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Japanese Artisans: Ki-Oke Master Shuji Nakagawa

Despite being a Tokyo based photographer I often like to travel into the countryside to find interesting people to photograph, because I find that’s where some real gems can be found. Here is ki-oke (wooden bucket) artisan Nakagawa Shuji, who lives in Shiga Prefecture.

Shuji Nakagawa’s workshop sits on a rise overlooking the glittering Lake Biwa – Japan’s largest lake. One wall holds every imaginable shape and size of kanna – Japanese wood planes which are capable of shaving mere microns off of an uneven surface. Other woodworking implements unique to ki-oke (wood bucket) making are lined up in the floor – crescent shaped blades with two handles meant for giving wood slats a concave inner surface so they can be fit together to form a bucket.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Shuji Nakamura (3)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Shuji Nakamura (1)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Shuji Nakamura (2)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Shuji Nakamura (6)

Shuji Nakagawa is the third generation scion of his family’s business in crafting ki-oke, or wooden buckets. He comes from distinguished lineage – his grandfather spent forty years perfecting the craft before starting the company, and his father received the coveted ‘Living National Treasure of Japan’ award, which is only bestowed on true masters for their services in protecting traditional craftsmanship.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Shuji Nakamura (7)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Shuji Nakamura (8)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Shuji Nakamura (9)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Shuji Nakamura (10)

Shuji has continued in the tradition of excellence by adapting 700 year old ki-oke crafting techniques in order to capture modern consumers’ attention, developing buckets into stylish and complex shapes that were once very difficult to make. As the need for traditional wooden buckets in households has plummeted in the last 50 years, Nakagawa’s efforts have been to pivot away from making a utilitarian object to crafting something desirable and attractive to international communities. The result is abeautiful range of products that have visual appeal as well as diverse avenues of usage. The ki-oke technique is still entirely done by hand, from chopping wood blocks into staves that fit together into a perfect circle, to sanding down the edges so that the bucket appears seamless.