An Interview With Bokken Artisan, Matsuzaki Yoshiaki
Japanese craftsmanship in a small family business
August 2017, enjoying the quiet summer months, we traveled across Japan to Miyakonojo and the Kirishima Sankei region to visit 3 of Japan's last Bokken workshops. We've conducted 3 interviews and here's the transcript of the second one with Master Matsuzaki Yoshiaki, including some additional comments and information.
A Fantastic Encounter
I first visited these craftsmen in 2010, 7 years ago, at a time when Seido was yet a rather insignificantly small company with no need to work with all craftsmen simultaneously and it was a simple visit during which all craftsmen were kind enough to take the time to present their work and show us their workshops.
Since that day in 2010, I've done my best to one day work with each and one of them, for two reasons. The first is that I love woodwork. I almost decided to become a cabinet maker when I was 16, and I've kept that passion for woodwork all my life. And the second reason is that I wanted to work with all the artisans, get to know them and create a workflow, a relation, that no other company has, a connection that is not just based on business concern.
We started off with Horinouchi, and soon after with Nidome in 2010, then in 2013 with Matsuzaki and finally Aramaki in 2015, making Seido the only company in and out of Japan working with all craftsmen of wooden weapons simultaneously. Of that I was proud, and really enjoyed working with all of them. But I didn't feel like having done enough, so I decided in 2017 that there was a need to better present them to the world. This is when our video project was born, and I'm proud to present you this interview.
And what's next? What about 2018/19? Well, I still have the hope to get my hands dirty at their workshops, working with them. I'll let you know when this happens!
Matsuzaki Bokuto Seisakujo
Matsuzaki Bokuto Seisakujo (松崎木刀製作所) is the name of the workshop. It simply means: Matsuzaki Bokken Workshop. The founder, master Matsuzaki Yoshinori, began manufacturing Bokken in 1968, switching from agricultural tools to Bokken manufacture.
Like his father, the son of the founder, master Matsuzaki, 64 years old, still perpetuates the tradition.
Matsuzaki Bokuto Seisakujo is a small family business run by Master Matsuzaki, his son and his wife.
Let's start with the interview itself.
Matsuzaki Yoshiaki - 2nd Generation Bokken Artisan (Part 1/2)
Q: Can you tell us about the creation of the Matsuzaki workshop?
My workshop's date of foundation?
Well, the official one is something like Showa 40-something.
43 (1968) or 44 (1969) I think. I can't remember it exactly, but it must've been around 44 (1969). Before that, we were making wooden (agricultural) tools. Then we officially changed to Bokken manufacturing, starting in Showa 44 (1969).
My father continued manufacturing Bokken, and I started at my father's workshop when I was 18, and learned the craft. At the time, there were 4 craftsmen, 5 including my father, and 2 factory workers. Further 4-5 helpers, doing the sanding and varnishing. So when I came back from school and started at the workshop, we were thinking about stabilizing on 14 or 15 people...
And back then, everything was completely hand made. We didn't have machines like those we have today, and a craftsman could within a day make about 35 pieces, planing only. 40 pieces at most... but we'd still have to sand and varnish or polish them.
So, in those days, when we started to sell Bokken, no matter how much we made, it was never enough. We've customers with whom we've been doing business for about 50 years, from since my father started. So two of these clients we had for about 50 years, and others for 30 years, or something over 20 years. The reason why we could without worries manufacture Bokken was because we had these relations. From the time we started, they would purchase almost 100% of the products from us. So, as I told you before, we didn't have to compete with an excessively low price. So that's why we could do it and actually still can.
One of his oldest customers is the world famous KuSakura, the first and probably oldest Budo Equipment company in Japan. Their range of weapons is limited, as they specialize in Judo and Kendo, but almost all their weapons are from the Matsuzaki workshop.
Q: How was the industry like when you started?
As far as I know there were 15 or 16 companies I think. Some of them would work as individuals; artisans who were formerly agricultural tools craftsmen switched over to produce Bokken, so some artisans were making Bokken on a freelance basis.
In those places, there was no successor, so they would naturally retire and their company disappear. You can't say it exactly like that, but in a certain way, they didn't have the people and their business failed. In the end, the cause was the cheap selling that lead to an increase in debts and certain businesses went bankrupt like that.
That's why there were several cases where the business couldn't be continued because there was no successor or because they were pushed into bankruptcy.
Well, some disappeared for those reasons, and now, there are only 4 workshops remaining. Because they had successors, like me and the sons of the other workshops, we were taught the art and took over. That's why today, there are 4 workshops left, those left are those with successors.
This is a statement that sounds obvious, but when you place it in perspective with the whole interview, having or not having successors, especially within the family, is one of the greatest struggles of Japanese artisans.
Q: Where does the specific shape of your Bokken come from?
The tip of the Bokken is slightly thinner than that of the others, like those we're making at the workshop. The first who made that kind of Bokken was my father.
I don't know his name, but one of these long time business partners came to see my father. That was 50 years ago and at that time there was still room to improve our Bokken.
Those clients who were selling martial arts articles, who've passed away now, asked my father to make the Bokken in a specific shape. They discussed it and in the end, the shape was decided like that. So my father created this product based on the discussions with the main clients, and this shape got popular among them and hence, I (my generation) can't decide to change the shape of our Bokken all of a sudden. But also, I like the style of my father's Bokken. I think it's the best.
That's why also in the present, I still make the Bokken in the shape my father developed, and I tell my son that I'd like him to keep this shape as well.
This is the special characteristic of our model. At a first glance, you might not see the difference, but we as artisans, we can tell which workshop has made it, master Horinouchi, master Nidome or master Aramaki. We see it immediately.
And my father always used to say "don't start cutting corner, even if it's just the finish, just because you're busy!" At least a minimum of sanding and then the varnish - back then. In our days now it's quite popular to spray them, but we still varnish them with pads, rubbing it. Because varnishing is actually quite satisfying. Using pads might not seem very effective, but a teacher of a furniture dealer, he told us when we all were assembled that the basic of wood coating is varnishing with pads.
We bought a compressor, and gave it a try but the varnish was used up in a blink.You throw away half of it whereas with pads, you use 100%. There's no waste. And that's what I was taught as basic and I still think that it's the best way to do it.
But I don't judge which is better - you also get a nice result using spray. But we, we do it our way.
Master Matsuzaki is the only one using pads to varnish his products. Sometimes, some varnish gets stuck where the Tsuba goes (near the line), but I do think it's a really nicer way of varnishing than using a spray machine. It gives a personal touch that I like.
Q: What is your favorite workstep and what is the most difficult one?
The part that is really hard? There's nothing I could call "hardship" concerning work, but lately, because of my age, my eyes are not as good as they used to be. So when I look at a Bokken, I can see my hands clearly, but the tip is blurry. Even if I wear glasses, I still can't see the whole piece clearly. Indeed, my physical strength as for example my eyesight is decreasing. These are the things that happen and as consequence, I cannot do the measuring of custom made products easily by myself, like I used to. My son checks the dimensions, the execution of the Mine, of the Shinogi etc.
Recently, those difficult handmade tasks - it's not that I can't do them anymore, but compared to the olden days, I Iost confidence, little by little.
Of course, there are the difficulties of stocking material etc. but I don't really consider these as hardships. It's rather the "course of events", it's how it is nowadays. But, growing old(er), little by little, I can't do the various custom made orders exactly as I want to anymore. I can feel that and it's been becoming annoying, lately, those custom made orders. But thinking about it like that, I naturally hand over to my son. That's the natural flow of things, right? So it's my son who does it, and he can do it by himself.
What I like? Well, it's not that I don't like work of course but I'd rather just live enjoying myself (laughs).
Having a simple piece of timber, a raw material, starting from there and changing it into a product. Making it nice and better than I had imagined myself, including the finish of the wood color: Those are very pleasant moments, that's when I'm satisfied and happy. When I look at it after finishing and think: "ah, I did a good object".
Depending on the quality of the timber, this non-discript timber, depending on how it is treated, the grain becomes unbelievably stunning. That the surface of the wood becomes nice, you can already guess it, when you see the timber. I like wood, I really do.
Q: What about the finish, do you prefer varnish or oil polish?
I use oil for Sunuke and ebony, to reveal their particularities. If Sunuke, or Kokutan isn't oiled, it'll cleave and get cracks. Even if you keep the finished product in a room. If you have a heater or air conditioner, it will crack. That's mainly the reason why these timbers are oiled. Using varnish for the oak? We have some over there, the oak I'm using. We put it into a steaming oven when the timber starts to swell up and take off the oil and scum. But if we'd keep it like this, its appearance and color wouldn't look nice.
Originally, and even if called 'red' oak, if it dries naturally it becomes whitish or yellowish. And if you steam it, oil it, and let it dry for a year and varnish it after that, the color becomes red. That's why we varnish it. It's specific to the type of wood.
To get the best out of it, we'd either varnish or leave it like that. But we can actually use the timber to our liking. If it was just me, I'd leave the white oak unvarnished as much as possible.
But with white oak it's difficult. Sometimes, there is some that is completely white and during the drying process, the color almost looks burnt. Because when the water doesn't evaporate completely and some is left, it becomes darker. There's not just outstanding and totally white timber. That's how it is, we now have to use the timber in the best way we can, racking our brains.
So, red oak is better off varnished, and white oak unvarnished. But only when handled as Master Matsuzaki does. It really depends on the workshop, how they dry the wood and how they prepare it.
We can't take only that into account, but it's part of how we select our weapons at Seido. It's something only possible because we work with the 4 workshops, and because we know how they work and how they take care of the wood.
Q: Orders have drastically increased recently, can you keep up with demand?
We're actually thankful for that. Sending out products, sending out objects and selling them; we're thankful for having that opportunity.
However, I say that to our regular customers, and to Seido as well, it is quite hard to respect the appointed day of delivery, having ready all items.
At our workshop, it's only me and my son and hence, the orders of our most important clients pile up during the same period, and the same products and everyone wants to get the items quickly.
Actually from the end of November, we start getting busy. So from November, over New Years, January till May, until the national holidays in May, we work with barely a day off. That's how busy we are.
But in this industry, it has always been like this. During summer, until now, there were calm periods when we hadn't have to send out any products. We did our best during busy times and during summer, we could slow down a bit.
But the last few years, there was no such summer break anymore. Now, we receive orders continuously and we're always pressed to meet the deadlines.
But this said, having work, receiving orders, for us and for our work, we're thankful and happy about it. Although it's physically tough, we do our best every day.
This is something we consider very important. It is rather rare that we press our partner craftsmen to deliver at a specific date. Unless unexpected events or shortage, and because we have a great logistic and stock quite important quantities, we almost never have to.
We also contact them on a regular basis to know how busy they are, and when they would prefer us to send our orders. Again, working with the 4 workshops helps, because we can switch from one to another to stabilize our stocks when we wait for a bigger delivery.
And I believe this is one of the reasons we have such a good relationship with them, they know we respect them.
Matsuzaki Yoshiaki - 2nd Generation Bokken Artisan (Part 2/2)
Q: What about the future of your workshop and this industry?
Well, I've taught my son to a certain extent the art and now it's my son's turn to engage young people, my son's children or in other words my grand-children.
If it (the art) will be continued, I don't know, because I don't know if at least my grand-children will continue. What comes with the generation after my son, I can't say anything about it.
But the young people today, my son's generation, or the generation after, if they realize what amazing traditional craft the Miyakonojo Bokken are, and if they understand its value, there are for sure people who would want to learn this work. And as the cycle of eras and history repeats itself, and they'll appear again, those people who can feel the fascination regarding the Bokken, regarding this work, and it (the art) will be continued I think.
Even if it's not our workshop, at another place, it's likely to continue. I can't tell exactly (how the future of the Bokken industry will look like). But what I wish for is that my grand-children's children would still continue. That'd be the ideal but I know that I won't live to see that, I can't know what the future holds.
Even if there's only one young person, not necessarily from Miyakonojo but from anywhere in Japan, if there's only one or two people who are interested in Bokken and its fabrication, I'd be thankful.
Q: Would you hire and teach a foreigner?
Well, first of all, there'd be the language barrier, and the unfamiliar daily customs, both would have to be endured as part of the traineeship. And also, during that period, the salary among the disciples is low, compared to what's the ordinary. Regarding that, who could want this? Japanese or foreigner, it doesn't matter: If there's a person with a strong desire and will, I'd accept anyone.
But since this art has been existing in Japan since ancient times, I probably would pose as condition to not sell the art abroad and perhaps some other conditions. But from now onward, in the Japanese handicraft world, spreading the art, in a good way of course, should be conceived as a good thing.
Well, at least I, I think that's good.
Please, before you consider whatever runs through your mind right now. Master Matsuzaki has quite a difficult Japanese. Even for me, bilingual with 12 years in Japan and used to the local dialect, maintaining the conversation for a few hours is a challenge.
In addition, Miyakonojo is in the middle of nowhere and has the lowest pay rate in Japan. So, working there for a few years, learning the art, would be as much as a challenge as being an Uchi Deshi in an old Koryu with no foreigners. Now, if you feel you can make it and have some basic knowledge of Japanese, why not. Get in touch with him, or with us, it might work!
Q: Do you have faith in the future of Miyakonojo Bokken?
Well, I think the Miyakonojo Bokken artisans have to make the items properly.
First of all, how much Japanese oak do you find in the world. Japanese oak is flexible yet, hard and heavy. It's a timber with very specific characteristics.
In every country, like in China, there are places with the same latitude than Japan. I heard that there are regions with the same environmental conditions. But these mountains haven't been exploited yet, so I don't know about the future.
Well, in the Bokken manufacture craft, or any other craft, the hereditary system, passing on from parents to children and children to grand-children, could be a good system. But if you consider only this option, the industry will not last for long, there won't be a continuation. That's a difficult problem, and I don't know the future...
This comment must be understood with the fact that the quality has slightly decreased over the past decade. Mainly due to the lack of material, and the pressure for low pricing from some wholesalers or retailers.
This, in addition to the aging craftsmen, the work has became difficult and keeping the standards at the highest is far more difficult than it used to be.
But master Matsuzaki proves it, there's the will to do so, and with partners who understand their struggles, it helps.
Q: So it’s only the two of you?
My wife is in charge of the varnish finish, and putting the Bokken into the plastic bags. We work as family, the 3 of us together.
Q: So foreigners could be a solution?
I recently saw a French women doing Karate on TV. To her, practicing Karate was more than just doing it for physical health or style. It's about the spirit of Budo that exists in Karate.
There are many people thinking like this. And to learn that, she came from France to Okinawa to practice the true Karate, in context. She wanted to learn that and stayed for about a week.
Most Budo practitioners want to forge their spirit and body seriously but, how can I say... there are also people only doing it because they think: "Doing Karate like this, that's cool!".
It's actually the same with us, Bokken makers are Bokken makers. And I wouldn't want to have a Bokken made from someone who doesn't understand the spirit of the Bokken making. I want someone who continues the tradition of that true spirit.
Q: These are a few Bokken made by craftsmen in Portugal and the US. What do you think about them?
This one features an oil polish finish right? It very much looks like the kind of Bokken we produce. That shape is about the same everywhere. It's good timber!
[Jordy: The weight is there, too.]
Yeah, it's heavy, it's good, and well finished. This part very much looks like the Bokken we were making in the past.
Q: This craftsman also makes Bokken for shows and movies. Do you have such special inquiries?
It happened that this guy from Hollywood - what was his name again? The one who did the movie "Ninja", who was a producer before, having a Dojo now and is quite famous.
We used to send him 200, 250 pieces a year. And till now, we receive his orders, just sent out another 50 pieces recently, and got another order. He was working in the Hollywood film industry. He was doing Iaido, as well as his son, who is quite famous now. He places an apple on his son's head, seriously, and cuts it (in half) with a real sword.
He had several different shapes of our Bokken. I've known him for a long time, already more than 10 years, because his father is actually living in Okayama. He used to come visit, but now, I develop the Bokken talking to him on the phone.
So, we haven't been able to confirm this, but it is very likely Sho Kosugi, a Japanese actor who emigrated to the US and now lives partially there, partially here. Sho Kosugi also has several Dojos, teaches Budo and his sons also practice. Since he's the one who made the movie "Enter the Ninja" in 1981, it's very likely him master Matsuzaki talks about.
Q: What’s your final opinion on these Bokken?
The shape seems good. Making a shape to that degree, finishing it off with sanding and it becomes nice. The timber is also heavy, good material. It resembles the Bokken my father used to make in the past, like the first ones made in Miyakonojo. Back then, the shape was like this. It was a bit more shaved out here though. In our days the majority of Bokken abroad feature a Tsubanashi finish, (no Tsuba line) because many practitioners don't use Tsuba. That's why the Bokken I send to the US are often with such Tsubanashi finish.
So, this one is sold for 25,000 JPY?!
[Jordy: Yes, one is 25.000 JPY]
(Laughs) In Miyakonojo, this would be about 3,000 JPY!
The fact that this Bokken would be sold for 3,000 JPY (from Matsuzaki, so probably about 6 to 8,000 in a shop) is actually quite a problem. This is a subject I have discussed with Master Matsuzaki and the other craftsmen during my stay (and a question about this is coming below). 3,000 JPY means roughly an hourly salary of less than 1,000 JPY (8$) before taxes, with 1,000 JPY for the material.
A master craftsman, or any expert of any other field in Europe or the US would charge 5 to 10 times that hourly rate.
Q: Don’t you think that your prices are too low for the present time?
I've thought about it, though, tough, after all, in one year, we sell about 18,000 pieces. The Aramaki and Horinouchi workshops probably more. Workshops with such production capacity can't really negotiate higher prices. Anyways, Bokken have a very specific shape, the Miyakonojo's workshops specific shape and because there are very few craftsmen abroad making them, its value is high. I guess that's why they're [Bokken made in France/US/Portugal...] sold for so much.
But let me tell you, although there is the problem of the resources, we supply Kendo practitioners within Japan, and wholesalers like you for example, so there are people who need to make a living from this business.
Even if Seido would buy (our Bokken) for 25,000 JPY, you definitely couldn't sell it for 50,000 JPY.
Since the olden days, the wholesalers took good care of us. Without them, we couldn't sell anything, because we're not businessmen. Only because the wholesalers can sell the amount we produce, we can make a living.
How commerce is organized depends on the industry. If its only us making profits, but not the wholesalers, we'll get complaints from the customers (that we cannot set a proper price). That is how we work. And that is, how we set the price, while discussing with the wholesalers, It's not the wholesalers (who complain), but the directly supplied retailers. The wholesalers say: "We sell it for this price, so if you, Mr. Matsuzaki sell it for that price, we'll be in trouble." And: "Some of us won't be able to continue business, if we cannot sell it at a higher price than what we pay already".
I have to consider that. But, it's also true that, nowadays, it can't go on like this. However, from back then till now I receive big orders from the same wholesalers. And I cannot betray those wholesalers. That's why things are the way they are. To set the price, to a certain extent I have to discuss and decide it with the wholesalers. The material costs are that much, adding the labor and manufacturing time, so considering the expenses, we have to match the price.
Yeah, even master Nidome has cheap prices. That the Miyakonojo Bokken are cheap, everyone says it. I continuously discuss this with master Nidome. But the other 2 workshops are still cheap. So we cannot (randomly higher the price). That's the discussions we have.
In the end, setting the price, every workshop has to decide it on its own. Now, it takes that much effort and the material costs are getting higher every year, and (our win) decreases. Accordingly, the price will become higher a bit. Taking the price my father decided on back then, which already was way too low, as basis, the margin for the price hike is narrow. I have to do at least something, but it's difficult.
Now, this is my personal thought, but I really believe that we cannot continue like this. Considering the effort it takes, and of course the costs of the raw timber, the material, further letting it dry for 1-1.5 years, which actually means that during that time, I have about one million yen alone immobilized. The interest rate of that money, calculating all these things and mentioning all the details. How much time does it take, how high are the costs to make one piece. Determining this, to set a minimal price, I think that we absolutely have to do that if we don't want to com up against a wall. Actually, I think, and as mentioned before master Nidome agrees, the price is too low.
The Bokken (you showed me before) is sold for 25,000 JPY, I can't imagine this. If I'd sell (my Bokken) for 25,000 JPY, I could make only 1000 pieces in one year, and just have some fun (during the rest of the year)...
Q: So it’s time to raise your prices!
How much we gain from 10,000 JPY worth of white oak, depends on the products. Depending on the item, they take more or less effort so we adapt the price to the time spent on the item. Calculating the material costs etc. for a standard Bokken, it would be appropriate to raise the price by about 400 or 500 JPY. If all of us (the 4 workshops) could raise the prices together. Maybe (a raise of) 1-200JPY.
Actually, the white oak Suburito, the red oak Suburito, there's almost no difference in price among these 2 models. Although, the raw white oak timber is now super expensive. But the customer would be surprised, that the price difference between red and white would be that huge.
One log of raw white oak timber for example, if it was red oak, I could make about 100 Bokken, but white oak, probably not even 50 Bokken. There are black parts in the middle, and therefore less usable material in white oak. Based only on that, the costs of the material are doubled, right? Adding the additional trouble to sort out and cut it properly [avoiding black and low quality parts], it's natural that there should be a difference in price, at least 1,000~1,200 JPY.
However, now the difference is maximally about 800 JPY (between red and white oak). But I'd actually want to have a difference of 1,000 JPY. But I can't even get that. That's how it currently is. It's difficult.
That's why these problems will even affect our successors. A price allowing to leave a certain profit, leading to a certain standard of living. So we need a good price for the items and still sell enough, and that again raises the salaries... which we have to pay to our young people. So everything is connected like this...
To be honest, from now on, I think that the craftsmen have to set the price themselves. Until now, we discussed with our wholesalers, considered the situation of our clients, the world conditions, observed the sales, and decided the price.
But from now on, we have to see the real value of our work for what it is. And that's different for every craftsman. I and master Nidome, master Horinouchi, and master Aramaki, we all have our own sense of value. And each one of us has to set their own prices.
That's the future. That would be the ideal. And I explained that to my son.
We can't continue harmonizing our prices among us. It's about the value we give to specific items. If from now on, the number of craftsmen will decline, it's the craftsman who made the item who knows best, and it's him who should set the price. That's the artisan's world and that's also how it works with artisans abroad.
The artisan who made it, sells it for the price he sets. It's the time we live in now. If we don't adapt to it soon, we won't be able to have successors for our work.
That's how it is.
You can't imagine how satisfying it is to hear that from the craftsmen. I've been discussing this matter with them for years, and I've always said that they should increase their prices.
Well, 1~200 JPY is far from enough, they should more or less double their prices if they want qualified young workers to come to the industry.
And I'm convinced that practitioners are willing to pay for craftsmanship. Those who can't afford it... well, China is getting better at producing low quality items, they'll figure out someday how to make a Bokken that, despite a relatively low quality, is good enough for contact practice (they're still far from it, but the day will come).
The point is, it's all connected. Better timber is more expensive, sustainable practices to ensure the future have a cost, young people won't come to the industry if they're paid less than a student or foreign worker at a convenience store etc. But that's not all. It's also about how practitioners and customers value the work and products.
By continuously lowering the price, we send the message that those products are of low quality or that they aren't worth much. Indirectly, we also send the message that the artisan's work isn't worth more than non qualified work. And that's a huge mistake, both from an economic perspective, but also and very much more importantly, from a human perspective.
We have to encourage, well pay, and reward very qualified work, because it's the future of work. Easy and dirty tasks will, one day, be completely handled by robots. Highly qualified and artistic tasks never will be.
It's the first time since I've created Seido that I see that craftsmen are starting to understand the bigger picture behind the issues they face.
I've invest myself so much in this that I have, sometimes, made mistakes that lead to a rupture of communication with some craftsmen or partners. Because I wasn't good enough at making my point and at some point, I just couldn't handle the situation.
Lack of quality, lack of respect (as much for others than themselves).
What I want to say is that Master Matsuzaki made me feel better that day, and that doesn't happen often in this industry.
So I do not thank him only for his openness and kindness in accepting to answer my questions, but also as a human being who helped strengthen my faith in the craftsmen of this industry.