Stroll in the town of craftsmen

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With a spirit dwelling on the edge

Yasuyuki Sakai
Signboard Engraver

Sakai apprenticed himself to his father who was the second head of Fukuzen-do after graduating from a junior high school. He became the third head because his father died when he was 19 years old. He has taken many jobs. For example, he made oblong signboards of temples and shrines, school emblems, family crests, and signboards of sumo stables. He has also received many commissions from companies, such as creation of the logo of the Mitsukoshi Department Store in the Nihonbashi section of Tokyo, and has made a variety of signboards.

As a signboard engraver

Could you tell me why you became a signboard engraver?

  • After all, I did not like a school, so I thought it would be better to be an apprentice after graduating from a junior high school at the age of 15. However, when young people are dependent on their parents, they tend to goof off, doesn't they? I played foul, and pretended to work hard. I think my parents knew that. So when my father (master) died, I was 19 years old and really perplexed because I could not do a job. Even though I knew how to do a job, it is not enough, isn't it? So I stayed up and worked all night. At that time, I had a lot of work to do.

I heard that your son, the fourth head-to-be, apprenticed himself to other master. Why did he do so?

  • That is because I had to go through hardships. After all, a craftsman cannot have a variety of experience, including technical aspects, such as working methods, if he continues to work with his family members. Each craftsman has a kind of working style. I had a hard time due to lack of it. In other words, I did not know working methods. I learned by watching my father, and did a job. Although I knew certain aspects of processes, I did not know details of the processes, including the proportion of polishing powder that is dissolved in water, and the best way to make glue. I had just made signboards following my father's example. Craftsmen usually say, "You should steal skills by watching masters." However, in my case, my master died when I was 19 years old, so I had not enough time to steal skills. So I said to my son (fourth head) that if you want to do this job, you should apprentice yourself to another craftsman and learn from him.

Production process: Part 1

Could you tell me about production processes?

  • From the first, production processes of signboards have been divided. There have been calligraphers, engravers and lacquerers. Nowadays, however, it is impossible make a living as a calligrapher, engraver or lacquerer. Moreover, characters can be easily made by computer. Most drafts that customers bring to me are data created by computer. So I sometimes lacquer signboards after engraving it though it is very rare. In the present, there is only one craftsman who specializes in lacquering signboards. If he died, signboard makers should lacquer signboards by themselves.

Do you sometimes design original characters?

  • Although I do not design, I sometimes offer proposals based on my knowledge obtained through experience to costumers. The proposals may include sizes of signboards and character layouts. So I give advice, such as signboard sizes tailored to stores, to customers who order large signboards. The larger the size is, the more expensive it is. When I give advice to customers, they are also glad of it. Also, I adjust engraving methods according to customers' requests and situations. It is better to engrave boards thinking of finished forms. Moreover, it gives a touch of originality to a shop. This wooden tag I am now engraving is a wedding gift, so I plan to engrave a Chinese character "Kotobuki," or congratulations, instead of "Takara," or treasure. Although it is hard to engrave pictures, there is also enjoyment. Visual three-dimensional objects are little differently perceived by each individual. So if customers are delighted with completed products, I am also glad.

Production process: Part 2

What kind of process are you doing now?

  • I paste an underlining of Japanese paper manufactured with a machine on a board cut out to the ordered size with seaweed glue. Then, I face it with pasteboard on which Chinese characters are written, and start to engrave it. I do all processes from preparations to finishing by hand. In the present, it is impossible to reduce the thickness of paper without using Japanese paper manufactured by a machine. Handmade paper is too elastic, so it sticks to a board when I remove it. I paste Japanese paper on a board with seaweed glue. If the Japanese paper is too elastic, I cannot remove it. On the contrary, if it is too weak, it is torn to pieces when I remove it, and I cannot complete the work beautifully. So it is difficult to adjust the amount of seaweed glue. In the past, craftsmen took a book bound in Japanese style apart, and used that Japanese paper.

Engraving techniques

Could you tell me about engraving techniques?

  • "Kamaboko-bori (Gaku-bori)" is a technique to carve sumi characters in relief. Other main engraving techniques are "Ishiya-bori," in which characters are roundly carved as if a stonemason carved characters on a gravestone, "Jisuki," in which characters are flatly carved, "Tenkoku," in which three-dimensional characters are made by carving from surrounding portions, and "Yagen-bori," in which grooves of characters are carved in V-shape. Amateur engravers can do Tenkoku, but it is not easy for them to deeply carve characters.

Do you use different tools for different engraving techniques?

  • I do most carving processes with one chisel. All boards from large signboards to small wooden tags and characters on charms are basically carved with one chisel. I use a large chisel called "Sankaku-to" and a wooden hammer to engrave very large signboards.

What kind of difference is there between Tokyo and the Kansai Region?

  • In the Kansai Region, there is no custom to display this kind of signboard. Once I made a signboard that was ordered by a customer in Tokyo, who planned to present it to a person in the Kansai Region. When the Tokyoite presented it to the Kansai person, the Kansai person said, "What it this for?" So the Tokyoite felt disappointed. I think this kind of culture does not exist in the Kansai Region. It seems that these signboards are appreciated only by those who live in around the Tokyo area and are interested in this kind of things, and people involved in festivals and other rituals. Regarding orders from the Kansai Region, I have had some occasions to engrave signboards when professional comic storytellers in the Kansai Region became star performers, but I had made only two to three signboards for stores in the Kansai Region.

Pieces of work will remain as objects in the future

What do you think about the fact that signboards you created will remain as objects in the future?

  • I am happy that those signboards will remain as objects in the future. For example, if my sons or grandchildren can tell a signboard, which I or my father carved and delivered to a customer, when they visit the customer's place and see it by chance after some decades have passed, it is pretty good, isn't it? Speaking of a memorable piece that my father (master) left, there is a signboard, which was donated by several people living in Tokyo, at Hachiman shrine in Morioka City, Iwate Prefecture. When I visited the shrine by chance, I saw the signboard, thinking that it seemed to be a piece carved by my father, and found my father's name on it. When I counted backwards from the year, it turned out that it is a piece my father made right after he became independent. So when I see those actual pieces, I can recall my father. I sometimes considered my father's job performance while comparing my skill level and his. In this way, my father's job performance still remains as objects, and they will be handed to posterity. So I think signboard engraving is interesting. Signboards that I engraved with my spirit will remain as objects, and I can see scenes in which people use them. It is a joy and happiness when I am working.

Yasuyuki Sakai

Left) Invitation signboard of "Fukuzen-do" that is Sakai's store name
Right) Inscription "Unokichi Tachibana"

Chinese character plated with pure gold

What is signboard engraving?

Oblong signboard of Otori Shrine in Asakusa, which was made by Sakai

This kind of signboard is called "Hengaku," or oblong signboard, which originated in wooden name tags hung in front of courts and mausoleums in ancient China. The tags were introduced into Japanese palaces and Buddhist temples in the Asuka Period. In the Edo Period, the tags began to be used as a means for merchants and craftsmen to advertise store names and commodities, and many elaborate signboards were created.

What is the charm of signboard engraving?

What is good about our work is that pieces of work will remain as objects in the future. On the other hand, however, I also feel anxiety because they will remain. Recently, customers who request me to engrave information, such as a birthday and body weight, on a gift "wooden tag" celebrating birth of a baby have been increasing. In 30 to 40 years, as the baby grows up, the tags will be filled with history and memories. I like to work with my hands while imagining a customer's happy face and deliver a product, with which the customer is purely delighted. That's the reason I continue to do this work.