Kanuma Kumiko Artworks Enhance Daily Life

Yomiuri Shimbun
A Kanuma kumiko partition screen

Kanuma kumiko is a handicraft associated with the city of Kanuma in Tochigi Prefecture. The artworks, in which wooden strips are latticed in geometric patterns, are a long-standing fixture in Japanese-style rooms, and are often used for shoin-style paper sliding doors and transoms.

Recently, however, the craft has begun to be utilized for a wider range of purposes, including wall decorations and smaller items such as coasters.

The technique is said to have originated among woodworkers who gathered from across the country to build Nikko Toshogu Shrine during the Edo period (1603-1867).

Kanuma kumiko eschews nails and metal fittings. Experienced craftsmen carve notches into finely cut wooden pieces and fit them together with flawless precision.

The Tochigi prefectural government has designated Kanuma kumiko as a traditional handicraft, and the Kanuma city government has created a related “Kanuma” brand.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yoshihara Mokugei President Koji Yoshihara, far right and his family members stand behind a Kanuma kumiko product.

Yoshihara Mokugei President Koji Yoshihara, 75, who founded the city-based company at age 31, works with his three sons to produce traditional kumiko handicrafts. All four have been designated as traditional craftsmen by the prefecture.

Kumiko craftspeople primarily work with Japanese cedar and cypress trees grown in Kanuma, in addition to cypress trees from the Kiso region. Using special planes and hammers, they craft about 100 traditional designs, including “asa no ha” (hemp leaves). Yoshihara has developed other patterns through a process of trial and error, including “kujaku” (peafowl) and “Fujisan” (Mt. Fuji). There are “countless possibilities” for kumiko designs, Yoshihara said.

Yoshihara professes to a fascination for the deep, geometrical beauty associated with the craft. Although he has been involved in its production for more than half a century, he says he never gets bored.

“When I attempt to create a new pattern, I feel always moved when I put in the last part,” he said.

In recent years, traditional handicrafts have increasingly been seen in a positive light. For example, Kanuma kumiko now features in a corner of the Kanuma city hall that was completed in April.

However, the long-term outlook for the handicraft is uncertain due to a decrease in orders related to a decline in Japanese-style buildings.

Osamu Shiraishi, who heads Kanuma Tategu Shoko Kumiai, a commercial and industrial association for the city’s woodworkers, says the shipment value of fittings has been in decline since its peak in the early 1990s.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Koji Yoshihara’s eldest son, Hidemi, assembles a Kanuma kumiko product.

Fitting makers also have been troubled by imitations and non-official products. As a countermeasure, the association is preparing to register local products under the Japan Patent Office’s “Regional Collective Trademark System” to protect the brand. Once registered, producers will be able to claim damages when imitations or copies are put on sale.

Looking ahead, it is possible that kumiko products may become pricier. Instability in the foreign-produced wood market has resulted in increased use of domestic wood. This is expected to raise prices for thick trees, from which quartersawn timber is derived. Such timber is necessary to produce kumiko.

“It would be a pity if Kanuma kumiko, which has added color to people’s lives, were to become out of reach of ordinary people,” Yoshihara said. “I’d like to produce a wider variety of products, both large and small, in western and Japanese styles.”