Japan’s traditional crafts struggle to survive country’s shrinking population: NPR

Yoshikazu Netsuno (left) watches as his son Shinichi hammers a stack of thick special paper. Between each sheet is a thin layer of gold leaf. “My son will take over the business, so in our case we have an heir,” says Netsuno. “Many other artisan families in Kanazawa were not so lucky.”

Jackie Northam/NPR


hide title

change the title

Jackie Northam/NPR


Yoshikazu Netsuno (left) watches as his son Shinichi hammers a stack of thick special paper. Between each sheet is a thin layer of gold leaf. “My son will take over the business, so in our case we have an heir,” says Netsuno. “Many other artisan families in Kanazawa were not so lucky.”

Jackie Northam/NPR

KANAZAWA, Japan – In a cramped room, Shinichi Netsuno sits cross-legged on a thin mattress and directs a special stack of paper that is beaten with a mechanical hammer. Between each sheet is a small square of gold leaf.

The stack will be pounded over several days until the gold leaf is whisper thin. It can then be applied to jewelry, shrines, and even food.

Everything about gold leaf takes great skill and time. Yoshikazu Netsuno, owner of this small, family-run company, says much of the process is done by hand, even making the paper.

“We dip the paper in a mixture of rice pudding, egg white and ash,” he says. “It’s soaked and dried many times over the course of a year, which helps make it durable. Then it’s hammered for about three months to make the paper smooth.” Then they use gold leaf to help press it flat.

Netsuno says that the smoother the paper, the better the gold leaf. The 75-year-old man has been working with gold leaf for 60 years, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. His small factory is nothing more than a small shack behind his home in Kanazawa.

Bamboo tongs are used to pick up whisper-thin pieces of gold leaf at the Hakuichi factory. A drawing will be applied.

Jackie Northam/NPR


hide title

change the title

Jackie Northam/NPR

The western Japanese city produces almost all of the country’s gold leaf. But now the industry is under threat because there are not enough young people willing to take over the businesses.

The same situation continues in Japan, where decades of declining birth rates have resulted in a crisis for tens of thousands of family-owned small businesses. From restaurants and garages to repair shops and small factories, everything is going at an alarming rate because there is no one to take over from the aging owners.

Yasuhiro Ochiai, an associate professor at Shizouka University who specializes in what’s known as business succession, says small businesses are Japan’s economic engine. Many of them are run by people over 70 years old.

Ochiai says there are about 4 million small and medium-sized companies in Japan, but according to a recent government report, the number is dwindling and about 40,000 companies go bankrupt each year.

“If this continues, it will have a huge impact on the Japanese economy,” he says. “When these businesses close because there is no successor, skills and technology are lost. It also hurts the local economy.”

Also at risk are centuries-old traditions and skills passed down from generation to generation.

At the gold leaf workshop, Netsuno says that in the past, it was quite natural for sons to take over the business in Kanazawa from their fathers.

“My son is going to take over the business, so I had a successor in our situation,” he says. “The families of many other artisans in Kanazawa were not so lucky … and they went out of business.”

Yoshikazu Netsuno (right) shows flattened gold leaf in his small factory in Kanazawa as his son Shinichi looks on.

Jackie Northam/NPR


hide title

change the title

Jackie Northam/NPR

Netsuno says that when he was young, there were over 300 gold leaf masters in Kanazawa. Now there are less than 20.

But there are steps to stem the tide, including a new program by the local government to train artisans in Kanazawa.

Mio Oketani is doing one of those apprenticeships at the Netsuno factory. The 24-year-old admits to being a little nervous while driving the hammer machine, but says she’s excited.

“I was majoring in Japanese painting at university and discovered that gold foil was used in paints and artefacts,” she said. “It’s beautiful, and I wanted to become a master at making gold foil to keep those skills alive.”

A worker at the Hakuichi factory applies gold leaf to the painting.

Jackie Northam/NPR


hide title

change the title

Jackie Northam/NPR

However, only four new applicants are allowed into the training program every three years. It can take at least ten years to become a full-fledged artist, says Naohisa Yamaga, secretary general of the Golden Leaf Trade and Industry Cooperative Association.

“Honestly, we don’t know what the future holds,” he says. “It all depends on the willingness of those four interns — whether they want to stay in it.”

He says that many young people aspire to white-collar jobs where they can earn more money than to become artists.

“Also, the demand for gold leaf is decreasing,” he says. “It used to be used for Buddhist temples and altars, but not so much now.”

Yamaga says the industry needs to do more to develop new markets in Japan and other countries.

Just outside the city from the humble Netsuno gold leaf factory is Hakuichi – a company that manufactures gold leaf products. It is a sleek, modern, two-story building with floor-to-ceiling windows.

The lobby sparkles with everything in gold leaf – ceramics, paintings, even cosmetics. According to the guide, whose eye shadow is also decorated with gold flecks, the mirrors in the women’s washroom are decorated with gold leaf to remind workers of the value and diversity of their products.

On the factory floor, workers painstakingly apply gold leaf to Chinese clocks and ceramic lucky cats.

Even among other Japanese companies, there are efforts to broaden the appeal of gold leaf products, says Tatsuya Asano, CEO of Hakuichi.

“Usually they don’t understand what we’re making here,” he says. “But once they look at our product range, they change their minds to respect what we see.”

(Visited 1 times, 1 visits today)

Related posts

Leave a Comment