A craftsman who is proficient in the traditions of making Japanese brushes


Chiyomi Tanaka is one of the remaining seven Nara brushes made in the old capital of Japan, with a history of more than 1,300 years. Credit…Shina Peng
In the low tile-roofed wooden house in the historic Naramachi district of Nara City, a brush as large as a broom marks the gate of the Tanaka Chiyomi store. I followed a stone path along an alley full of flowers, hiding under the mustard curtain, and entered her small showroom. Inside, brushes of various sizes—some thin enough to draw doll eyelashes, some wide enough to draw figures as tall as a writer—are arranged on the wall. The old tools have been discontinued. This is a shokunin (master craftsman) workshop, but it is as comfortable as the aunt’s living room. Tanaka is one of the remaining seven masters of Nara handicrafts.
“Fude” roughly translates to “brush”, but Tanaka only uses this word to describe her traditional calligraphy and ink brushes that have a history of approximately 1,300 years in Nara, an inland prefecture below Kyoto. In the fourth and fifth centuries, Buddhist monks, merchants, government officials, and immigrants brought Chinese characters to Japan (via the Korean Peninsula) and continued to spread with Buddhism in the sixth century. In the eighth century, Empress Yuanming established Nara City as the empress of Japan — its bureaucracy and buildings were modeled after the Tang Dynasty in China — the monarchy used words and religion to consolidate power. Ink and brushes are used to record extensive history, copy classics and draft laws. The oldest surviving brush in Japan (stored in the warehouse of Todaiji Shokurain in the city) can be traced back to that period.
Tanaka took me upstairs for a one-hour seminar. I think I will make my own brushes from start to finish, but even for Tanaka’s adult daughter, she sometimes assists in opening workshops for a group of tourists without trying to mix and assemble the hair by herself. This process is very complicated, hobbyists can only fix the brush head on the brush handle. But I really came here to satisfy my curiosity about how Tanaka makes her brushes—and to try to understand the relationship between Japanese makeup brushes and this legendary craft.
Japanese makeup brushes have long been popular with professional makeup artists, many of whom have appreciated the pioneering work of Japanese makeup artist Shu Uemura since they were young. Now, brushes from well-known Japanese companies such as Chikuhodo and Kashoen 1883 are available all over the world. High-end contemporary beauty brands such as Westman Atelier, Surratt, and Rae Morris proudly share that their makeup brushes are made in Japan using traditional techniques and materials. Most Japanese beauty brushes are made in Kumano, a city in Hiroshima Prefecture that has its own (more industrialized) brush-making culture for nearly 200 years. But these Kumano brushes are related to Nara strokes, because Meibi was born from the respected (and now disappearing) tradition of creating strokes for calligraphy.
When Tanaka Chiyomi started learning tofu making in 1982, her children were still toddlers. She remembers taking her daughter in a stroller to the technical school where she attended a one-year course. Back then women rarely worked outside the home or family business, but she wanted to do something-this was her own goal. She has been certified in flower and tea ceremony (but dismisses this proficiency as marriage training), she has also learned to sew kimonos and western clothes, but she was not interested in everything until she tried to make brushes . After graduation, she became a disciple or apprentice of a master and worked in a brush company. In 2009, she became an independent Shounin.
Under Tanaka’s guidance, I widened the opening of the bamboo handle with a blade, used super glue (traditional nikawa, similar to rabbit skin glue, picky and slow drying), and then pressed the fluffy brush head into the opening. We squeeze the bristles into a bowl of gel-like wind, a water-soluble binder made of seaweed, and comb them out. Finally, I wrapped a thread around the brush, tightened it and pulled the ring toward the tip to smooth the bristles into the shape of a candle flame. I am very satisfied with my brush, even though Tanaka did all the actual work of mixing hair and assembling the brush head.
The brush handle she used was made by another craftsman. She prepared bamboo (sometimes wood) according to Tanaka’s specifications; the pen is the pride of a master craftsman like Tanaka in Nara. She uses the brush in batches—first blends and shapes a hard core, then wraps it with softer hair—wetting and drying the hair repeatedly between steps. She can finish hundreds of brushes in two weeks. After finishing, her friend etched and drew a label on the handle of each brush by hand.
Nowadays, finding the right hair for the brush is getting harder and harder-Nara’s last supplier closed down a few years ago-but Tanaka has a lifetime stock of materials. She said that every fude shokunin is required, and she added that when brushes are a necessity, artisans used to take up debts as large as housing loans to build their workshops. She showed me the types of hair she used—squirrels, ferrets (a type of weasel), horses, rabbits, sika deer, raccoon dogs (raccoon dogs), and Yangtze delta white goats—and a picture of a smiling goat from different parts of the animal’s body. Of dozens of fibers. For example, the goat’s beard has a different quality from the hair on the belly or buttocks. The hardness or softness of the hair, how much elasticity and elasticity it has, the amount of ink it absorbs and the speed at which it is released onto the page-all of these are important for calligraphers who want specific lines, and feel, brush.
Synthetic hair (to alleviate consumer concerns about animal welfare) is now widely used in cosmetic brushes and cheap soft hair. Tanaka thinks that the next generation of fude craftsmen may use it to do some great things, but she doesn’t care about it herself. Polyester fiber cannot hold so much ink, and the deposition speed is very fast. But Tanaka did add some synthetic hair to her most basic brushes to make them more affordable. She said that many people are so used to the hardness of synthetic hybrid bristles that they find that pure animal hair brushes are too soft. Once you get used to a specific quality brush, it is difficult to switch. Nevertheless, when Tanaka first processed animal hair, he was still taken aback by the smell of dried meat and pheromone remaining on the fiber. The work of boiled hair to remove the smell of grease and dirt-later the singing base merged the brush heads together-she did at home. She dries and straightens her hair, dusts it with dust to absorb any remaining grease, then wraps it in soft deerskin and takes it to her shop.
While she waited for customers—half of them were collectors or calligraphers passing by and attracted by large brushes, and the rest of friends or repeat customers—Tanaka sorted, mixed, and shaped the bristles on a small table. She divided the clean hair into 10 piles according to its quality. Learn to quickly and intuitively judge that they spent her ten years working with her mentor, and even though he is dead, she still considers herself to be his bottom.
When she went to her mentor’s studio for the first time, she saw piles of cash lying beside her; she thought she would become rich. But before she became a professional, Tanaka said that the world has changed. In Japan, resumes usually need to be handwritten so that employers can judge the character of applicants, but ballpoint pens have become so standard that writing with a brush may seem ostentatious. Elementary school students practice calligraphy with brushes and ink, but when dollar stores and stationery stores sell cheaper Chinese-made brushes, few parents will buy Tanaka’s cheapest brush (less than $15). In order to deal with formal envelopes brought by guests at weddings and funerals-or to write New Year’s cards-writing brushes are more convenient than real things.
Tomoshi Ogawa, owner of the ninth-generation paintbrush shop at Kyoto Ryushido, told me that his grandparents used to set up stalls at weekend markets and could sell hundreds of paintbrushes to farmers and artisans who needed them to make labels for their products. When the Magic Marker was launched in the 1950s, sales dropped sharply. Today, the village brush manufacturer has become a thing of the past. Like Tanaka, Ogawa sells his best brushes to collectors and artists. The students bought cheap writing brushes and ink to go upstairs to calligraphy class, but a writing brush took a long time, so Ogawa filled his shop with stationery; he does business with postcards and writing paper more than writing brushes many.
The brush may no longer be a necessary tool for writing, but in Japan, calligraphy is still at the same level as poetry or painting. An emotional character can exist independently as a work of art. (Tanaka used to display her brushes and other crafts in the gallery, but for her, they are tools for creating art, not the work of art itself.) John Carpenter, curator of Japanese art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, told me through The e-mail said, “Even in the early days it was possible to use mechanical copying techniques to copy classic Japanese literary works such as The Tale of Genji, these works were copied by hand for centuries.” Beautiful handwriting is what women in the palace of Kyoto should possess. “The Tale of Genji” written in the early 11th century is one of the literary works born from their works. “During the Edo period [1603-1868], woodblock printed books copied the manuscript version written with a brush,” Carpenter added.
I chose the 4,000 yen (approximately US$40) brush recommended by Tanaka-her most expensive brush sells for about US$1,400, but most sell for US$50-80-for learning shodo and writing styles (Or path). Its blended natural hair is elastic and hard enough for beginners. Tanaka suggested that if I use real sumi on my new fude (grind on an inkstone table), I can clean the brush with cold water (not hot water as this will damage the adhesive) and nothing more. Softer brushes-made from itachi tails, or a mixture of itachi and deer-require more skill to control, but can make long and expressive lines, like the scrolls I have been in the tea room for years As I admire on.
In Buddhist temples, calligraphy works installed above sliding partitions provide doctrines or verses, and their writing is often more expressive than readable. Tanaka says that the monks who write about them usually prefer flexible beech brushes with a lot of ink. In magnificent homes and luxurious offices, easier-to-read calligraphy may be used as a conversation starter-using a sturdy, flexible raccoon or horse brush to draw simple and clear lines. Tanaka even made some brushes with feathers to have an unusual quality of striped lines.
Brushes Tanaka is labelled dento kogei, which means traditional high-end crafts and meets strict standards defined by the government to protect and promote unique local products. Tanaka is the first woman to be awarded the title of Dento Kogeishi in Nara Craftsmanship. But she said that more and more women are beginning to engage in traditional handicrafts. Japan’s slowly changing gender norms continue to place high hopes on men and women in fulfilling specific roles. But Tanaka believes that because women do not have the same economic pressures as men, they may risk entering an increasingly uncertain field in the future. (I observed the same thing happening in carpentry in Yamanaka Onsen, a small town where I live, near the Sea of ​​Japan). Tanaka said that if they fail, they can re-become a housewife without shame. If they succeed, they will inject new vitality into traditional craftsmanship.
As the demand for everyday brushes decreases, some brush manufacturers—especially in Kumano—turn to another source of income: beauty brushes. Today, Japan is an innovator and trend leader in cosmetics, skin care products and beauty tools. Across the country, you can find Kumano brushes on cosmetic display racks in noisy drugstores for less than US$5, while well-known brands sell luxurious soft paints for more than US$80.
When I took a train from Nara Town to Kyoto in less than an hour to visit the flagship store of Hakuhodo, a brush company in Hiroshima, I was attracted by the world of exquisite beauty brushes. The store is a modern white box with luminous display cabinets and skylights reminiscent of James Turrell’s installation, in stark contrast to the old-fashioned Ippodo tea room across the street. In Kyoto, brush making has almost disappeared-the remaining three handprints are too few to be named dento kogei-but the city is famous for its traditional art and high culture.
Hakuhodo uses the word “fude” to describe its hundreds of makeup brushes, which look like highly specialized makeup brushes sold in department stores around the world. They are priced according to their materials, and prices range from approximately $15 to hundreds of dollars. A handful of paint is installed in a plexiglass box on the wall, and its handle is coated with Hello Kitty paint and gold powder (price is about 800 US dollars). I chose a small fan-shaped brush to remove mascara clumps (when I tried Japanese Dejavu Fiberwig mascara later, it made me look like I was wearing false eyelashes), and a double-sided brush for eyebrow trimming The comb, which has a 24 K gold ferrule to fix it on a pleasing heavy handle, painted in the same vermilion shade as the temple gate.
An elegant saleswoman showed me how a popular eye shadow brush can make different effects according to its hair. Kolinsky (a weasel hair banned in the United States) is soft and soft in color and can be used in concealers and gel shades. Horse applies the shadow thicker and builds it faster. Goats are good at depositing glitter and bright colors. She explained that a tuft of synthetic hair is great for applying foundation and mixing liquid colors quickly, but natural hair absorbs more powder. The elongated brush used to draw eyeliner looks like the menso fude in the Tanaka shop. It is specially designed for drawing faces on dolls; its soft, elastic hair requires professional skills to control, but it can outline unparalleled elegance line.
In fact, most of Hakuhodo’s brushes are yofude or Western-style brushes, which are characterized by metal ferrules that hold the bristles in place. Kumano is the city of Hiroshima where they were made. It was originally known for its paint brushes-now cosmetic brushes. Hiroshima farmers who worked in Nara during the off-season used to take brushes home and sell them to earn extra income. In the early 19th century, Kumano clan sponsored Nara artisans to teach these farmers the craftsmanship of brush making. Currently, 80% of brush manufacturing in Japan is done in Kumano. The process is divided into discrete tasks, and each task is assigned to a different craftsman, so it is easier to outsource to machines or overseas factories.
Tanaka said that every step is completely done by hand, which is inefficient. But it makes you care about the whole process. She is committed to continuing the Nara hand tradition, but her friends encouraged her to add makeup brushes to her repertoire. A small glass cabinet in her shop displays lip brushes depicted in a 19th-century Ukiyo-e prostitute painting, and a round puff made of soft pink goat hair, placed on a rough cypress wood handle, which looks like Kumano’s Brush. She called these “burashi”, which is the Japanese pronunciation of “brush” to distinguish it from fude. (I bought an itachi lip brush with a handle made of bamboo and buffalo horn, but it is so beautiful that I dare not use it.)
Despite her enthusiasm for Nara’s writings, Tanaka told me that she would discourage almost all young people from accepting decades of study, dirty, hard work, and uncertainty, all of which are accompanied by brush careers. Coming. Her income is enough to keep her store open, but her husband’s salaried job supports their family. I asked her why she persisted all these years. She replied: “Because it is still fun.” She said that in her heart, she hopes her daughter (and now a mother) can find the same happiness in doing stupid things.
Chiyomi Tanaka sells a wide range of calligraphy and ink brushes, as well as a small selection of lip brushes and paintbrushes-all of which are entirely handmade by Tanaka himself in Nara. You can assemble your own brushes in a half-hour or one-hour workshop.
Hakuhodo produces brushes for many makeup brands around the world. It is headquartered in Kumano City, Hiroshima, but has multiple stores, including stores in Tokyo and Los Angeles, and flagship stores in Kyoto. Choose from a wide range of professional brushes, starting at approximately $15.
If you go to Hakuhodo in Kyoto, don’t miss this brush shop next door, which contains the few hand-printed stationery, ink and brushes (used in calligraphy, ink and Japanese painting styles) that are left in Kyoto. The history of the owner, Ogawa’s family, can be traced back to the 9th generation in 1781, but the business may be even longer.
In 1883, Masazo Takamoto, the founder of this legendary brush company, started making brushes, entered the beauty industry in the early 20th century, and began exporting products overseas decades later. You will find various styles of brushes at the Kashoen Hiroshima store. Like Hakuhodo, the brand incorporates other types of Japanese craftsmanship, such as lacquerware, into its brushes.
Five years ago, hair and makeup artist Rae Morris started working with Kumano’s calligrapher (like Tanaka, who is good at calligraphy) to promote her own makeup brush series called Jishaku. Morris’ brushes are made of vegan microcrystalline fibers and are designed for specific purposes-from blending at the angle of the eyes to applying blush or bronzer on the cheekbones. The best part? The ends of these brush handles are magnetized (“jishaku” means magnet in Japanese) and can be easily hung on a metal display stand for easy access and good hygiene.
This New York-based beauty brand was launched in 2012, partly inspired by co-founder Troy Surratt’s work trip to Japan while assisting the famous makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin. The company has won enthusiastic followers with its innovative color and makeup techniques, and its art series of brushes — all made in Kumano, half of which are gray squirrel hair — are top products. The brand’s smoky eye brushes are the favorite of the brand’s global educator Jesus Pulgarin.
Although Tatcha is mainly a skin care brand, its founder Vicky Tsai and Tatcha brand and culture executive director Nami Onodera visited Kashoen 1883 Tokyo boutique one day and discovered that their best-selling exfoliating rice flour enzyme powder can be stirred in a bowl Apply it with a brush, similar to how matcha is made. In addition to brushes and headsets, Tatcha now sells exquisite whitewashes made of kiri wood and 24K gold ferrules.
The elegant brushes that accompany Gucci Westman’s breakthrough cleansing and beauty series are inspired by the makeup artist’s own collection of Japanese brushes. “When I first started, the brush was an investment product,” Westman explained. At work, she prefers to keep her hands close to her face for better control, so these handles (made of FSC-certified lacquered birch) are short and comfortable; brushes made of synthetic fibers are also cruelty-free.
Hannah Kirshner is the author of “Water, Wood, and Wild Things: Learning Crafts and Farming in a Japanese Mountain Castle”.

Post time: Jun-23-2021
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