Revitalizing castle towns with traditional craft

Jiro Imayoshi, Japanese umbrella craftsman, spokesman for the Japanese umbrella studio Shuka

Travelling by car, I headed from Fukuoka City to Nakatsu City, located on the northwestern tip of Oita prefecture. I did so because I had heard that there was “a person in the castle town of Nakatsu who revived the traditional craft of the Japanese umbrella.” The Japanese umbrella is a blend of bamboo and Japanese washi paper. It is a part of the folk culture that Japan can proudly present to the world, and I definitely wanted to hear the story of its revival. After driving along the mountain roads for close to an hour, I found the Japanese umbrella studio Shuka close to JR Nakatsu station.

“Actually, the reason I revived the Japanese umbrella was for community development in Nakatsu,” began Mr. Jiro Imayoshi, spokesman for Shuka. Mr. Imayoshi worked for a real estate company in Yokohama after graduating from a Tokyo university, but he returned to his hometown of Nakatsu in 1994 to take over the family real estate business due to his father’s ill health. Taking an active part in community development in Nakatsu at the same time, this is where he discovered the traditional Nakatsu craft of the Japanese umbrella.

Mr. Imayoshi explained the background, saying that “Japanese umbrellas were made in large numbers throughout the country and were an indispensable item for ordinary people, but they fell into decline as Western umbrellas came into widespread use. At the beginning of the Showa period there were around 70 makers in Nakatsu alone. However the last Japanese umbrella maker in Kyushu closed in 2003 as the craftsman had grown old. Something that had shone brightly in the region disappeared. In response to this, 8 volunteers began producing Japanese umbrellas, reviving the craft in order to revitalize the region.”

Now, 10 years after the craft was brought back to Nakatsu, he is strongly aware that with Japanese umbrellas, they need to challenge themselves with new ideas while maintaining its traditions in order for the craft to survive. “What I noticed when I started making them was that they couldn’t survive just with tradition. They have to change with the times. From this perspective, we have developed a number of unique products including lampshades arranged with Japanese umbrellas and a light stand that puts them to practical use. We will continue to challenge ourselves with new products in the future. Our light stands actually sell very well overseas for the reason that they are perfect as a room decoration,” Mr. Imayoshi concludes.