Kumihimo Hirai has been making Kumihimo for 65 years in Iga city, Mie Prefecture. When I stepped into their workshop, I saw craftspeople working in silence to wind the threads. The keisyaku is the process of winding the thread around a special tool. Since the number of times the thread is wound is counted in their mind, it is not allowed to talk to the craftsmen during this process. Mr. Hirai, whom we interviewed this time, gently explained these rules to us. He is from Takahama Town, Fukui Prefecture. We asked him about his past and future vision.
―How did you spend your childhood?
I played baseball all the time. We had a parking lot at home, so I played wall-to-wall there. I joined a youth sports team in my third grade, and by the time I was in the sixth grade, I was a regular and was improving my skill well. However, when I entered junior high school and joined a club team, I felt a gap in ability and had to give up my dream of becoming a “professional baseball player,” which had been my dream since I was a child. I loved baseball, so I continued to play baseball in high school and worked hard to make it to the Koshien National Championships, and I still have good memories of making it to the top eight in Fukui Prefecture.
―What career path did you pursue after graduating from your high school?
After graduating from my high school, I went on to an engineering college in Osaka. I thought I would play baseball at the university as a club player, but I ended up playing in the second division league because I was serious about baseball. However, I had serious injury couple of time and stopped playing baseball for two years. I was allowed to return to baseball in my junior year and continued to play occasionally while working as a runner coach. In the fall of my junior year, when I was not on the field to play as a player, I was voted in as captain when the captain was changed (laugh). I still remembered I felt so grateful. Somehow, with the support of the people around me, I was able to stay active throughout the year and win the championship in the second division league. It was a student life filled with baseball.
―I think you spent your school days for baseball, but were you interested in crafting since then?
To be honest, I had no interest in crafting at all. I wanted to work in the computer industry in the future, so I went to university in the systems engine department of an engineering college. After graduating my university, I became a systems engineer. I had no intention of getting involved in crafting industry.
―How long did you work as a systems engineer?
About 3 years. In my mind, I had decided to do this job for a long time.
―So, at what point did you join the craft industry?
It was the timing of my marriage to my wife. As we were dating, we discussed that she could only marry someone who can take over her store when we got married, and that’s how we came to this point.
―When did you make that decision?
No, I made the decision without any hesitation at all. I was 25 years old at the time, and since I was young, I thought that I could do any kind of work. I am 37 years old now, and if I were asked to make that decision now, I would honestly wonder if I could do it, but I think I was able to make a good decision because I was young. I started to work with “Iga-Kumihimo,” but back then, I think I would have quit my job at another manufacturing company, or at a job completely unrelated to it, to pursue a new career. In the end, I believe that it is more important to think how you want to be depending on your performance at work. Therefore, my decision was not based on hesitation, but about whether I could do it or not, but rather, “If I decide to do it, I will do it”.
―Do you remember when you moved from Osaka to Iga when you were 25 years old and had just joined the company?
Of course I remember. I knew that I would get the threads tangled and messed up many times as. Every day was a battle with the threads. I had no interest in kimonos, much less obi-jime, so I started out not knowing how to put them together or tie them, so I studied while working and learned naturally.
―Before the interview, you mentioned that you still get nervous when talking to your father-in-law. Was your relationship with your father-in-law like that at first?
People tend to think of the artisan community as a master-disciple relationship, but it wasn’t like that. If I didn’t understand something, I would ask and he would teach me. I would ask him to show me how to do something, and then I would try to imitate him, and if I made a mistake, he would show me how to do it again. You remember the first step of the process, the “Keisyaku”. I always count the number of threads in that process. It is such an important process that we have a rule not to talk to the workers during this process. It is an important process to eliminate waste.
―Have you been conscious of anything since you took over the company?
I think that “sales” is even more important than “crafting” in terms of making sales. After all, if you do not sell, you cannot pay your colleagues’ salary, and I have the impression that your father-in-law taught you strictly about sales. I have the memory that my father-in-law taught me strictly about sales. Whether at a store on the street at Ise Shrine or at a department store event, a single word can determine whether a customer will buy or not. That is why I learned the importance of knowing the appeal points of each product and delivering the right words at the right time.
―Did you face any difficulties, or other obstacles while working with Kumihimo?
I faced a difficulty as soon as I joined the company. Threads are really difficult to handle, and at first you mess them up and they get tangled up and you can’t put them back together. It’s a world where you are considered as a master if you can put it back together. If I made a mistake and had to ask a senior colleague to fix it, I was taking up not only my own time but also theirs. Moreover, the work was going backwards, and this happened several times a day. But I thought that experience was a good one only after I had my subordinates. The time you spend making mistakes and thinking about why you made them is important, and it helps you to improve your skill. If you know how to fix it, you will realize that you can solve other problems by applying that knowledge when they arise, so I now realize that those failures are an important step in reducing future failures.
―Please tell us about your future plans!
I would say that we are not going to change in a good way. As a company that has been making braided cords for a long time, we have listened carefully to our customers and employees and have been making new products. We would like to continue to do so in the future and continue to make products that meet the needs of the times.
―Finally, any message for young people interested in the craft industry?
I think it’s important to keep going no matter what! There are a lot of mistakes and a lot of things you can’t do. Little by little, you will learn how to do one thing. As for me, I quit my job and jumped into this industry, so I had to retreat and focus on the fact that I had to do this. If you do that, I am sure you will be able to make things. I believe that it is not that you must always retreat, but that your enthusiasm will create a good flow.
After the interview
Mr. Hirai’s conversation with us was full of smiles, and he was a friendly person, far removed from the “stubborn” image of craftsmen. After my interview with Mr. Hirai, I wondered what I would do if I were faced with the decision to become a craftsman upon marriage, and which path I would choose. When I listened to Mr. Hirai’s story, I felt that his “decisiveness” was the secret to his success in everything he does. Iga-Kumihimo strings made by Mr. Hirai are available for purchase at the Suigenkyo online site. Please visit us to see the collection!