Thursday, August 6, 2015

In Praise of Chasen

There is such a distinct beauty in a chasen crafted in Japan compared to those mass produced now in China. I can actually make better tea with the former. The material feels good in the hand. (Yet I must admit that having a chasen readily available in Los Angeles -- thank you Co-opportunity Market, Whole Foods, Asian culture museums and gift shops! -- is a blessing these days.)

I have continued to wonder about the history of chasen making. Several years ago I read in Misiko Hane's "Peasants, Rebels, and Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan" (New York. Pantheon. 1982) that chasens were made by folks who were considered burakumin. It brought back an odd experience I had when inquiring about wanting to visit a maker of this most beautiful hand tool when I first visited Midorikai as a guest student. Thinking my enthusiasm to know more about the sources of chadogo would be well met, I felt my query was dismissed for some uncomfortable (for them, not me) reason. "Too far away. Out of town."

I recently inquired of Ted Fowler, a retired professor of Japanese culture who has studied caste systems. He confirmed for me that

 "All of the crafts you mention -- low-paying but requiring a goodly amount of skill -- were often associated with
burakumin in the past.  Many of these artifacts are no longer made domestically, and so the current situation is a bit different. It is important, i believe, to stress
the immense contribution made by non-caste groups to Japanese culture -- culture that we look on today as sanctified by the patina of 'tradition' or 'traditional arts.'"

Nonetheless, I am in awe without hesitation at the legacy of craftsmanship shown in this video about the making of chasen today byTango Tanimura, the 20th generation of the fabled family. Situated like 95% of all chasen makers in Japan in Takayama village in Nara, the family's name is recorded as having been patronized by the Tokugawa Shogun, among other notables. Jun Tanimura has a Facebook page.

Studio KotoKoto in San Diego CA has a great English language account about this family's work. Another good source of information about Takayama village chasen making is here.