Sudare -

Experience as Many New Things as Possible. Interview with Otoji Kawasaki of Kyoto.

Disclaimer. The interview was conducted in Kyo-Surade workshop in Kyoto in December 2014. It was translated to english with great help of my wife, with great effort to keep it true and honest to the original context. Sudare is a Japanese craft which uses thin bamboo sticks bonded together with strings to create blinds, covers or even wall art. You can find more information on sudare in this Wikipedia article, which is pretty accurate. I will not go into detail on sudare in this article as it is somewhat irrelevant to the interview itself. Hope you will find it enjoyable and beneficial.

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A little bit about yourself, how did you start doing what you do?

When I finished junior high school, neither me nor any of my friends knew what to do next. As I was living in northern area of Kyoto prefecture, common thing for people to do  was to migrate to Kyoto City in search of employment. My teachers friend did own a sudare workshop in Kyoto and was willing to take me on for training. I packed some clothes, got on the train and found myself in Gion district. I worked there for just over two years, without a single visit to my home town as accommodation was provided to me. As I was still young (seventeen at that time) I got a little bit fed up with work and returned to my parents house for a while. I got bored of country life shortly after, and decided to come back to the same place in Kyoto, where I’d worked for another nine years. When I turned twenty five, I decided to leave and start doing it on my own. I have left a one year’s notice, in respect to my boss, who looked after me for so long. When I left he gifted me one of his old machines and some materials to get me started.

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What made you leave?

I matured a bit, my way of thinking has changed. I wanted to be completely independent.

Six months after leaving, I have opened my own workshop in Kyoto. It was much easier at that time. I did not need to own a phone, fax, internet. There was no need for advertising and marketing. I simply produced sudare, took it to the wholesale warehouses and sell it right there and then. I would imagine that it would be much more difficult to do this in current climate.

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Did you ever think of doing anything else?

Not really, as this was the only skill I had. Issue was that even though I knew how to make quality products, I did not know much about running a business. I was not making much money and once the economy has changed, I got into debt. Luckily by then my name was quite popular in Kyoto.

I was a regular visitor in local bars, spending pretty much all the money I made, right on the day. On one of my bar nights, I met a realtor. We got into talking and at the end of our conversation he recommended to move out of Kyoto and rent a cheaper space. That was pretty much the turning point in my career. I moved to Kameoka, where I could have a much bigger workshop to accommodate additional staff. I worked hard just to get out of debt. I went on few art and craft fairs and within next three years I gained many more clients as well as connections with other craftsmen and artists. I got out of the debt and got really busy with orders.

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With new clients coming in, and craft fairs, your designs need to be original. How do you keep yourself creative?

Most important thing for me is to stay in good health, eat well and live well. Our bodies have huge influence on our minds. Keeping your body in good condition will ensure that your mind stays in the right state.

I grew up surrounded by nature, living in the countryside. Ocean was close by and I guess that shaped my way of thinking a bit. When I create new designs, I always try to resemble nature in some way.  But then again, strolls around Kyoto and paying attention to architectural designs can also be inspiring and bring fresh ideas. When I come across something I like, I stop and examine it carefully. I ask myself “what makes it so good and why do I like it?”. I also ask other craftsmen to examine my own work. They always give me valuable feedback, not only about the design but also about the quality of finish. This helps me study and improve. (Kawasaki San used an expression here – Shimai Nige – which in architecture means building for hot and cold. As most of structures in Japan are made of wood, they need to ensure that even when materials expand and/or shrink due to the temperature, the overall structure will maintain its quality and appeal.).

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Do you give yourself a deadline when working on new designs?

Not at all. My clients do tho (laughs). My only deadlines are yearly exhibitions as I need to bring new stuff every time, otherwise people get bored…

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When you accidentally stumble across a good idea, how do you get hold of it?

I draw it in my little notebook that I always carry with me. Once I have a draft, we discuss it together with my daughters (who are now an important part of my team) and produce it few times, perfecting it little by little each time.

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What do you do to break through idle periods, when no new ideas seem to come?

I have plenty of rough sketches in my notebooks, so I go through some old stuff to see if maybe there is some good ideas that I have missed before. Also, my clients, when they come to me, have some rough ideas what they want to get. I used these as a base for a brand new design.

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What would your advice be for someone to get unstuck?

I never thought about it really. Go out and see the beautiful world around you. Eat new and good food. Sometimes even a drawing on a plate in a restaurant can bring new ideas. And the most important thing – hook up with as many women as you can (bursts in laughter).

Basically, do as many new things as you can. Brand new experiences will keep your mind fresh. Wake up early and read. I, personally, like economy sections in Japanese newspapers, they are always full of success stories, very often inventors and craftsmen who come up with new, great ideas. These can be stimulating and inspirational. I also watch a fair bit of TV, with craft and art shows. These are always positive and very motivational (bear in mind that Japanese television is VERY different to that what we are used to see in the west).

One of my daughters, for instance, likes to go through a dictionary when she is looking for new ideas. Words can stimulate creativity as much as anything else. In our workshop, we always consider the season we are currently in (like winter, spring etc.) and try to reflect the features of that particular season in our designs. This always keeps our minds in the present.

Also, do things that keep you relaxed. I, personally, really like to travel by train or to visit a massage place. Spend a lot of time doing what keeps you relaxed.


I will leave you with the short video on sudare and the interviewee himself.

京すだれ川崎 PV Kyo SUDARE Kawasaki

Watch this video on YouTube.

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  • Marcin Rakowski

    Excellent read! Arigato