The Story of MORIKOUGEI

An interview with Hiroyuki Mori, the third generation of a woodcraft workshop with a history of more than half century in Tokushima.

 

―At first, please tell us the foundation and establishment of MORIKOUGEI.

My grandfather, Masaichi Mori started the business in 1953, and MORIKOUGEI was incorporated as a limited private company in June 1970. Right now, my father, Ken’ichi Mori is the president of this company, and I am the third generation. 

 

―Please tell us the history of woodcraft in Tokushima. 

Tokushima has been well-known as a production center of the woodwork for centuries. 

One reason which made Tokushima famous for woodwork is the existence of “Awa Suigun” in 16th century – the navy or a marine force for Tokushima (“Awa” is the old name of Tokushima). Maybe it is pretty difficult for you to imagine a relationship between navy and woodwork. But the thing is, there were many good ship carpenters for the navy at that time, and they had really high technique of woodwork. Retired sailors or descendants inherited it, and eventually, Tokushima became a place famous for production of woodwork with high quality. Household Buddhist altar which are made of rare foreign wood and dressing table had been well known as Tokushima’s specialties all over Japan.  

 

―What is an unique point of woodcraft in Tokushima? 

The most characteristic point is the division of labor. Most of the products, such as dresser and Buddhist altar hadn’t been made in one factory. Basically, woodcraft factories (or workshops) in Tokushima are still divided into 3 categories. One is “kiji-ya” which makes basic wooden frames or parts. “Hari-ya” specializes in pasting “tsuki-ita,” the wood veneer sheet which is sliced off from natural wood. And “Toso-ya” is in charge of painting or coating of the wood frames or parts. 

 


 

―What was a beginning of the start of the business? 

It was a kind of natural thing for my grandfather to start a business of woodcrafts. The reason is that he was based on the area in Tokushima City which had many carpentry shops. 

MORIKOUGEI is “hari-ya,” and my grandfather was mainly working on pasting tsuki-ita for dressers and Buddhist altars which had been already assembled. The process was putting animal glue on furniture first and pasting tsuki-ita with a small iron. 

 

―Are you still working on pasting tsuki-ita for dressers and Buddhist altars? 

Unfortunately not. We started as a company “MORIKOUGEI” in 1970, and introduced a big press machine in 1973. At that time, it was the way of the times for not only our factory but also most industries in Japan – the time when Japanese industries adopted mechanization and mass-production. Then, our main products pasting tsuki-ita shifted to decorative plywood. 

 

 

―Please give us some examples of the products using decorative plywood. 

Decorative plywood is mainly used for the surface of wooden products and interior, and we often produces them for furniture, such as desks, tables, cupboard, storage, and so on. 

 

 

―I saw there are 86 kinds of wood types of tsuki-ita on your website...! I am surprised by the numbers of wood types you have. 

Yes, we handle various kinds of wood types, and they are from all over the world. We visit some exhibitions of tsuki-ita a year and buy them up. There are professional suppliers that are specialized in slicing wood, and we purchase tsuki-ita, which are already sliced. 

 


 

―Then, what is the reason of choosing 5 wood types, ebony, ash, white sycamore, white ash, and zelkova for Rays Tray? 

The reason is simple. These wood types look good when they are placed in the pasting pattern “Kosen-bari, ” meaning “ray of light pasting.”   

 

―Also, the indigo dyed tray is so beautiful. Is it a traditional color of Japan? 

Indigo blue was the color loved by samurai or feudal lords hundreds of years ago. Especially the color called “kachi-iro” which is very deep and dark indigo blue was popular among samurai because the pronunciation of the word “kachi” is the same of the word “winning.” Actually, indigo blue is not the only one color, and it is said that there are 48 kinds of colors of indigo blue, from the light color to the deep color. Also, indigo blue was one of the few bright colors that commoners were permitted to wear in the strict days of samurai rule.

 

 

―It is so fascinating. Is there any reason that you chose indigo dyeing for your products? 

I wanted to adopt something related to my hometown to our products and one was indigo dyeing. Our tray is dyed with natural and traditional way of dyeing called “Hakko-date,” which uses only natural materials without using any chemical. 

Tokushima Prefecture has a centuries-long history of indigo farming and dyeing. It is said that the British chemist Robert William Atkinson (1850–1929) was impressed by the rich blue colors he saw upon visiting Japan in the 1870s. Atkinson coined the term “Japan Blue,” an expression now known worldwide. Nearly 150 years later, the color indigo was chosen for the official emblems of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

 

―Please tell me more about “Kosen-bari.” 

Then, I have to mention about my father, Ken’ichi Mori, the second generation and the current president of MORIKOUGEI. 

He has been creating artworks using tsuki-ita as a hobby besides his regular work since 1960s.

One day, he was stuck for ideas to express the continuity of woodgrain, and he threw a bundle of tsuki-ita in the air. He found out the pattern beautifully created unexpectedly on the floor by bunch of veneer sheet, and it became a hint of “Kosen-bari.” 

Actually, his works has been highly evaluated and got awards many times at Japan Art Exhibition, Japan Modern Craft and Art Exhibition, and so on. 

 


The artwork by Ken’ichi Mori

―It is an interesting story. What is the characteristic of “Kosen-bari”? 

If you hold the tray and tilt it, the color of the wood changes by the angle of the light. Then you can see the most characteristic point of this tray – ray of light is like coming out from the center. The most characteristic design is able to be only created by this cutting and pasting technique required high-skilled craftsmanship. 

This pattern is a kind of simple geometrical pattern made with triangles, so the design is common and has been around for a long time, you know. But my father started to “portray” this pattern with wood. My father insists that he is the first person who invented this technique and expression with tsuki-ita in the world, ha-ha. 

That aside, I can definitely say that the process of “Kosen-bari” at MORIKOUGEI is absolutely original, and I arranged it for production of our products. 

 

―Indeed. The technique of MORIKOUGEI has been handed down from generation to generation. 

Yes, that is true. I really wanted to develop our own products for a long time while our main business is subcontracted work. So, I have developed our own manufacturing method and process of “Kosen-bari” and succeeded in commercializing Rays Tray. We are so glad that the place for the first introduction of this unique tray was Maison et Objets in 2020, and so many customers were interested in this product.  

Actually, general decorative plywood can be produced if you have a machine and materials. However, our own technique and know-how cultivated by MORIKOUGEI are peerless. In particular, the construction of a beautiful pasting production process that is not affected by materials, weather, temperature, etc., had led to the realization of unique Rays Tray, which has no similar products.

 

 

―What is your vision for the future? 

We have just started promoting our Rays Tray, but we hope Rays Tray will be recognized as one of the specialties of Tokushima in the future. 

Tsuki-ita is just a material for furniture or wooden fittings of a house, and it is not a common thing. But through these Rays Tray, people will know what tsuki-ita is, and it would be great that they will be interested in tsuki-ita as a material, as well as our uniqueness and high technique. 

Also, my father will be happy if people outside of Japan recognize him as an artist of tsuki-ita, ha-ha. 

 


 

A supplementary explanation

 

 

The Indigo Dyeing Process

While each indigo producer brings their own special techniques to pigment production and indigo dyeing, the basic procedure is similar. The leaves of the indigo plants are ground and dried, then splashed with water and allowed to ferment for about three months. This produces a pungent substance called sukumo, the base for dyeing. The pigment at this stage, however, is not yet water-soluble, and requires further processing. The sukumo is mixed with lye, shell lime, wheat bran, etc.,then fermented again at carefully controlled temperatures for another week or so.

The workshop of indigo dyeing which we are collaborating with is cultivating their own indigo, making sukumo and also wood ashes of broad-leaved tree by themselves. 

 

The production of Indigo-dyed trays requires more time than other ones because of the indigo dyeing process. 

At first, it is necessary to soak the tray in the dye for a long time, and it makes the veneer tend to be unsteady.   

Therefore, we check the overlapping parts of the tsuki-ita by soaking in water before the dyeing process, and also the additional polishing is required.