Crafts Renaissance Project “WAO”

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Wowing international audiences with ‘future traditions’

Having served as editor at the Japanese editions of fashion magazines Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire for the decade through 2008, Yoshiko Ikoma well understands the ways of the great European fashion brands and the respect they have for finely crafted goods. So in March 2011, when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck Japan's northeastern Tohoku region, home to many of Japan's best artisans, she knew immediately what she could do to help.

Working with an iconic Italian brand, Ikoma went to Tohoku and located a renowned lacquerware maker named Sakamoto Otozo, which for over a century had been operating in the Fukushima Prefecture city of Aizuwakamatsu, less than 100 km from the coastline that was devastated by the tsunami of March 11, 2011.

Ikoma then acted as the mediator between the creative team of the Italian brand and the lacquerware artisans to create a series of tastefully modern buckles for use with a limited edition handbag.

The bags turned out to be a great hit.

“We have now developed three such bags and they have sold out,” Ikoma said with a smile.

That collaboration was not Ikoma's first attempt at bringing Japan's artisans to the world's attention. Six months before the earthquake, she had kicked off an innovative project that she called WAO.

“The word ‘WAO’ is a combination that means the rebirth of Japanese traditions,” Ikoma said, noting as well that it is pronounced like the English exclamation “wow!”
“The idea was that Japan is full of all these different traditional crafts - treasures, really - but because the prices are too expensive and so on, they have become somewhat excluded from people's everyday lives.”

Future traditions

To address this problem, WAO's first endeavor was to organize a large exhibition in which artisans from all over the nation would be able to present their wares. Importantly, the show would tour overseas, and it would also be carefully curated in accordance with the theme “future traditions.” The idea was that Ikoma and her collaborators would only select items that they thought were relevant enough to contemporary life to possibly become the new traditions of the future.

The plan reverberated particularly well with the younger generation of craftspeople, many of whom had been directing their attentions to their own evolving roles in society. Rie Sakamoto, of Sakamoto Otozo and Rie Sakamoto Collection, participated in the WAO exhibition, and explained that many of Ikoma's goals matched her own.

“Continuing to make things with our own hands, continuing to base ourselves in our own town of Aizu - these were all things we had been thinking,” she said. “And we wanted to make things that make people go 'wow'.”

One of the most popular exhibits from that show was a series of cast iron kettles, known as Nambu Tetsubin, which had been given unlikely pop colorings. One hot pink-colored kettle, which was created in the northern city of Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, another prefecture that was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami, sold out almost immediately when it was shown in New York and Paris last year.

Ikoma said that immediately after the Great East Japan Earthquake, she initially worried that she would have to scale back her WAO project. In fact, the opposite was true.

“Before the quake there was this nascent interest in rethinking traditional craft, and when the quake struck, that actually became stronger,” she said. “It really set off this notion of going back to the roots, of thinking about what it means to be Japanese.”

Ikoma has thus been able to continue organizing exhibitions and displays at department stores in Japan featuring even more innovative and creative works of Japanese craft, things that might indeed become “future traditions.”

New outlook on life

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan's Tohoku coast two years ago also impacted deeply on people around the world.

Ikoma recalled being visited by a creative director for a major European brand soon after the disaster.

“She told me that the disaster had changed her outlook. ‘We've been too arrogant,’ is what she said, and she meant that we have been developing and consuming products as though we had infinite resources,” Ikoma said.

Aizuwakamatsu

Now that such brands are reaching out to Japanese artisans like those in Tohoku, and with people like the ever-enthusiastic Ikoma serving as mediators, it might just be that the values long associated with traditional handicraft - patience, attention to detail, beauty - will help give people a new outlook on life.

Produced by The Japan Times