Spatula 7 years, Brush 3 years

Senro Sato went to learn urushi lacquerware, also known as the japanning technique, at the age of 22. He had one year left to finish college, but his mentor Gonroku Matsuda (Living National Treasure) strongly advised him to go learn under Yujo Goto as soon as possible.

At that time, the Totei system was still practised in handicraft studios: apprentices helped the master in return for the knowledge and technique they’d gain. They worked, ate, and slept in the same house with the master to help with daily chores while trying to sneak peek at his work. In master Goto’s studio, some joined straight after graduating from middle school.

There Senro was, surrounded by his senior yet younger disciples. It turned out that he was the last one to join the Totei system, too. Times had changed and the system of free labour, or so it seemed, was no longer acceptable in society. 

Senro Sato was a latecomer. 

“Hera zuke (spatula handling) 7 years, hake (brush) 3 years”. 

It describes how long an apprentice would need to become proficient in a specific process of urushiware making. If he had followed the path drafted by this common saying, Senro would have been 32 by the time he covered the basics.

“As a late starter, I couldn’t afford the same 10 years. I had to learn everything as quickly and efficiently as possible” 

But there was another challenge; because he was the last one to join the system, the most mundane, tedious chores were always on him, and no one was coming to replace him.

“I feel sorry for you. You’re stuck with insignificant jobs.” Senro’s seniors teased him.  

What captivated him, however, were these small chores. 

“I’d have fun rearranging the tool storage so that everyone could find what they needed at one glance. Or, I’d observe others at work, trying to read what their next steps would be. ‘Is there a certain preparation they’d ask me to do?’ I’d try to predict and act on it before they asked me” 

These insignificant jobs, he says, helped the most in advancing his work: he became independent when he turned 26.

chamfered small vase with a lid, negoro finish
Chamfered small vase with a lid, Negoro finish

See Senro Sato’s works

Profile photo courtesy of Sayaka Takizawa


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