technique is performed on the inside surface of the koto shell, which is purported to help improve the sound quality of the instruments. Fujii-san uses a variety of nomi – wood chisels – to carve out a pattern called ayasugi inside the shell, which is extremely delicate work. A resonating board is then glued to the back of the shell before being tied up, with wedges hammered into the rope to make sure it seals properly. 

Following this, a technique unique to Fukuyama koto is performed called yaki, in which the wooden body is scorched with a red hot iron block in order to bring the fine details of the wood grain to the surface. The wood, which is initially burnt nearly black, is polished later to bring out the deep lustrous brown color that Fukuyama koto are known for. The body of the koto is more or less complete at this stage, and it must now be decorated as befitting an instrument for the stage. Inlays of Indian red pine are fitted, and designs are drawn on in lacquer. Fukuyama koto are said to be the finest examples of the instrument produced in Japan, and are the only musical instrument to have been recognized as a traditional craft by the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. 

‘It’s a difficult instrument in many regards,’ say Fujii-san. ‘Not only to play, but simply just attaching the strings and tuning is beyond the abilities of most players. It would be nice to innovate the koto to lower the barrier for beginners. ’ Fujii-san is thoughtful as he considers the future of the koto. ‘The thing is, if you change a beloved instrument like this too much, then you risk angering the people who want to keep it as a traditional instrument. It’s an interesting dilemma.’ 

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