Japanese Handicrafts – Hagoita

A few years ago I photographed Mr Nishiyama, a hagoita artisan in his Tokyo workshop.

Nishiyama Kogetsu’s workshop makes hagoita – decorative paddles meant to bring good luck to Japanese households. The workshop is on the second floor of his Tokyo home, where there are two work tables. Nishiyama-san’s father occupied the other one until he passed away – now he continues the tradition alone with no apprentice to take up the workload. 

Kogetsu Nishiyama sits at his workbench. To the right of the frame there is a picture of Nishiyama’s recently deceased father, who was his teacher and colleague. If one is lucky with their timing, Nishiyama can be seen in Tokyo Skytree doing live demonstrations of his craft, and his workshop doubles as a mini exhibition space.

Hagoita are in effect paddles for an ancient game called hanetsuki, which was a very early form of badminton. With a history as far back as the Eikyo era (1429-1441), hanetsuki was enjoyed by members of the Japanese aristocracy as a New Year’s diversion. Shaped like a wooden trapezoid with a handle, there was plenty of space to add decorations, which started out as pictures painted directly onto the wood. 

The paddles became more and more complicated as artisans strove to outdo each other, and on entering the Edo period (1603 – 1863), the idea of using fabric collage with cotton padding became de rigueur, as a way of adding three-dimensionality to these items which were now more decorative than sporting. 

These days, the main motifs adorning hagoita are traditionally renderings of famous Kabuki actors frozen in a famous scene, or Furisode bijin – beautiful kimono-wearing ladies. In the heydays of Kabuki’s peak popularity, the actors most often depicted on hagoita was a barometer of who was popular that particular year. They were popular collectors items for the diehard fans of Kabuki.

The Nishiyama workshop is located in the Sumida district of Tokyo, inside a two story building. The first floor is something of a mini-museum dedicated to Hagoita, and visitors are free to stop in and admire the works that the two generations of Nishiyamas have produced over the years.  ‘My father and I used to split up the jobs,’ says Nishiyama-san. ‘One of us would paint the faces and the other would do the collage.’ Nishiyama-san’s father, who passed away in 2014, taught him the craft. ‘Being born into the house of an artisan made it seem very normal to me,’ says Nishiyama-san. ‘I would help out my father doing odd jobs as a kid.’ It was in his last year of high school that Nishiyama-san decided to follow his father’s path. ‘He apprenticed me to a hagoita master in Kawasaki, where I tried making them for the first time. After four days I returned home and my father took me as his apprentice.’

What followed were hard days of waking up at 6:30 to clean, starting construction at 8 and finishing at 10 in the evening. Painting the faces, designing and implementing new kimono collages, making the hair out of silk threads, all of it was knowledge to be absorbed, passed on from a demanding teacher. 

‘It was an interesting time to be an artisan,’ Kogetsu, recalls. A national resurgence in interest in traditional crafts gave Nishiyama-san and his contemporaries opportunities to be seen and recognized for their extraordinary achievements. Department stores invited craftspeople to do live demonstrations, and customers were able to see the faces behind the products for the first time. ‘Seeing my father’s life work get recognition was encouragement to me as well,’ Nishiyama-san remembers. Along with his father they performed demonstrations in Nice, Los Angeles and New York in the 80’s and early 90’s. 

Nowadays, Nishiyama-san performs all of the work by himself, and creates hagoitas ranging in size from 18cm to 75cm long. ‘I was never any good with my hands, but I’ve managed to learn it all,’ he says. Creating a hagoita involves working with a variety of different materials. Nishiyama-san’s desk is covered with faces that he has laboriously painted, which he will then dress in kimono silk before affixing it to the board. ‘Technique and skill is important in making hagoita, but that on its own is not enough,’ he says. ‘Kabuki, ukiyo-e, samurai lore etcetera are things that an artisan must be familiar with in order to create items that will ring true to its heritage.’ 

Currently he doesn’t have an apprentice or the desire to take one on, but he’s not worried for the future of hagoita. ‘One of my favorite things as a boy was helping out my father at the hagoita market, in Asakusa,’ he says, referring to the December festival held at Asakusa’s famed Sensoji Temple. ‘Looking at all the different hagoita made by so many different craftsmen there was a big influence on my life.’