Set amongst the mountains of Hiroshima Prefecture, the little city of Kumano is known to produce the best quality calligraphy and makeup brushes in the world. The town produces over 80% of the total brush production in Japan – 15 million brushes every year. Despite that fact, Kumano city is quite small. With a population of only 20,000 and being neither place of origin for the materials used in brush nor geographically advantaged, How did Kumano became the center of Japanese brush manufacturing for over a century?
History of Japanese Calligraphy Brush
Production of brush started in Nara about 1200 years ago, when Kūkai “空海”, a Japanese Buddhist monk came back from a government-sponsored expedition to learn more about the Buddhism in China. During his time in China, he learned how to make brush among other things, and brought the technique back to Japan.
As Buddhism gently spread across the nation, demand for the calligraphy brush to transcribe sutra arose. The user of those brushes were mainly monks and aristocrats of the time, and they demanded higher quality brushes. As time went by, the technique of craftsmen became more sophisticated.
The beginning of brush making history in Kumano started at the end of 18th century, toward the end of the Edo period when brushes were more widely used across the nation.
Kumano was a town mostly composed of farmers, but since its land are mostly mountains, many of them had to have the second job to make ends meet during off season. A farmer from Kumano traveled all over Japan for work during the winter time, and on their way back they peddled to make extra money. Brushes were a popular choice because it was light to carry, and one has to buy a new brush every few years.
In 1830’s, few young men came back to Kumano after mastering the brush manufacturing in other cities such as Arima. They taught others how to make the calligraphy brushes, and the tradition was born.
Evolution of brush manufacturing technique
Brush bristle is made of a mix of many different animal hairs of quality, type and length. To make a brush, you need to evenly mix the hair.
Traditional method for mixing the hair is called Neri-mix method ”練り混ぜ法 (Nerimaze ho)” which takes small bundle of hair called Kure “塊”, and with help of water to keep strings of hair together, craftsman will flatten the hair into rectangle sheet and fold it over from the edge, and repeat the process until the hair is completely mixed.
This Nerimaze method is great for high-quality brushes, but the number of brushes one can produce in a day will be limited because you can only work on a small amount at a time.
The biggest change for Kumano brush culture after the Meiji period in 1877, calligraphy became one of mandatory class in elementary school as modernization of Japan brought the compulsory education to every part of Japan.
To answer the rising domestic demand for a calligraphy brush, craftsmen in Kumano invented Bon-mix method “盆まぜ法 (Bonmaze ho)” which uses a special box to mix the hair without using water. This method can speed up the mixing process by 10 times, and It established the foundation for mass manufacture of Japanese calligraphy brush in Kumano. As the sales for brushes soared, the reputation of Kumano fude spread across the nation and the brand was born.
From Calligraphy to Artist paint brush and Makeup brush
Calligraphy brush production dropped significantly from its peak with 70 million brushes in 1936, with the opening of the World War ll. Kumano heavily relied on the oversea market supply of the materials from, and many people had to leave the town for military service. Even worse, the calligraphy class was omitted from the school in aftermath of war.
To overcome this crisis, people of Kumano worked together to explore the new market in art and the cosmetic world, using their skills and factory. They were successful in their venture, but they did not stop their quest in Japan. Soon, they started shipping their high-quality brushes worldwide. Japanese artist paint brush, mostly manufactured in Kumano has been highly appraised internationally among artist.
Production of Makeup brush flourished in 1970-80’s in Kumano when several of the company was approached by international leading cosmetic companies on making OEM makeup brushes.
Traditional European method for brush cuts off the end of the hair, while Japanese brushes keep it. This difference plays a vital role in the touch of the brushes, especially for the sensitive facial area. As shown in the image below, trimmed hair would have sharp edges, and it could cause irritation on the skin when used as a Makeup brush.
Government Recognition and modern development
1975, the Kumano brush was officially recognized as Japanese Traditional Crafts by the Japanese government.
One special thing about Kumano fude as a traditional craft is that there are many women involved in its production compared to other crafts. Those craftswomen have always played a big role in Kumano. As in fact, 4 out of all 22 craftsmen recognized as the master of Kumano brush production are women.
Out of 24,000 Kumano population, estimated 2,500 people – over 10% – works in brush making industry. If you have a plan to visit Hiroshima, take one extra day to spend in this unique town of fude. Access from Hiroshima is quite easy, you just need to take JR train to Yano “矢野” station, and take a bus bound for Kumano-Hagiwara. They have a quite extensive display of the history of Kumano and evolution of their brushes, as well as hands-on experience booth where you can learn one of the 73 steps of brush making from the true master.
It was an honorable and fun experience to be taught by a true craftsman! I tried one of the last finishing steps of brush production where you dip the bristle with starch made out of fine-grained rice. After the bristle is completely soaked with starch, we use a string to remove excess starch from the bristle with a circular motion. It is hard to explain in words, it was as if watching the magic as he showed me how to do it properly. It took me few try to actually succeed and get master’s approval (it was more of silent nod actually). It was a satisfying experience that made me realize how hard it would be to master all the steps and become a master craftsman there.
Fudenosato Kobo (Brush’s hometown workshop) Museum
Admission: Adult: 600¥, Student: 250¥, Child younger than 6: FREE *Admission may change if there is a special exhibition. 5-17-1 Nakamizo, Kumano-cho, Aki-gun, Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan 731-4293 TEL: 082-855-3010 http://fude.or.jp/en/