profile of a Kyoto scroll mounter

Hideyoshi Kitaoka

(Excerpted, translated and commented upon by Liza. The studio where Kitaoka trained, the Okazaki Seikōdō is where I went in March 2013 for intensive training by the current master, Akira Okazaki.)

Interview for the Japanese website Waza no Kokoro (The Heart of Craft), February 2010.

The title of the article is “The Strictest Master of the Strictest Studio” which points to big element of traditional Japanese craft—suffering for your art.

The basic process of making a hanging scroll is one of dampening and drying, pasting, layering, hydrating, drying again, over and over until you produce the scroll, supple and strong, and smooth as a single sheet of paper. You could call it a compromise between temperature and humidity.

~There is a geographical characteristic of Kyoto cited by the natives as a reason for all sorts of things. Bonchi dakara… because Kyoto is located in a river basic surrounded by hills… and sure enough, this is given as a reason why this city became the center for the technique of mounting scrolls.

Bonchi dakara, the wind is not terribly fierce, there is high humidity in summer, deep cold in winter. Bonchi dakara the seasonal variation in humidity is huge, yet the temperature is relatively high. These factors have a great influence on the behavior of paper and fabric in mounting.

 In the old days, after the final backing was applied to a scroll, the piece was left on the drying board for a year to experience the full round of the seasons in order to stabilize. Nowadays, clients don’t like to wait so long. For those not in a rush, it takes several months to mount a piece of art. And for those in a hurry, it can sometimes be done in a matter of weeks.

 At Kitaoka’s studio, the Gihōdō, sometimes things have to be hurried along no matter the season or the weather. Sometimes he uses heaters, sometimes dehumidifiers, but those are only for extreme cases. He would prefer to leave the pace of the process to the weather—on a rainy day, do rainy day tasks. On a clear day, do those steps that can only be done when it’s fine. For a mounter, this is what it means to work in harmony with season and weather.

~So, I’m wondering what this will mean for me, trying to mount scrolls in Northern California. It seldom gets hot here, seldom drops below freezing. It only rains in the winter, and humidity is low even then.

 “It makes you sensitive to temperature and humidity,” says Kitaoka. Yet perhaps on account of global warming, the extreme cold felt in the past has diminished, and summers have become hotter, he feels.

 “No matter how long you live in Kyoto, you can never get used to the summer heat and humidity. Bonchi dakara…”

 Kitaoka was raised near the mountains in Mie Prefecture, famous for bracing winds. His father was a scroll mounter there, and Hideyoshi was his second son.

~thus his elder brother, not he, was expected to take over the family business. This pattern holds for many traditional crafts, which are kept as family traditions this way. Nevertheless, young Hideyoshi helped out in the studio and learned about scroll mounting by watching his father. My impression is that this is a highly male-dominated profession, something women traditionally did not pursue. Must remember to ask about that…

After high school, Kitaoka joined a local company as a salaried worker, but almost immediately he suffered doubts. In the mid 1960s Japan’s economy was booming, and employees competed fiercely for promotion in growing companies. Without a college degree, Kitaoka felt he had little chance for advancement. After two years, he quit. He told his father he wanted to be a scroll mounter—something he felt he already knew about and for which lack of a college diploma was irrelevant.

 His father told him he must train in Kyoto, the heart of all things related to the mounter’s trade. Kyoto was where the artists were, and most artists had their works mounted as hanging scrolls. Also in Kyoto were the Nishijin weavers who made the fabrics, the makers of fine paper, and specialized tools. And, he stipulated, Kitaoka must train in “the strictest studio in Kyoto.”

~hence the title of the article. The idea is that your future success as a craftsperson is almost entirely dependent on where you have trained.

At that time, the strictest mounter’s workshop, located in central Kyoto, was the Seikōdō, with its master Chūzō Okazaki.

 Why must he work with the strictest? Kitaoka attributed it to the fact that since he was getting a late start, his father wanted him to learn as quickly as possible. Since his brother was going to inherit the family business, it was clear that Hideyoshi would have to strike out on his own.

When Kitaoka was accepted at the Okazaki studio in 1965, there was plenty of work for scroll mounters. But the apprenticeship system per se was still deeply feudal. As a new apprentice, he had to arise at 6:00 every morning to sweep out the studio. During the day, he was required to help with household chores. As for the actual work of mounting scrolls—he was taught nothing. All he did was stand and watch at the side of the master.

 There is a notion In Japan that a craftsperson has to “steal” the art from the master. Also that masters should be severe—even unkind—because that is the most effective training—ultimately a kindness.

~These old-fashioned apprenticeships are becoming rare nowadays. Kitaoka himself has no apprentice—only hired helpers. Modern youth in Japan find it hard to imagine putting up with the drudgery and subservience of this system. One of the few places it still exists is in the geisha world, where teenage girls with aspirations of becoming maiko must submit to the strict hierarchy of “older sisters” and “mothers.”

The present master of the Seikōdō is Chūzō’s son Akira, who also trained under his father. Recalling his father’s discipline, Akira says, “I was so relieved when he died. I know, that sounds terrible, but it’s true—I was finally free.”

 If any of the pupils did anything the least displeasing, Chūzō would fly into a rage. He might heave a paste brush or anything lying near to hand at the apprentice. The atmosphere of the studio could turn demonic at a moment’s notice, and often did. The only way Kitaoka was able to survive this period was because Akira, as his “elder brother” apprentice took him under his wing.

 For Kitaoka, language was also an issue. Not a Kyoto native, he had trouble understanding not only Kyoto dialect, but also the roundabout locutions so famously used in this city. One imagines that he suffered thoroughly for his ignorance. Perhaps because he is blessed with a patient nature, Kitaoka managed to stick it out for five years. At the conclusion of his official apprenticeship, he also worked a year for Akira who had become the new master after his father’s death.

~This period of post-indenture work for one’s master is another feudal remnant.

And then he stayed another year after that to help Akira out because of the workload at the Seikōdō. Altogether, he was there for seven years before becoming independent. If asked, Kitaoka attributes his skill and success as a mounter to what he learned from the Okazaki studio during this time. Yet he admits that if a person is relatively dexterous, it should not take so long to obtain the basic skills of a mounter.

 So why spend five to ten years learning?

~Here is the crux of the oft-repeated mantra about the years required to learn a traditional Japanese craft. Really, does it make one a more skilled craftsperson to have spent years sweeping the studio? Making tea? Answering the phone. Watching without doing? Submitting to the verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse of a master? They all say yes, it does. And I suppose it’s true that having suffered in attaining something, one values it all the more.

It is also true that only after a person has learned the techniques is he in a position to understand enough to “steal” the art of the master.

 After Chūzō died, the number of requests to work on scrolls began to drop off. Customers would say things like they came to the Seikōdō because of Chūzō’s work—not Akira’s. Old connections and artists stopped coming. Akira was shocked, although from the clients’ point of view he understood the reason. They had precious artwork they couldn’t trust to just anyone—even the son of their trusted mounter, even the person trained by him. Trust in the mounter is paramount. Akira only began to recognize what that meant for him after his father died.

In the beginning is technique.

A scroll must be supple, and it must hang well. But that’s not where the mounter’s work ends. For restoration (and restoration constitutes about half of a modern studio’s work) it is usually necessary to get rid of stains, foxing, or discoloration on the artwork in a process called “washing” (arai) in mounters’ jargon. Different mounters have their own formulas based on experience. The methods used in this very tricky aspect of the mounter’s craft are usually closely held secrets.

 When Kitaoka first started working, “washing” was what worried him the most. The possibility of making a mistake—especially on valuable artwork—gave him the shivers. With years of experience, he is now more comfortable. It is also possible to wash something too much. An old painting has a certain patina to it, and loses value if it is restored to a pristine white. Knowing where to halt the process is another aspect of the mounter’s judgement attained only after long experience.

~This interview did not mention the aspect of mounting which attracts me the most. That is the mounter’s decision as to what colors, fabrics, and proportions to use in the mounting. Of course there are rules and conventions pertaining to different types of artwork, but (as with the art of dressing beautifully in kimono) there is an element of personal choice that brings it all together. This is what I like about mounting. I also continue to experiment with unorthodox fabrics, colors, and artwork. My goal is not to become a restorer of antique scrolls, nor to mount traditional art in a traditional manner. But, as this article states—in the beginning is technique. And that is why I am going to learn at the strictest studio in Kyoto.

link to the original Japanese interview