An interview with Hiroyuki Mori, a third generation staff member in a woodcraft workshop with a history of more than half a century in Tokushima.
―At first, please tell us about 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 a third generation member of the company.
―Please tell us about the history of woodcraft in Tokushima.
Tokushima has been well-known as a production center for woodwork for centuries. One reason Tokushima became famous for woodwork was the existence of the “Awa Suigun” in 16th century – the navy or marine force in Tokushima (“Awa” is the old name of Tokushima). It may be difficult 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 were very skilled in their woodcraft. Retired sailors or their descendants inherited these skills, and eventually, Tokushima became a place famous for production of high quality woodcraft. Household Buddhist altars, which are made of rare foreign wood, and dressing tables are well known as specialties of Tokushima all over Japan.
-What is unique about woodcraft in Tokushima?
The most characteristic point is the division of labor. Most of the products, such as dressers and Buddhist altars, were not made in one factory. Basically, woodcraft factories (or workshops) in Tokushima are still divided into 3 categories. One is “Kiji-ya” which makes the basic wooden frames or parts. “Hari-ya” specializes in attaching the “tsuki-ita,” the wood veneer sheets which are sliced off from natural wood. And “Toso-ya” is in charge of painting or coating 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 woodcraft business. The reason is that he was based in an area in Tokushima City which had many carpentry shops. MORIKOUGEI is a “hari-ya,” and my grandfather was mainly working on attaching tsuki-ita to dressers and Buddhist altars which had been already assembled. The process involved putting animal glue on furniture first, and then pasting the tsuki-ita on with a small iron.
-Are you still working on attaching tsuki-ita to dressers and Buddhist altars?
Unfortunately not. We started the company “MORIKOUGEI” in 1970, and introduced a big press machine in 1973. At that time – it was popular in those times for not only our factory but also most industries in Japan – Japanese industries adopted mechanization and mass-production. Then, our main products of attaching tsuki-ita shifted to decorative plywood.
-Please give us some examples of products using decorative plywood.
Decorative plywood is mainly used for the surface of wooden products and interiors. We often produce them for furniture, such as desks, tables, cupboards, storage, and so on.
-I saw there are 86 kinds of wood types of tsuki-ita on your website...! I am surprised by the number of wood types you have.
Yes, we handle various kinds of wood types, and they are from all over the world. We visit exhibitions of tsuki-ita each year and buy them up. There are professional suppliers that specialize in slicing wood, and we purchase tsuki-ita which are already sliced.
-So, why did you choose 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 Japanese color?
Indigo blue was the color loved by samurai and feudal lords hundreds of years ago. The color called “kachi-iro” – which is very deep and dark indigo blue – was especially popular among samurai because the pronunciation of the word “kachi” is the same as the word “winning.” Actually, indigo blue does not consist of only one color: it is said that there are 48 kinds of indigo blue, from the light colors to the deep colors. Also, indigo blue was one of the few bright colors that commoners were permitted to wear in the strict days of samurai rule.
-This is so fascinating. Is there a reason that you chose to use indigo dyeing for your products?
I wanted to adopt something related to my hometown in our products, and one thing was indigo dyeing. Our tray is dyed using a natural and traditional way of dyeing called “Hakko-date,” which uses only natural materials and does not use any chemicals. 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.”
In that case, I have to mention something about my father, Ken’ichi Mori, the second generation and the current president of MORIKOUGEI. Since the 1960s, he has been creating artworks using tsuki-ita as a hobby outside of his regular work. One day, he was stuck with an idea to express the continuity of woodgrain, and he threw a bundle of tsuki-ita in the air. He discovered a pattern beautifully created unexpectedly on the floor by the bunch of veneer sheets, and it became a hint for “Kosen-bari.” Actually, his works have been highly evaluated and gotten awards many times at the Japan Art Exhibition, the Japan Modern Craft and Art Exhibition, and so on.
An artwork by Ken’ichi Mori
-That’s an interesting story. What are the characteristics of “Kosen-bari”?
If you hold the tray and tilt it, the color of the wood changes depending on the angle of the light. Then you can see the most characteristic point of this tray – ray of appears to be coming out from the center. The most interesting characteristic of the design is that it can only be created by this cutting and pasting technique and thus requires 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 using wood. My father insists that he is the first person in the world who invented this technique and its expression with tsuki-ita ― ha-ha. That aside, I can definitely say that the process of “Kosen-bari” at MORIKOUGEI is absolutely original, and I arranged for it to be used in the production of our own 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. Thus I developed our own manufacturing method and process for “Kosen-bari” and succeeded in commercializing Rays Tray. We are so glad that the first introduction of this unique tray took place at Maison et Objets in 2020, and that 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 techniques and the 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., led to the realization of the unique Rays Tray, which is a one and only product.
-What is your vision for the future?
We have just started promoting our Rays Tray, but we hope Rays Tray will be become a recognized specialty 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 discover tsuki-ita, and it would be great if they become interested in tsuki-ita as a material, as well as our company’s uniqueness and high technique. Also, my father would 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 indigo dyeing workshop which we are collaborating with is cultivating their own indigo, making sukumo and also the 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, which tends to make the veneer uneven. Therefore, we check the overlapping parts of the tsuki-ita by soaking it in water before the dyeing process. Sometimes additional polishing is required.