'kumiko' Woodcraft Master Turns Craft Into Intricate Art To Save Tradition

'Kumiko' woodcraft master turns craft into intricate art to save traditionA "kumiko" woodworking master is applying his skills to make decorative frames for Western-style rooms to preserve the traditional art form.
Kumiko, first used to decorate the temples of Kyoto 400 years ago, is a woodworking technique where wood pieces are painstakingly assembled together to make intricate grid designs. No nails or joints are used in their construction; the individual patterns called "yo," which are inserted into the grids, create the tension that holds the work in place.

The color schemes of each piece comes from the natural wood that goes into their making and no artificial colors are used. Since World War II, kumiko has been used to create architectural detail above doorways, called "ranma," and in Japan’s iconic sliding doors, called "shoji."

Kumiko master Masanobu Shiozawa, 39, who lives in Iida, developed a new technique to reduce the thickness of wood pieces from three millimeters to one millimeter. He also makes slight incisions into the yo to allow for bending. Using his new method, Shiozawa is able to create picture-like works of art that are finer and more detailed than conventional kumiko woodworking.

The nation's leading kumiko expert, Shiozawa received the prime minister's prize at a national trade show for building fixtures and fittings in 2001 at age 27, becoming the youngest-ever winner of the prestigious award.

With modern housing, the number of Japanese-style dwellings are decreasing, which means fewer orders are being made for decorations featuring the time-honored kumiko wood-crafting technique. The art form is on the verge of dying out.

In a bid to find a new markets for kumiko artwork, Shiozawa decided to concentrate on decorative frames more suited for Western-style spaces. So, the kumiko master stopped taking orders for traditional decorations for three years with the help of a local financial institution to concentrate on more artistic pieces until 2012, when he put his work on exhibition. He has sold a total of 11 works so far in exhibitions across the country.

Shiozawa sometimes creates more than 150,000 yo assemblies for a big kumiko work, such as for a special shoji consisting of four sliding doors. It takes about a year for him to complete some works, which can sell for as much as 20 million yen ($204,000). Every piece Shiozawa makes is made to order, so no two pieces are the same.

"It is a job you can't do without support from patrons," he said.

Shiozawa’s love affair with kumiko began at the age of 10 when he saw a piece that left him in awe to such an extent that he said all he could do was just sit there and admire its craftsmanship. He started making his own kumiko the next day, learning the techniques himself.

Shiozawa started making kumiko professionally after graduating from junior high school and has been charting his own course ever since.

"In order to ensure kumiko is there for future generations, I make works customers want to buy," Shiozawa said. "For that reason, I try to develop new techniques."

His four children are also aspiring to follow in their father's footsteps, the artist added with a smile.