By Mike Sullivan
A typical image of Japanese people, and in particular of traditional Japanese people eating or drinking, would feature cups and plates but nothing made out of glass, even when we think of sake cups the common image is of something made out of ceramics. It therefore might be surprising to hear that Japanese craftspeople have been using glass since the 7th century and in particular in the last 500 hundred years it developed from normal glassware to products that are really amazing and beautiful to look at.
Edo Kiriko glassware and its history
When Japanese people think of expensive glassware they will often think of Edo Kiriko, a type of cut glass that originated in Edo, modern day Tokyo, in the 19th century. Although the glass industry had existed in one form or another since the 7th century the establishment of relations with European countries in the 16th and 17th centuries sparked a resurgence in glass craftsmanship. Visitors to Japan at that time brought gifts such as glasses, mirrors, etc, and influenced Japanese craftspeople to try and make their own versions. One such visitor was Francis Xavier, a Spanish missionary who stayed in Japan for nearly three years trying to learn Japanese and to teach about Christianity. Today a statue of Francis can be seen in Xavier Park in Kagoshima alongside statues of his disciples.
Edo Kiriko glassware and its connection to Nagasaki and Osaka
From 1573 Dutch and Chinese glass craftspeople started to move to Nagasaki and this led to a flourishing of the industry in this area and subsequently many other glass craftspeople came to Nagasaki to study. After their studies they returned home and helped firmly establish a stronger and more modern glass industry across the country. Despite Japan closing itself to the rest of the world this industry continued to develop and it was in 1772 in Edo that the assistant manager of a glassware shop, Kyubei Kagaya, decided to improve his abilities and move to Osaka to learn from a glass sculptor called Kahei Izumiya. It is believed that Kyubei developed the Edo cutting glass skill with a similar style to British cut glass and by incising on the surface of glass with emery sand.
Edo Kiriko glassware was quite a surprise to the first Americans in Japan
When Japan was opened up by the US navy, the commodore Matthew C. Perry was astounded by the high level of craftsmanship present in Japanese glass products. However, glass products from the Edo period were relatively fragile and in particular examples of engraved glass are far and few between. In 1873 the new Japanese government of the Meji period established the Shinagawa industrial glass factory as part of its industrial policy and modern Japanese glass production began, this was part and parcel of the overall governmental policy to create a modern state with modern industries. In 1881 the Japanese government employed Emmanuel Hauptmann, a cut glass engineer from England, to teach cutting edge techniques of cut glass technology. This formed the starting point of the development of modern Edo Kiriko.
Edo Kiriko glassware – a traditional Japanese handicraft
In 2002 Edo Kiriko was named as a Traditional Handicraft by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in Japan, this is a special award which can only be gained by having as the main process of manufacture expert manual skills, using techniques that date back at least a hundred years and which uses traditional methods.
There are a number of different styles which you may see in the glassware of Edo Kiriko, for example Nanako (fish scales) which reflects light in order to mimic fish scales, Asanoha (hemp leaves) uses sharp lines to look like leaves, kikutsunagi (chrysanthemum flowers) that features interlaced cut lines like chrysanthemum flowers and hoshi (stars) using cut lines to create stars.
One modern day Edo Kiriko glass craftsman, Yoshiro Kobayashi was born in Tokyo and graduated from Meiji University, he studied glassware from his father who was a master craftsman and in 1972 he took over the family business, Kobayashi Glass, which was originally established in 1908. In 1981 he won a prize in a Japan Traditional Crafts New Work Exhibition and has also won numerous other awards such as the 30th Japan Traditional Crafts Exhibition Honorable Mention Award in 1983.
In 2005 he was certified as an “Edo Kiriko traditional craftsman” by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, and he was designated as an intangible cultural asset by the local government of Koutou-ku, Tokyo in 2009. At the moment his son Kouhei is undergoing training and working hard to be a future master craftsman of this incredible family.