SATOSHI KARUBE: GOOD MEANS MORE, EQUAL
Zōri shoes in Sagae, Yamagata Prefecture
"I do not count the lines, but I know when its 250. I can feel them."
You have to have the right temperature for pressing, if its too high you will break
Which is the right temperature?
I don’t know, its about the feeling. I can feel the right one by putting it on my cheek.
How often did you burn yourself?
Very often, I'm still learning.
Producing manufactured traditional products in Japan means working with the feeling. You have to develop and to learn to trust your own sensation in order to work with the material. The same applies to the craft of Zori making. We are far up north of Japan in Tohuke, somewhere on the countryside outside the city Yamagata. The winter is long and cold up here, agriculture is difficult, almost impossible. Therefore the people looked for other ways to make it through the winter. Traditional handcraft is very common here, and widely spread over the entire region. Although the craft of Satoshi Karube and his family is something special even here. I am meeting Satoshi, son and successor, and Mitsuhiro Matsuda college and Designer of the company. Their workshop is small and tide, almost cosy. You can hear loud hammering, a radio somewhere. The product they create and produce welcomes you already at the entrance. There are not common slippers waiting for you, Mitsuhiro hands me the self-made shoes in my size. Of course he could tell the right one. Satoshi and his family craft traditional Japanese shoes, the so called Zori, since many generations here in Yamagata.
Zori as the red cultural threat
These specific shoes made out of weaved bamboo stripes go deep in Japanese culture and have a long history. They came around 1500 years ago from China and ever since they became one of the most important connecting parts in the culture.
Zori is being wearied in the temples by monks, by actors in the old Kabuki theaters, by artisans in the fields and during the old periods even by the Sumo. These bamboo shoes are a red threat throughout time and culture, just like Tatami or Soy Sauce. It still represents an important part and therefore a valuable craft in the story of Japan. Sometimes it seems that even Satoshi and Mitsuhori need to remind themselves on that, they tell me, that 60 years ago there where around 100 companies in this area, now we are the only one. There are too many imported similar products like Birkenstock, compared to those Zori is really expensive, there is no machine, it can only be manufactured.
Today 60 000 Zori per year are made in Japan, 95 % are made here in this company by the Karube family. The other 5% come from China, Thailand or Vietnam and the number increase. Several times in the year Satoshi is leaving for those countries to teach the young shoemakers how to weave and nit a traditional Japanese Zori.
Why are you teaching other asian countries to make Zori as a traditional Japanese craftsmen?
Its better they do it than nobody does it anymore. The young Japanese don’t want to learn crafts anymore. They rather want to work in cities with offices.
What do think is the reason that nobody wants to learn it anymore?
Actually making Zori is a very simple work. It is a repeating work and they think it is boring.
More, equal and tide
Indeed with Zori it is simple. The more lines you have and the more tide and equal they are, the better the result will be. This is a good product: More lines, tide lines and equal lines. The better the bamboo stripes are weaved the better the shoe will be. This simplicity is on the same time the secret soul of the Zori. The quality of the sole distinguish between good and bad and determents the quality of the final shoe.
Is this recipe working for the future as well? Satoshi smiles. He doesn't have any visions of the future. Sometimes, he tells me, he believes that the shoe and its industry will be gone soon.
Are you afraid of what will come?
Yes, a little. I don’t know if young people will think that traditional craft is still important. Even though it will always be part of the culture and of the history.
Satoshi, if almost nobody wants to make Zori anymore and almost nobody wants to wear them anymore, why shall we keep them?
Why is it more valuable to study history in school, than to actually develop the skill to maintain it?