Creator Profile: Michifumi Kawaguchi for Namiki

Maki-e artisan Michifumi Kawaguchi, the creative force behind the 2012 Namiki Limited Edition Fountain Pen, the Namiki Archer on Horseback, took time out of his busy schedule to share his philosophy with us

Late in the movie Margin Call, Jeremy Irons’ reptilian financial shark schools his team of predators in his business paradigm: “There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat.” Being first and getting away with cheating often involves a fair degree of luck to and this is something an avowed traditionalist firm like the Namiki Manufacturing Company did without in 1918. Indeed, founder Ryosuke Namiki famously wanted to succeed purely on the merits of his product and the hard work of everyone at the company. To this end, he reportedly opened one of his factories deliberately on the most inauspicious day of the year so that no one could credit the company’s success to luck.

We recently got a chance to interview someone directly related to this decidedly old school philosophy, Maki-e craftsman Michifumi Kawaguchi. Like the legendary Gonroku Matsuda, the Maki-e artisan who was so moved by Namiki’s noble gesture that he joined the company, Kawaguchi works in a traditional trade under threat from contemporary pressures but he does so with the support of a commercial entity; the Namiki fountain pens he works on are produced by the well-known Pilot Pen Corporation of Japan, the successor of the Namiki Manufacturing Company.

Kawaguchi, the artisan behind the 2012 Namiki Limited Edition Fountain Pen, the Namiki Archer on Horseback, took time out of his busy schedule to share his creative philosophy with us. Even those unfamiliar with Namiki might be aware of the maki-e craft, with watch brands Vacheron Constantin and Chopard having utilized the delicate Japanese lacquer and gold art. 

Speaking to us in relation to the Namiki Yabusame fountain pen, in which he used both Taka Maki-e and Togidashi Maki-e techniques, Kawaguchi took us through the details behind his craft in general and shared his own motivations.

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The Namiki Yabusame fountain pen in its presentation box, with attendant accessories

First of all, do you think of yourself as an artist or a craftsman? What drew you to your craft?

I see myself first as a craftsman. My grandfather worked as a temporary Namiki craftsman. I saw him at work when I was a child and longed to do what he did. Thus, I started training under a Maki-e artist, Hidenori Tuboi, a Maki-e artist, for eight years in Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture.

When I turned 26 years old, I was recommended this job by an artisan working in Pilot. At that time, I only had experience working on bigger items like chairs and room dividers, but I was really keen on challenging myself by learning to apply Maki-e techniques on smaller items like the fountain pen.

Tell us about Maki-e and what makes it special?

Maki-e lacquering, rich in Japanese history and culture, is a centuries-old technique in which multi-layered patterns are drawn on the barrel and cap with urushi - sap from Japanese lacquer trees. The hand-painted designs on Namiki pens richly interpret scenes of nature in precious metals and lavishly colored pigments.

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Yamaguchi working on a new fountain pen. It takes many layers of lacquer to complete one Namiki pen

 

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The small disk on Yamaguchi's thumb acts as a sort of palette

What is the one skill you need most to be a great Maki-e artist or craftsperson?

To be a great Maki-e artisan, you need to embrace new challenges and maintain a profound sense of respect towards tradition.

What is something special about Maki-e that people should realize? For example, the Namiki Yabusame fountain pen is beautiful but just looking at it does not reveal how it was made.

Time must be taken to understand Maki-e and the amount of work and years of honed techniques that go into the creation of a Namiki pen. We hope that customers will understand the process before buying the pen, so that they can fully appreciate the beauty of the pen.

Each pen is individually handcrafted by artisans who have undergone a minimum of seven years of apprenticeship and are the heart and soul of traditional Japanese culture.

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Yamaguchi uses a variety of tools, from fine ones like this to the larger brushes seen in previous pictures

Tell us what your typical work day is like?

In the morning, I check yesterday’s work (whether the lacquer has dried well or not). Then, I schedule what needs to be done for the day and the plan to accomplish the day’s goals.

Sometimes, I can only do one thing for the entire day, be it polishing or burnishing. At the end of the day, I plan for the next day again.

How long does it take to finish one pen and do you work on multiple pens at the same time?

Conceptualization of the artwork takes two-three months and then depending on the Maki-e technique employed, working on the actual pen can take between (15 days) to seven months. For example, the Hira Maki-e (Flat Maki-e) technique is less complex, so that can take (two weeks), while the Togidashi-Taka Maki-e (Burnished-Raised Maki-e) requires much more advanced techniques, so that can take about seven months. I work on about two-three pens at the same time.

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The detail of the Maki-e decoration is clearly evident in this close-up

When you work so intensely on one object, how do you maintain your focus?

I like to look out the window to gaze at the scenery, or sometimes I just take some coffee like a regular person!

The work you do adds a lot of value to the finished pens, not least of all in terms of price. Does it give you pleasure to know that customers value your work so highly or is this something you do not think about?

Yes, I definitely feel gratified when customers value my work. Once, I was doing a showcase in a store and a customer bought a Namiki fountain pen after looking at what I was doing. I was very happy also because I had the chance to converse with the customer and understand why they love Maki-e.

 

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Yamaguchi wearing the same sort of 'finger glove' that watchmakers use when decorating mechanical movements. Note the gold flakes on the trays in front of Yamaguchi

We often get the chance to speak with craftspeople from very niche trades that are in danger of dying out. What do you think needs to be done to promote your trade to young people as a potential career?

To be a Namiki artisan, the young person must first have an interest in the art of Maki-e and a strong sense of respect for tradition. He/she must first want to learn before anything else.

Once they have these qualities, it will be a natural progression for them to want to become a Namiki artisan and the basics will be taught to them. The junior artisans look up to the senior Namiki artisans and always hope to achieve even more than their masters.

Do you think there is a need to “update” your craft to make it more contemporary?

Definitely, I intend to learn more through studying and practising.

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The Yabusame Namike fountain pen

What to you is the ultimate luxury?

Handcrafted items like a tourbillon watch.

Can a luxury product ever become a necessity? Is that even a good thing?

I don’t think luxury products are a necessity but they are a work of art and are still luxury items.

To me, using a pen to write is a necessity, but using an artisanal pen to write is still a luxury.

Is luxury best shared with others or kept for oneself?

Luxury is best shared with others – art is meant to be enjoyed by all and by sharing, it allows others to appreciate the craftsmanship behind the luxury items.

What are five luxury products or experiences that are essential in your life?

A handcrafted watch; Maki-e items like an ink-stone box or a room-divider; Japanese carpentry and their joinery techniques that require no nails or screws to combine the pieces of wood together; and coking traditional Japanese meals. I also collect kimonos – I inherited my mother’s collection of over 80 kimonos and I use them as inspiration for creating Maki-e pens.

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