The Japanese Connection was conceived as a
means to expand the visibility of Japan's vast heritage of fading arts and
crafts beyond Japan and into the Western world. The Japanese artists
represented by the Japanese Connection have been carefully selected,
through recommendations and research, as leading representatives of the
artisans and craftspeople who still adhere to the venerable arts and
crafts traditions that have withstood the test of centuries in Japan.
The Japanese Connection
The Japanese hanko is a seal, sometimes
called a "chop", made from materials such as horn, wood or stone, and is
imprinted with the bearer's name or title, a favorite virtue, a creed, an
organization's name, and sometimes even graphic artwork. It is used for a
multitude of purposes, including authorizing legal transactions for
individuals and organizations, signing artwork, and certifying
achievements in sports, artistry, vocation, etc. The Japanese impression
of a hanko is virtually synonymous with the Western signature.
Hankos were formally introduced to Japan in
701 AD, but were available only to those in positions of high authority.
During the early to mid-seventeenth century, the general populace adopted
hankos. Interestingly, the common people of Japan were not allowed to have
family names until the late nineteenth century, so there must have been
much confusion with hankos prior to this time with so many people having
the same name.
The hankos sold by the Japanese Connection
are made by Kitaji-san, whose hanko business was begun by his great, great
grandfather, 126 years ago. The founder was a samurai who became
master-less (a ronin) by the new drive of the Japanese government to shed
its old feudal ways and open the country to Western ideas. He took a job
in a government print shop and soon became skilled enough to start a
private enterprise. Eventually, he focused mostly on creating hankos.
The modern Kitaji-san's business, although
very successful, still sells only hand-carved hankos, in spite of the
advent of sophisticated carving machines. Because there are tens of
thousands of names and thousands of styles, Kitaji-san has found that
every hanko that he makes is unique. Making these seals by hand is a long,
labor-intensive process. After designing the face of the hanko, the
material is locked into a vice and carved over a period of many hours by
one of Kitaji-san's highly skilled craftspeople.
Kitaji-san sells mostly to Japanese, but he
says an increasing number of Westerners are discovering and purchasing
hankos. It is a bit of good news for a craft that, like so many other
traditional Japanese crafts, is increasingly threatened by a technological
movement that would do away with the need for the time-honored impression
of a hanko.