The last craftsman’s search for a successor

Article and images from Alto Magazine. Written by Tomo Taka

“Osami Mizuike is the only craftsman in the world who can make traditional Japanese scissors called nigiri basami. The 70-year-old is now looking for a successor

Osami Mizuike is the last of his kind. He’s the sole craftsman in the world who hand-makes traditional Japanese scissors called nigiri basami. The 70-year-old Mizuike from Ono, Japan, has been creating these tools since he was 15. There were once hundreds of craftspeople like him making these pieces. Now he’s the last remaining – and he’s looking for a successor.

The craft has been passed down from father to son for generations. In Mizuike’s case, it has been in his bloodline for centuries. But his son never took up the trade. It’s a story that repeats itself for many craftspeople across the country and has seen the number of artisans dwindle to a trickle. This trend started during the 20th century. Manufacturing that had been in Japan went overseas. Workshops closed down. And sons chose stable careers rather than dedicating their lives to one craft.

Shinya Kobayashi serves as a producer for Banshu Hamono, the brand that sells Mizuike’s pieces. He is a designer who comes from the same area as Mizuike and has taken it upon himself to protect his region’s rich heritage. Kobayashi says the towns of Ono and Miki in Japan’s Hyogo prefecture have a tradition in craftsmanship dating back to the country’s Edo period between 1603 and 1868. The region became famous for its production of traditional Japanese swords during that era. But a ban on sword production came into play as a result of World War II. The ban was lifted but restrictions were placed on the number of pieces a swordsmith could make in a month. These regulations remain today – but Mizuike’s nigiri basami represents the continuation of that sword production, encompassing the heritage in forging sharp blades.

The traditional Japanese scissors trace their origins back to 1,200 years ago. They appear simple but require a deft touch. Kobayashi says: “You need a huge amount of skill to make the nigiri basami by hand. Making a standardised version over and over shouldn’t be too hard. But what happens when someone asks for little variations? Some people ask for certain parts of the tool to be softer or bigger, for example. To be able to deal with these requests requires a huge amount of skill. You need to calculate how much iron and other materials you need to make it. That skill comes with 10 years of experience.”

It’s why Kobayashi is keen for a successor to learn from Mizuike soon. Other craftspeople should be concerned too. “We won’t have the tools that other crafts rely on. Without Mizuike they won’t be able to do their work, especially because they ask for little variations on the nigiri basami. Only he can adjust for those requests,” he says. The scissors provide more control for precise cutting because the thumb and index finger are closer to the blades. Seamers and tailors use the tool to intricately cut thread. Artisans who make Japanese bow and arrows need the scissors for trimming the arrow’s feathers and sharpening its point. Makers of traditional Japanese sweets use the nigiri basami to carve intricate designs into their products.

Crafting the nigiri basami can take up to two weeks. Mizuike starts with a piece of iron and gradually reworks it into a tool through heating and hammering the material. “Mizuike is extremely busy. There’s always a few months’ wait for his products, even half a year,” Kobayashi says.

What sort of person is Mizuike looking for to be his successor? Kobayashi says: “He wants someone who has the heart to do it. That person will have to commit for a lifetime. The doors are open to anyone in the world – regardless of age, gender and nationality – to learn Mizuike’s wonderful skills.” The reward for that lifetime commitment? A craft that only you know.”

Banshu hamono craft
The stages in making a nigiri basami, starting from the right with a piece of iron.


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