Interview with Shuji Nakagawa of NAKAGAWA MOKKOUGEI [first part]

Interview with Shuji Nakagawa of NAKAGAWA MOKKOUGEI [first part]

Visiting a wooden bucket craftsman further evolving his craft of over 700 years of traditional techniques and world-class innovative ideas

ANAORI: Could you please introduce yourself first?

Nakagawa: My name is Shuji Nakagawa of NAKAGAWA MOKKOUGEI, where I craft wooden buckets(ki-oke). Our history began when my grandfather started his apprenticeship at a long-established wooden bucket workshop in Kyoto. It is said that about 100 years have passed since he started his apprenticeship there.

ANAORI: Your grandfather, your father and yourself all worked as woodworkers. Could you tell us how it all came about and how the style has changed over the generations?
Nakagawa: When my grandfather started working as an apprentice wooden bucket maker, wooden buckets were widely used in the daily life of Japanese people, such as bath tubs, rice boxes, sushi buckets, miso and soy sauce buckets, and even as washtubs. At the time, there were no doubt dozens of wooden buckets per house, but after my father passed down his inherited skills to me, wooden buckets were used less and less in daily life.

They have subsequently been replaced by plastic and industrial products. It was in this context that we chose to turn these ordinary everyday utensils into beautiful vessels for use in restaurants and Japanese inns as containers that symbolize hospitality. I think this is what has helped us stay in business.

When my grandfather worked as an apprentice, there were nearly 250 bucket shops in Kyoto alone, but the industry has declined sharply, and today there are only a few left, maybe four or five. My father developed the techniques of wooden buckets making into an art of craftsmanship, in a context where the use of wooden buckets in everyday life has changed dramatically, leading him to be certified as a living national treasure and a holder of important intangible cultural property in 2001.

Since the title of living national treasure is awarded only to individuals, and not to workshops, I opened my own workshop in Shiga in 2003, to make a clear distinction between my work and my father’s. We are currently working on our production with two workshops: NAKAGAWA MOKKOUGEI at my father’s place in Kyoto and NAKAGAWA MOKKOUGEI Hirakoubou in Shiga.

ANAORI: What kind of training did you receive, Mr. Nakagawa? How did you learn your techniques?

Nakagawa: I mastered the art of wooden buckets under my father’s guidance. It was officially after I graduated from university. But the workshop had been a playground for me since I was a little kid, even before I went to elementary school. I used wood chips and scraps as toys, and I had fun with cutting, shaving and sticking things. Thus, my work naturally became an extension of these games, and when I graduated from university, I was able to make wooden buckets without any special training.

ANAORI: Besides learning these techniques, what other areas were you interested in? What kind of training did you undergo?

Nakagawa: I am not sure if you could call it training, but as a teenager in high school, I was slightly unwilling to follow the tracks that had been laid out for me and run the family business. When I was in kindergarten and elementary school, my grandfather and father would ask me if I would take over their wooden bucket store, and they were delighted when I would answer yes. However, when I entered the rebellious period of my teenage years, I wanted to explore other worlds. So I went to an art university, where I studied iron sculpture in contemporary art, and explored the possibilities of these other worlds.

My grandfather started out as an apprentice and my father after graduating from high school. I was always told that there was no need to go to university because if a craftsman got trained and started working as soon as possible, he would learn his trade faster. I was, however, reluctant to start working as a bucket maker right after high school, and that is why I chose to go to university. My family was against it, so I made the excuse that I could learn useful things about bucket making by graduating from art university. So I went to university, hoping that there would be another path. This is how I started to study the world of contemporary sculpture.

However, my 4 years of university helped me to reconfirm my love for crafts. Being born into a family of craftsmen initially bothered me a little, but by the time I finished school, I considered myself quite lucky. So I started working as a bucket maker right after graduation. Even so, the things I studied at the university were also very interesting, so I was wearing two hats at the same time. After graduation, I rented a prefab studio that I used as a workshop for my own sculptures and I was working as a woodworker everyday from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays. In exchange, I had my days off on the weekends. I would then go to my workshop, where I would stay overnight, to create iron sculptures. I lived this way for more than ten years after finishing my studies at the university.

ANAORI: Do you still make sculptures nowadays?

Nakagawa: I never intended to quit, but especially since I started my own workshop in 2003, I have become so busy with woodworking that I haven't been able to do any sculpting. I haven't made any sculpture in nearly 20 years, but one interesting thing is that times have changed and that the worlds of art and craft are now intertwined. I have recently started exhibiting my work as a wooden bucket maker in contemporary art exhibitions. It's incredible how times have changed, and until about 20 years ago crafts and art were two very different worlds, but it's interesting to see how they have become more and more interwoven over the past 20 years.
ANAORI: Could you tell us about the relationship between art and craft? In recent times, the field of design has become so important that we now talk about design for everything. As someone who studied at an art university, on what basis do you create art and design products? How does the idea and field of design inspire you as a wooden bucket maker?
Nakagawa: Traditional craftsmen tend to despise design. They are just like water and oil, especially those who are stubborn and value tradition. However, I myself have studied design, contemporary art, and crafts at university, so there is not so much of a border between them in my mind. So I think that in a way, my strength is that I can naturally combine design and craft.

The reason many traditional craft design projects fail is usually because they bring in a famous designer to spend a day in the craftsman’s workshop, then a few weeks later, they fax a design proposal to the workshop and the craftsman will do as he is told. But I think it is more common for collaborations with designers to fail, because they either just send their drawings, or they are only familiar with part of the work in the workshop.

That’s why, instead of making what a designer asks me by the book for a collaboration, I prefer to have a long talk with him and to give him an in-depth visit of my workshop so that he understands my techniques before proposing a design, and therefore to build a close relationship with him.

I myself have collaborated with Oki Sato of nendo, for example, and his designs are beautiful. To carry out this collaboration, he came to visit me several times in my workshop, and we discussed the shape until well into the night. One of his suggestions had broken one of the golden rules about buckets.

Buckets are surrounded by several hoops and the bottom is usually in-between them, but he suggested I use only one hoop, which is typically thought to be impossible. However, the design he proposed was so beautiful that I spent almost a month thinking of a way to achieve it. In the end, I came to realize that by using this principl→the lever principle, one hoop could have the effect of two, and thus I was able to create this work and give shape to his design. The relationship between design and craftsmanship is truly amazing.

I realized through this collaboration with a designer that the techniques for making wooden buckets, which have existed for 700 or 800 years, could still be updated.

ANAORI: In the traditional process of making wooden buckets, is there anything like a blueprint?

Nakagawa: There is none. There was a measurement notebook that had been handed down from my grandfather’s generation, and it contained only numbers. It is a book that contains around ten numbers such as the diameter of the bucket, the height, 1 hoop, 1 bottom, the position of the hand (if applicable), etc. It was common to make buckets by referring to this book. Basically, buckets have a round shape, and it would be enough to draw a circle with a compass to create a blueprint, that’s why there were none. But to be able to give new life to traditional buckets, mixing craft techniques and design, creating unprecedented buckets such as triangle or leaf shapes, drawing blueprints became necessary. I started to feel the need for a very high level of accuracy for the blueprints, so I started to check the shapes using computer blueprints rather than handwritten blueprints, and even 3D CAD on the computer. In the past, there was no need for blueprints in these fields, but recently we are using drawings or 3D models that incorporate these new technologies.

ANAORI: On the other hand, have tools changed? I guess there have been many changes in the history of bucket making over the centuries. For example, is there a difference in the tools used between you and your grandfather?

Nakagawa: Essentially, little has changed since my grandfather’s generation. I’ve introduced some new machines, like these electric tools, but they don’t serve much purpose in making buckets, and about 80% of the time I use old tools. For example, I still use those planes that are lined up behind here. These are the ones my grandfather used, and some of them, which were passed on to him by his master, are almost 200 years old.

On the other hand, I think that in the wood industry, it is perhaps the bucket makers who have the largest number of planes. Carpenters and cabinet makers who shave flat objects can use the same plane for both wide and narrow objects, but for buckets, the plane changes depending on the roundness of the object. So we need to use planes of various roundness that increase in increments of a few centimeters, because there are buckets with diameters of 3 cm, 10 cm, 30 cm, and even 3 m. We need more than 300 planes to be able to manufacture these various buckets. But on the other hand, because we have so many planes, we can meet the demands of designers who want to have a certain shape. Even so, we often ask plane makers to create new planes for us.

ANAORI: In some craft fields, the number of tool makers is gradually decreasing, and this is becoming a problem. I think this is also true in art. In the case of bucket making, what is the status of your relationship with tool makers?

Nakagawa: The same is true for us bucket makers, but a major problem is the dwindling number of craftsmen who make tools. There are still a few left, but they are on the verge of disappearing. The number of bucket makers has also decreased. My grandfather told me that in his day, there were about 250 of them, and there were about a tenth of the craftsmen who made planes for them, which was about 20, and that was enough to keep things going. Now that there are only 5 bucket makers, it is not enough to support the needs of a single plane maker, and in fact, that is the problem.

But lately, there has been a lot of talk about this problem, and as the spotlight has been shining on these artisans, young people and people in other professions have also appeared on the scene. For example, we have bladesmiths who curve sickles that can cut wood especially for us. We are currently working on a project to revive “field blacksmiths”, craftsmen who make tools used in agriculture, such as hoes and spades, because this craft is also on the point of disappearing.

The world of blacksmithing is very interesting, because there are two kinds of blacksmiths: those who specialize in blades, trying to make them as sharp as possible, and those who specialize in tools for the fields like hoes, spades or sickles, seeking to make these tools solid and of good quality, giving priority to strength over beauty. On the contrary, the bladesmith favors the sharpness and beauty of their work. Of the two types of blacksmiths, it is the latter who tends to be in the limelight, and therefore manages to last. That is why we would turn to bladesmiths to make tools for our buckets, even though they were not specialized in this field. However, buckets were originally designed to be used in everyday life, and field blacksmiths are better suited to this field. We therefore started to ask this kind of blacksmith to make our tools.

The two other parts of the interview will be released soon. Stay tuned for more!

Photographer: Kentaro Kumon


Shuji Nakagawa


Born in Kyoto in 1968. Graduated from the Faculty of Arts of Kyoto Seika University, majoring in three-dimensional art in 1992. Upon graduation, studied under his father Kiyotsugu (a living national treasure and holder of important intangible cultural assets) at NAKAGAWA MOKKOUGEI. Has been running NAKAGAWA MOKKOUGEI Hirakoubou in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, as the third successor since 2003.

1996: Won the prize for excellence at the Kyoto Art and Crafts Exhibition
1998: Won the Grand Prize at the Kyoto Art and Crafts Exhibition
From 2001 to 2005: Worked as a part-time lecturer at Kyoto University of Art and Design
2010: Produced an official champagne cooler for Dom Pérignon
2016: The KI-OKE STOOL made of lignitized Japanese cedar became part of the permanent collection of the V&A Museum in London, UK
2017: The KI-OKE STOOL made of lignitized Japanese cedar became part of the permanent collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Museum of Decorative Arts), in Paris, France
2017: Selected as a finalist for the Loewe Craft Prize
2021: Won the 1st Japanese Culture Grand Prix
2021: Won the 13th Creating Tradition Award
Additionally, he has participated in many individual and collective exhibitions both in Japan and abroad. He has been a member of GO ON, a group of young traditional craftsmen in Kyoto, since its formation.

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