A Traditional Craft from Chiba Prefecture: Boshu Uchiwa

Boshu Uchiwa – Characterized by a rounded handgrip that utilizes the natural form of bamboo, Boshu uchiwa is recognized as a Japanese national traditional craft and has long been regarded as one of the top three uchiwa, along with Kyo uchiwa from Kyoto and Marugame uchiwa from Marugame City, Kagawa Prefecture. I suggest that everyone experience Boshu Uchiwa’s cool soft breeze, which is completely different from what a plastic uchiwa would produce.

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The Beginning of Uchiwa-Making

The production of uchiwa in the Kanto region began in the Edo period. At that time, the southern part of the Boso peninsula was an area for the production of bamboo, the main material of uchiwa-making, and supplied it to craftsmen in the Edo region (Tokyo). It is said that uchiwa-making in Chiba Prefecture began in the Meiji period.

Later, uchiwa wholesalers in Nihonbashi, Tokyo suffered from the disaster of the Great Kanto Earthquake. The production of uchiwa expanded when the craftsmen from the affected area moved to the current Funakata, Tateyama City, which was located near a bamboo production area and had access to the sea via the port of Nago.

Nago, Funakata and Tomiura (presently Tomiura-machi, Minamiboso City) were fishing villages in those days. Uchiwa-making became popular as a side job at home among the fishermen’s wives, who took care of the households when their husbands were away. Thus the area became known for uchiwa-making and produced 7 to 8 million a year during the end of the Taisho period through the early Showa period.

 

Twenty-One Steps in Handcrafting

Uchiwa-making starts with the selection of bamboo. The complete process consists of 21 steps, all of which are performed by hand.

Medake (Simon Bamboo) is used as the main material. Bamboo is trimmed during the colder months from October to January, as bamboo’s interior becomes denser. First, the bamboo’s skin is peeled, after which the bamboo is washed with water and polished. Next, the bamboo is cut. A hole is opened in the part that will become a grip. The bamboo “bones” are woven with thread, a bow is inserted into the hole of the grip, and both ends of the thread are tied to the bow when the weaving is finished. This creates a window (mado) and the bone structure that opens in a shape of a fan is completed. However, the finishing process continues. The curves in the bones are adjusted by burning, paper or fabric is pasted on, the unnecessary bones are trimmed away, the edges of the fan are finished, and so on.

Only four or five uchiwa per day could be made if the entire process is handled by one person. Thus the work is divided among several people.

 

Lack of Successors, Aging Craftspeople

Boshu Uchiwa was, in March 2003, recognized as Chiba Prefecture’s only traditional craft designated by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. At that time, Bosyu Uchiwa Shinkokyogikai (Boshu Uchiwa’s promotional association) had seven corporate members, but eventually one company closed its doors. Today there are only six members. Craftspeople are aging, and under the current conditions it is difficult to ensure that the skill will be passed on to a succeeding generation.

Uchiwa-making originally thrived as a side job at home, based on the divided-work system. The system is a challenge if one person is to complete entire process by himself/herself, but it is also a burden for teachers to train others in the skill. The number of successors will not increase unless an added value is adapted to products to sustain reasonable prices that allow the craftsmen to earn a living.

The price of Boshu Uchiwa varies from 800 yen for a small example to several tens of thousands yen for a more elaborate or high-quality product. People would be willing to pay over ten thousand yen to a product when they see a craftsman’s demonstration at a department store. The unit price becomes higher if traditional craft is recognized as an added value.

Various attempts have been made, including that of making uchiwa using traditional Japanese paper or textiles for yukata (summer cotton kimono) from other regions; or by collaborating with craftspeople for tegaki-yuzen (hand-painted dyeing designs for kimono). Hopefully, this proud traditional craft from Chiba Prefecture will gain more recognition and the skill will be passed on to the next generation.

This summer, I suggest that you experience the unique characteristic of Boshu Uchiwa. Savor the soft, cooling breeze that a whip of bamboo can create.

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