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Isao Onishi, Living National Treasure: “The key in life is light and shadow”

Isao Onishi was officially recognised as a Holder of Important Intangible Cultural Property, popularly known as a Living National Treasure, for his lacquer coating technique (kyūshitsu) in the urushi (lacquer) craft. Born in Fukuoka Prefecture, Onishi experienced a crucial turning point in his life at 30 years old when he met Yusai Akaji, a Living National Treasure, and became his apprentice. Onishi’s sense of craftsmanship was nurtured through assisting his father in his carpentry work. Always giving his all for everything he does, Onishi has pursued the path of a master craftsman even though he had no intention of becoming an artist. We spoke to him about his journey and philosophy.

Craftsman Isao Onishi

“My stutter and being alone made me who I am”

As a child, Onishi’s family moved often because of his father’s work as a carpenter. He also had a stutter, and he struggled with making friends. “I only went to half of elementary school,” he recalls. But he still has a vivid recollection of how he enjoyed making things using the scraps of wood that came out of his father’s work.

Onishi met his first true friend, Shuji Irie, in junior high school. “He taught me about how to make mock-up models. That technique is still valuable to me, even now,” he fondly remembers. When they graduated from junior high, Irie gave him a stone with the words “honesty is the best policy” carved on it. “Those words have become very precious to me,” he says wholeheartedly. They truly connected heart to heart, and Onishi still treasures that stone to this day.

Hard Work Behind the Scenes, the Importance of Tools

“Now, I can gauge how skilled a craftsperson is just by taking a glance at their tools,” Onishi says. His experience in carpentry work taught him the importance of tools. As a young worker, he says “everyone looked after me so well, and they taught me so much.” He realised then that no matter how young he was, or how much muscle power he had, he was no match for the older, experienced carpenters who took good care of their tools and made full use of them.

“I learned that when you use tools, they get damaged over time. They become bent or weak. When the tip of the blade became damaged, I fired it and cooled it in cold water to make it stronger again. I learned that that kind of hard work behind the scenes is vital.”

Onishi is always committed, giving his all for his work. His approach itself must have attracted many opportunities of learning. Although the tools that he takes care of so well are never seen by the viewers of his artworks, it is his consistent commitment that lays the foundation for his singular creations.

Becoming an Apprentice to Yusai Akaji, a Living National Treasure

When Onishi was 32 years old, he became an apprentice to Yusai Akaji, who established the hoop-built technique (magewa tsukuri).

Magewa tsukuri is a delicate traditional technique of combining wooden rings (magewa) of different diameters to make an object or vessel, then painting many layers of lacquer over the surface. Onishi handled the whole process by himself, starting from making the refined lacquer.

He looks back on his apprenticeship: “It was interesting. I was like a sponge soaking up water. My teacher let me do anything, encouraging me to learn. It was the first time I experienced anything like that, so I was engrossed.” His voice is filled with the excitement and gratitude he felt in those days.

It was then that he inherited the magewa tsukuri technique. At 40 years old, Onishi debuted in the Japanese Traditional Crafts Exhibition with his work entitled “Magewa Tsukuri Disc of Golden Moonlight” (Magewa tsukuri ousai tsuki mon ban). Inspired by the moon that he saw as a child over coal mine mountains, this artwork embodies Onishi’s unique skill and a true innovation of lacquer ware.

About ten years since then, Onishi was designated a Living National Treasure. He is still modest, calling himself “just a lacquer craftsman.” Looking back on his journey, he says, “Becoming a Living National Treasure doesn’t mean I’m some kind of special artist. I suppose it’s just I was suited to building up something from scratch.”

Life as “the flame of a candle”

Onishi uses the flame of a candle when planing a piece of wood. When asked why he persists in using candles in spite of technological development, he answers, “Light and shadow are key. It’s the same with human life. There’s light and shadow. Shadows reveal the texture most clearly. The candle gives off just the right amount of light for that. If it’s too bright, I can’t see the grooves and ridges on the surface of the wood very well. It’s not easy to make young people understand that, though,” he says with a gentle smile.

No matter what difficulties he faced, Onishi continued to build on his skills. He tells us that light and shadow are important for perceiving the surface of the wood as well as living life — that brighter isn’t always better.

Hands of Isao Onishi

Treasured Words

There is a saying that Onishi treasures in his life as a craftsman.

天ニ時アリ 地二気アリ 材に美アリ 工二巧アリ (When there is time in the heavens, spirit in the earth, and beauty in the material, there is skill in the craft)

“It means, ‘the best technique is born when there are fortuitous opportunities for the development of the environment and the subject, and when the best material is given by nature, and the skills of the craftsperson are aligned.’ These are words on the essence of the culture of technique from Kao Gong Ji, one of the oldest records of craft and technique in the world, originating from China around 30 BC. It has left a deep impression on me, and I’ve always cherished it.”

When Onishi first encountered this sentence, he was overcome with a feeling of profound sympathy and gratitude. He even gave Gen de Art these words written by his own hand.

Onishi’s determined spirit, which never swayed in the face of hardship, and his commitment to remember his roots and value tradition shine through in his artworks and touch countless people.

Copyright/ Gen de Art. All rights reserved


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