83-Year-Old Japanese Master Still Handcrafts Martial Arts Equipment

TOKYO — When my 6-year-old son recently joined a local kendo club, I found myself at Yamato Budōgua family store that first specialized in equipment for the ancient Japanese martial art in the 1930s.

Kendo – the Japanese characters mean “the way of the sword” – is a form of fencing that uses bamboo swords and protective armour. And equipment as what is considered modern kendo originated in the 1700s.

My son needed a beginner’s outfit: a shinai, or bamboo sword; a dogi, the top in the form of a kimono; and hakama, wide pants. A uniform for an older or more advanced practitioner has four additional elements: a man, a type of face mask with metal bars to protect the head and shoulders; a do, or cuirass; kote, gloves to cover the hands and forearms; and a tare, thick fabric waistband with flaps to protect the hip area.

“I can make every part of the uniform and fix everything,” said Kiichiro Ito, 83, president of Yamato Budogu Seisakusho and bogu craftsman (bogu is an inclusive term for kendo equipment).

His specialty is men, face mask. Its manufacture begins with two preparatory steps: layering pieces of cotton, wool and other fabrics to form a protective cushion and wrapping rice straw around the edge of a fabricated metal grid, called the mengane. The straw provides a base so that the cushion can be hand sewn on the grill, and the edges of the set are then bound with strips of rawhide to reinforce the structure and improve the overall appearance of the piece, a said Mr. Ito.

The process takes about two weeks of work to produce the basic model, while higher-end models, which require finer stitching and decoration, can take up to three to six months.

Mr. Ito also collaborates with other bogu artisans across Japan: for example, one of them, in Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo, specializes in aizome, or indigo dye. The artisan dyes the textiles yarn by yarn, then sends rolls of fabric to Mr. Ito’s workshop, where it is cut and added to protective pads. (Other indigo-dyed textiles from artisans in other prefectures are used for the cotton dogi and hakama set.)

The family business was established by Mr. Ito’s grandfather in 1936 in Aoyama-itchome, a region in southwest Tokyo. Over the decades the workshop moved, turned to equestrian equipment when certain martial arts were banned after World War II, and in the 1970s was renamed Yamato Budogu by Mr. Ito.

Mr. Ito joined the company in 1957, at the age of 19, and his younger brother, Tsuyoshi, joined the company a few years later. They took over the shop when their father died in 1980.

“Kendo is generally a family business,” Mr. Ito said. “I learned from my father, who was also a bogu craftsman. It’s not something you can learn in school. Some particular techniques or skills are linked to certain families and transmitted.

The shop and workshop are in Mr. Ito’s house in Shibuya, another neighborhood in southwest Tokyo (“We could see Mount Fuji from here, but now all the buildings are blocking the view”). The shop, on the ground floor, is so small that two people can barely get in: once they open the front glass door, there is only a small genkan, or entrance, with swords in bamboo and parts of uniforms stored in glass cases. .

But when they take off their shoes, step forward, and walk through a door, there’s the workshop, a large room that measures almost 900 square feet and has been outfitted with tatami mats and two long tables where cutting and sewing are made by Mr. Ito, an apprentice and two employees, 86 and 73, who are close to Mr. Ito.

Rolls of textiles, lacquer bottles, boxes and small wooden drawers filled with tools are piled up in all the available spaces. Until his recent death, a big black and white cat named Fuku used to roam or take a nap near the gas heater.

Mr. Ito usually sits by the window on a zabuton, a Japanese floor cushion, with a blanket in his lap and a small wooden work table nearby. Next to him is another zabuton – but this workspace has stood empty for the past two years, since Tsuyoshi Ito’s death. “I wish you had met my younger brother,” Mr Ito said. “He was very fun and talkative.”

Yean Han, the 33-year-old apprentice, sits across from Mr. Ito. He is from Brunei and had met Tsuyoshi Ito at a workshop in Malaysia in 2013. “I was already interested in bogu making since I was training in kendo,” he said.

When Han moved to Tokyo in 2016 to study robotics at Waseda University, his frequent visits to the workshop slowly turned into a training program.

“I became so interested and naturally sat here,” Han said. “Sometimes he would just throw little things at me, like ‘Try this, try that,'” he said. (Mr. Han first learned from Mr. Ito’s brother, but now Mr. Ito is training him.)

“We talk a lot sometimes. Other times he just does his job and I sit across from him for an hour or two and just watch,” he said.

Mr. Ito seems to appreciate his apprentice: “Mr. Han is the one who greets customers. He speaks Japanese very well.

Mr. Han said he was still learning skills. “I still have some way to go before I can be fully responsible for doing something. What Sensei will do when he creates something and thinks he can trust me with parts of the process, he will ask me to play a game,” he said, referring to Mr. Ito as sensei, a term of respect for someone who has achieved a certain level of mastery. (He no longer trains, because Mr. Ito gave him a choice: practice kendo or do bogu.)

Mr. Ito’s handcrafted bogu is a rarity: Today, he says, less than one percent of kendo equipment in the world is made in Japan; other Asian countries, such as China and South Korea, make it. Yet in the 1970s and 1980s, when kendo was particularly popular in Japan, his shop had 14 employees and distributed to vendors. Now he deals with individual clients.

According to Alexandre Bennett, professor of Japanese history at Kansai University and editor of Kendo World magazine, “The golden age of kendo in Japan was in the 1970s and 1980s for children. There would have been a waiting list to get your child into kendo. Now, however, the country’s low birth rate means there are fewer children, and kendo may not be as appealing as soccer or baseball.

“Kendo is traditionally known for its discipline and for teaching children manners,” he said. “But these days, parents are giving their children more freedom of choice, and parents don’t see the value of kendo the same way they used to.” Yet, he says, the Japan Kendo Federation estimates there are 1.5 million practitioners in Japan today; the population is approximately 126 million. (For comparison, there were four to five million practitioners in the 1970s and 1980s.)

Mr Ito worries that the old ways are going to die out. “Martial arts are too ‘old school’,” he told me. “And compared to other martial arts, kendo is expensive, probably the most expensive, which could be a factor. You have to think about the long-term costs if your son continues kendo.

My son’s simple cotton ensemble and shinai, or sword, cost less than the equivalent of $100, while his teacher’s clothes, purchased from Mr. Ito, cost around $300, and a full outfit, with shinai, could cost between $500 and $1,000, depending on the quality.

But a well-designed bogu can last: Mr. Ito mentioned a customer who kept his uniform for more than 40 years. “High-quality, handcrafted items can be repaired and used for a long time,” he said while repairing a kote, or glove, for a girls’ kendo team at a local high school. The kote was lined with deerskin, which wears out easily and may need to be replaced up to five times a year as the team trains daily. But Mr. Ito only replaces a small area so the team doesn’t have to buy new ones.

Mr. Ito’s wife, Yasuko, 79, is also part of the business: she used to handle deliveries, but now takes care of administrative tasks. “My wife is carrying a big load,” Mr Ito said, and she is responsible when they all take a break for oyatsu, or afternoon snack, at 3 p.m. every workday. , handing out cups of tea and sweets. “The candy is different every day,” Han said.

Mr. Ito doesn’t take much time off. He said he has no hobbies, but loves the annual matsuri, a traditional festival held in September in Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s entertainment and business districts. “If you let me talk about it, I could talk about it forever,” he said.

Even though the store’s official opening hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday, Mr. Ito usually works late in the workshop. “There is no end time,” he said.

“At my age, people often ask me if I still do this as a hobby or for fun, but I do this for a living,” he says. “I don’t get retirement money like people who worked in big companies. As a craftsman, I don’t have that, so I have to keep working.

“I am the last bogu craftsman in Tokyo,” he said. “When I die, there will be no one left.”

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