Japan Crafts: Ryukobo Kumihimo

One of the things about photographing traditional crafts in Tokyo is a sense of disconnect each workshop has with its surroundings, both in a historical and physical sense. 

This is not necessarily a bad thing, merely an unavoidable product of Tokyo having been the focus of all of Japan’s economic and political power for so many years, starting with its establishment as the seat of the Shogunate back in the 1600s.  The sankin-kotai system implemented by the Shogun would see fief lords and their vassals traveling in from all over Japan to pay obeisance, dragging with them the massive caravans of their families,  administrators, samurai, and very often, their favorite artisans. Thus Edo (the medieval name for Tokyo) became a melting pot of skilled artisans from all reaches of Japan. Cue the Meiji Revolution and Edo moves from de facto capital to official one, complete with a name change to one we all know: Tokyo. New winds were blowing - trade with foreign powers was cranking into high gear after centuries of isolationism. Artisans around the country with an yen to well, make yen, were moving their workshops into the new seat of the Emperor. 

All of this is to say that Tokyo’s identity as a crafts capital is largely based on the near constant migration of high quality crafts. I’d be hard pressed to name a homegrown Tokyo handicraft that didn’t borrow heavily from the many regional influences present at the time. 

Case in point is Ryukobo, a kumihimo workshop that’s been around since the late 1800s. Kumihimo, or braided cords, are an irreplaceable staple in many parts of Japanese life through the ages. It’s been around since the Asuka period, emerging in Nara, finding usage in samurai regalia, religious items, and later on as part of the Edo kimono. Nowadays kumihimo is branching out, finding new ways to thrive, and Ryukobo is at the very front of the pack.

Pictured above are the father and son duo Fukuda Ryu and Ryuta respectively. Father Ryu spent a year learning dyeing from a local master before returning to integrate that knowledge into running his family’s kumihimo workshop, offering bespoke design and dyeing for their cords.

Son Ryuta graduated from university before joining his father in the family business, bringing much needed business and design acumen in developing new products that utilized their traditional techniques. This dynamic partnership has proven a force to be reckoned with - amongst many honors they’ve collaborated on shoes worn by Lady Gaga, and were tapped to make the medal sashes for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. That’s Ryuta pictured below, photographed as one of the finalists in the Japan Crafts 21 contest. 

Normally when I photograph artisans I tend to have them focused, contemplative, immersed in their world. Ryuta however, had a different idea for his photo, beaming me a brilliant, face-splitting smile. “I prefer to be photographed like this,” he told me. “I like looking happy.” 

As a photographer, I can’t argue with something like that. You’ve got to go along with the subject when they’re bringing energy to a shoot, and in this case, he stands apart from all of the other artisan portraits I’ve made - a young professional brimming with positive energy, just the thing a traditional craft like kumihimo needs.

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