The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Shusaku Yagi, 39, sits on a zabuton (thin cushion), with stacks of braided bamboo strips to one side and, in front of him, a large tree stump that serves as his worktable. His set-up mimics that of his father and grandfather, who have created bamboo works at their company, Yagitake, in Kagoshima over the past 70 years.

Yagi, however, now fashions bamboo wares at Tokyo’s chic 2k540 Aki-Oka complex, located between Akihabara and Okachimachi stations. Shoppers pause to watch him.

“He’s so handsome,” one woman whispers. Yagi laughs shyly, continuing to work. “Moving to Tokyo was an important step,” he confides minutes later. “When people see how things are made, they begin to understand them in a different way.”

“Can you hear the bamboo?” he asks, bending the woven, moistened strips into the shape of a tiny basket. “The sound lets me know how far I can push it,” he says.

It’s something one would never imagine, a tiny cry of limitation from a material; but once you hear it, it changes everything. Watching Yagi work, I realize how many things most people never know about bamboo.

Flexibility is one of the properties of Yagi’s material, and judging the tensile tenacity of bamboo is a crucial skill. “That ability has helped me in my business, as well,” he claims.

“You have to know how much you can bend expectations.” Yagi talks of his initiative to create new bamboo products, yet underlines the necessity of continuing certain traditional items. What he is making as I watch is a tiny oshibori (moist hand towel) holder.

“This is a large order for a long-term customer,” he says. Does it make money? “No,” he shook his head, “but long-term customers have earned our loyalty. It’s part of where we came from.”

To stay financially viable, and to support the 12 employees working for him, Yagi has a three-pronged approach: collaboration, innovation, and revision.

Collaboration, Yagi said, has allowed him to push the limitations of his raw material into new spheres of usage. For example, teaming up with leather artisans, he produces a bamboo-woven siding for wallets and name-card holders. The striking bamboo addition is durable and adds panache to leather products.

“By using a material that’s not your own, but made by another artisan, you suddenly find yourself with a product that has two stories behind it and the richness of two traditions. Your customer base also widens, as you tap into the other artisan’s followers,” Yagi said.

Arti

Yagi has also worked hard to expand the range of products he offers through the subtle innovation of daily and domestic items. His bestseller, a smooth, aesthetically pleasing cooking spatula (¥1,200) features the natural curve of bamboo culms. It’s perfect for mixing and sautéing foods, but also facilitates serving up cuisine, or sneaking a taste test.

The artisan bends the concept one step further, producing spatulas made for left-handed cooks, as well. That tiny addition undoubtedly earns him the gratitude of southpaws, and nearly everyone takes note of his thoughtfulness, which is certainly good for business.

Among his most surprising products is a soap made from bamboo charcoal. Used in China since the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) to draw out pollutants from the skin and to kill bacteria, bamboo charcoal is known as the “black diamond” of skin ailment remedies.

The ingredients in Yagi’s soap—charcoal, oils, and honey—are so gentle, he says, that the product is actually edible. Not a cheap meal at ¥2,500, the soap nonetheless sells well.

Yagi’s final tactic is to take a mundane product—such as chopsticks—and, through revision, elevate it to a new standard. He pulls out an exquisite pair of shifuku (ceremonial) chopsticks, the upper side of which carries the natural green color of fresh-cut bamboo bark.

“Most bamboo chopsticks we use in Japan these days come from China. To keep them free of mildew and mold for shipping, they’re soaked with chemicals. I want to offer chemical-free products.”

For the chopsticks to be commercially viable, Yagi knows he’ll need to educate his clients, and convince them that local goods, even if more costly, are worthwhile.

Yagi’s bamboo is raised and harvested, then cured in long kilns, down in Kagoshima. “I’m lucky,” he says, “because bamboo is hardy, and it replenishes itself aggressively, so my job is mostly to figure out how to make it financially profitable for the people who grow it.”

When I learn that Yagi is the proud new father of a baby boy, currently with his mother in Kagoshima, I ask the obvious: will his son be the fourth generation at Yagitake? He nods and shrugs.

“He needs to start observing immediately,” Yagi said, “and I’m not there.” After speaking to this flexible artisan, it somehow seems likely he’ll bend time to be in two places at once.

Arti-sense monthly haikuHaiku1

Divider

Kit Nagamura is a photojournalist with 25 years’ experience in publishing. She writes the monthly Backstreet Stories column for The Japan Times and hosts regular programs on NHK.

Divider