An Artisan Well Versed in the Tradition of Japanese Brush Making

Among the low, tile-roofed wooden houses of the historic Nara-machi neighborhood of the city of Nara, a calligraphy brush as big as a broom marks the gate to Chiyomi Tanaka’s shop. I follow a stone path down the flower-lined alleyway and duck under a mustard-colored noren curtain and into her tiny showroom. Inside, brushes in every size — some fine enough to paint a doll’s eyelashes, others broad enough to draw characters as tall as the person writing them — line the walls. With tools so old they are no longer in production, it’s the workshop of a shokunin (master craftsperson), but as cozy as an auntie’s living room. Tanaka is one of seven remaining masters of crafting Nara fude.

“Fude” roughly translates to “brush,” but Tanaka uses the word only for the style of calligraphy and ink-painting brushes she makes in a tradition with roughly 1,300 years of history in Nara, the landlocked prefecture below Kyoto. In the fourth or fifth century, Buddhist monks, traders, government officials and immigrants brought Chinese writing to Japan (via the Korean Peninsula), which continued to spread with Buddhism in the sixth century. After Empress Genmei established the city of Nara as Japan’s imperial capital in the eighth century — modeling its bureaucracy and architecture on that of China’s Tang Dynasty — the monarchy used writing and religion to consolidate power. Ink and brushes were employed to record extensive histories, copy sutras and draft laws. The oldest existing brushes in Japan (housed in the city’s Shoso-in repository at Todaiji temple) date to that period.

Tanaka leads me upstairs for an hourlong workshop. I imagined I’d craft my own brush from start to finish, but even Tanaka’s adult daughter, who sometimes assists with workshops for groups of tourists, has not tried to blend and assemble the hairs herself. The process is so complex that an amateur can do little more than affix a brush head to a handle. But I’m really here to satisfy my own curiosity about how Tanaka makes her brushes — and to try to understand how Japanese makeup brushes relate to this storied craft.

Japanese brushes have long been popular with professional makeup artists, many of whom grew up admiring the pioneering work of the Japanese makeup artist Shu Uemura. And now, brushes from esteemed Japanese companies like Chikuhodo and Kashoen 1883 are available the world over. High-end contemporary beauty brands such as Westman Atelier, Surratt, Rae Morris and others proudly share that their makeup brushes are made in Japan, using traditional techniques and materials. Most Japanese beauty brushes are manufactured in Kumano, a city in Hiroshima Prefecture with nearly 200 years of its own (more industrial) brush-making culture. But those Kumano brushes are linked to Nara fude, as beauty brushes were born from the venerated — and now disappearing — tradition of crafting fude for calligraphy.

WHEN CHIYOMI TANAKA began studying fude making in 1982, her children were toddlers. She remembers bringing her daughter in a stroller to the craft school where she’d enrolled in a yearlong program. It was rare then for women to work outside the home or family business, but she wanted something to do — a purpose of her own. She was already certified in ikebana and tea ceremony (but dismisses this mastery as marriage training), and she’d learned to sew kimono and Western clothes, but nothing held her interest until she tried brush making. After graduation, she became a deshi — a disciple or apprentice — to a master fude maker and worked for a brush company, before becoming an independent shokunin in 2009.

With Tanaka’s steady guidance, I use a blade to widen the opening of a bamboo handle, prep it with super glue (traditional nikawa, which is similar to rabbit-skin glue, is finicky and slow-drying) and press a fluffy brush head into the opening. We squish the bristles into a bowl of gelatinous funori, a water-soluble adhesive made from seaweed, then comb them out. Finally, I wrap a thread around the brush, hold it taught and pull the loop toward the tip to smooth the bristles into a shape like a candle flame. I’m pleased with my brush, even if Tanaka did all the real work of blending the hair and assembling the brush head.

The brush handles she uses are crafted by another shokunin, who prepares the bamboo (or sometimes wood) to Tanaka’s specifications; it’s the head of the brush that’s the pride of Nara fude masters like Tanaka. She works on the brushes in batches — first blending and shaping a stiff inner core, and then wrapping it in softer hairs — repeatedly wetting and drying the hair between steps. She can complete a few hundred brushes over the course of two weeks. When they are finished, her friend etches and paints a label on the stem of each brush by hand.

It’s getting harder these days to find good hair for brushes — the last remaining supplier in Nara closed several years ago — but Tanaka has a lifetime stock of materials. Every fude shokunin must, she says, adding that when brushes were a necessity, artisans used to take on a debt as big as a home loan to set up their workshop. She shows me the kinds of hair she uses — squirrel, itachi (a kind of weasel), horse, rabbit, sika deer, tanuki (raccoon dog) and Yangtze River Delta white goat — as well as a diagram of a smiling goat mapping the dozen or so kinds of fibers that come from different parts of the animal’s body. A goat’s beard has a different quality than hair from its belly or rump, for instance. The stiffness or softness of a hair, how much spring and resilience it has, the amount of ink it picks up and how quickly it releases that ink onto the page — all of this matters to a calligrapher who desires a particular kind of line, and feeling, from the brush.

Synthetic hair (which allays consumer concerns about animal welfare) is now widely used in cosmetic brushes and inexpensive fude. Tanaka thinks the next generation of fude artisans might make something great with it, but she doesn’t care for it herself. Polyester fibers don’t hold as much ink, and deposit it very quickly. But Tanaka does blend some synthetic hair into her most basic brushes to make them more affordable. She says many people are so used to the stiffness of synthetic-blended bristles now that they find pure animal-hair brushes too soft. Once you are used to a particular quality of brush, it’s hard to switch. Still, the first time Tanaka dealt with animal hair, she was taken aback by the bits of dried flesh still stuck to the fibers, and the smell of pheromones. The odorous work of boiling hair to remove oils and dirt — and of later singing the base to fuse together a brush head — she does at home. She dries and straightens the hair, dusting it with ash to absorb any lingering oil, and wraps it in soft deerskin to bring it to her shop.

While she waits for customers — half of them collectors or calligraphers who walk past and are drawn in by the giant brush, the rest friends or repeat clients — Tanaka sorts, blends and shapes bristles at a small desk. She divides the clean hair into 10 piles ranked by quality. Learning to judge them quickly and intuitively took her a decade of working with her mentor, and even though he has died, she still considers herself his deshi.

The first time she went to her mentor’s workshop, she saw stacks of cash lying around; she thought she would get rich. But before she became a professional, Tanaka says, the world changed. In Japan, résumés are often required to be handwritten so an employer can judge the applicant’s character, but ballpoint pens have become so standard that writing with a brush might seem ostentatious. Schoolchildren practice shuji, or penmanship, with a brush and ink, but few parents will buy even Tanaka’s least expensive brush (which costs less than $15) when dollar stores and stationery shops sell cheaper ones made in China. For addressing the formal envelopes of money guests bring to weddings and funerals — or writing New Year’s greeting cards — a brush pen is more convenient than the real thing.

Tomoshi Ogawa, the ninth generation brush-shop owner of Ryushido in Kyoto, tells me his grandparents used to set up a stall at the weekend market and could sell hundreds of brushes to farmers and craftspeople who needed them to make tags for their merchandise. When the Magic Marker was introduced in the 1950s, sales dropped off dramatically. Today, the village brush maker is a thing of the past. Like Tanaka, Ogawa sells his best brushes to collectors and artists. Students buy modestly priced fude and ink to take calligraphy classes upstairs, but one brush lasts them a long time, so Ogawa has filled the front of his shop with stationery; he does more business in postcards and letter writing papers than in brushes.

A BRUSH MAY NO longer be a necessary tool for writing but, in Japan, calligraphy is still valued on the same level as poetry or painting. An emotively drawn character can stand alone as a work of art. (Tanaka used to show her brushes in galleries alongside other crafts, but to her they are tools for making art, not works of art themselves.) John Carpenter, the curator of Japanese art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, tells me by email that “even when the technology for mechanical reproduction was available early on for reproducing the classics of Japanese literature such as ‘The Tale of Genji,’ such works were transmitted by hand-copied recensions through the centuries.” Beautiful handwriting was a skill expected of women in Kyoto’s imperial court, and “The Tale of Genji,” written in the early 11th century, is among the works of literature that emerged from their writings. “And through the Edo period [1603-1868], woodblock printed books replicated brush written manuscript versions,” Carpenter adds.

I select a 4,000 yen (roughly $40) brush Tanaka recommends — her most expensive brush costs about $1,400, but most sell for $50-80 for learning shodo, the way (or path) of writing. Its blend of natural hair is springy and stiff enough for a beginner. Tanaka advises that if I use real sumi (ground on an ink stone) with my new fude, I can clean the brush with cool water (never hot, because that would damage the adhesive) and nothing more. A softer brush — made from itachi tail, or a blend of itachi and deer — takes more skill to control, but can make long, expressive lines like the ones I’ve admired on scrolls in tearooms over years of taking tea ceremony lessons.

In Buddhist temples, calligraphic works installed above sliding fusuma doors offer teachings or poetic phrases, in writing that is often more expressive than legible. Tanaka says the monks who write them often prefer flexible goat-hair brushes that hold a lot of ink. And in grand homes and fancy offices, a more easily read calligraphic work may be displayed as a conversation starter — its short, clear lines executed with a firm, resilient tanuki or horsehair brush. Tanaka even makes a few brushes from feathers for strokes with an unusual streaky line quality.

Brushes Tanaka labels as dento kogei, meaning traditional high crafts, meet rigid standards defined by the government to preserve and promote distinct local products. Tanaka was the first woman to be awarded the designation of dento kogeishi, master of traditional craftsmanship, for Nara fude. But she says more and more women are entering traditional crafts. Japan’s slowly shifting gender norms continue to place a lot of expectations on men and women to fulfill specific roles. But Tanaka thinks because women don’t feel the same pressure as men to be financially successful, they can risk entering a field with an increasingly uncertain future. (I’ve observed the same thing happening with woodworking in the town where I live, Yamanaka Onsen, near the Sea of Japan). If they fail, Tanaka says, they can fall back on being a housewife without shame. If they succeed, they breathe new life into traditional craft.

AS THE DEMAND for everyday calligraphy brushes dwindled, some brush makers — especially in Kumano — turned to another source of income: beauty brushes. Today, Japan is an innovator and trendsetter in cosmetics, skin care and beauty tools. Across the country, you can find Kumano brushes in loud drugstore makeup displays for less than five dollars, while prestigious brands sell luxuriously soft powder brushes for upward of $80.

When I travel to the city of Kyoto, less than an hour’s train ride from Nara-machi, to visit the flagship store of the Hiroshima-based brush company Hakuhodo, I’m drawn into the world of exquisite beauty brushes. The store is a modern white box, with glowing display cases and a skylight reminiscent of a James Turrell installation, in contrast to the staid Ippodo tearoom across the street. In Kyoto, brush making has all but disappeared — the remaining three fude shokunin are too few to merit dento kogei designation — but the city is known for its traditional arts and high culture.

Hakuhodo uses the word “fude” liberally to describe its hundreds of makeup applicators, which look like highly specialized versions of cosmetics brushes sold in department stores around the world. They are priced according to their materials, and range from approximately $15 to several hundred. One powder brush, enclosed in a plexiglass case on the wall, has Hello Kitty painted in lacquer and gold dust on its handle (and costs roughly $800). I choose a tiny fan brush for removing mascara clumps (when I try it later with Japanese Dejavu Fiberwig mascara, it makes me look like I’m wearing false lashes), and a double-sided brush-comb for eyebrow grooming that has a 24 K gold ferule attaching it to a pleasantly weighty handle lacquered the same shade of vermilion as a shrine gate.

A polished saleswoman shows me how a popular eye shadow brush works differently depending on the hair it’s made from. Kolinsky (a kind of weasel hair banned in the U.S.) applies soft, gentle color, and can be used for concealer and gel shadows. Horse applies the shadow more thickly, building it up faster. And goat is good at depositing glitter and vivid color. She explains that tufts of synthetic hair are well suited for applying foundation quickly and blending liquid color, but natural hair picks up more powder. A long, thin brush for drawing on swoops of eyeliner looks like the menso fude in Tanaka’s shop, designed for painting the face on a doll; its soft, flexible hairs take professional skill to control, but can make a fine line of unparalleled elegance.

Most of Hakuhodo’s brushes are, in fact, yofude, or Western-style brushes distinguished by a metal ferule holding the bristles in place. Kumano, the city in Hiroshima where they are manufactured, first made its name with paintbrushes — and now cosmetics brushes. Hiroshima farmers who worked in Nara during the off-season used to bring home fude to sell for extra income, and in the early 19th century, the Kumano domain sponsored Nara artisans to teach these farmers the craft of brush making. Now, 80 percent of Japan’s brush manufacturing is done in Kumano. The process is divided into discrete tasks, each assigned to a different artisan, so it’s easier to outsource to a machine or overseas factory.

Tanaka says doing every step herself, entirely by hand, is inefficient; but it makes you care about the whole process. She’s dedicated to continuing the tradition of Nara fude, but her friend encouraged her to add makeup brushes to her repertoire. A small glass case in her shop displays lip brushes like the ones depicted in 19th-century ukioy-e paintings of courtesans, and round powder puffs made of soft pink-colored goat hair set atop a stout cypress handle that look like those of Kumano brushes. These she calls “burashi,” a Japanized pronunciation of “brush,” to distinguish them from fude. (I buy an itachi lip brush with a handle made of bamboo and water buffalo horn, but it’s so beautiful I’m afraid to use it.)

As passionate as she is about Nara fude, Tanaka tells me she would discourage almost any young person from taking on the decades of study, dirty, painstaking labor and uncertainty that come with a career making brushes. She earns enough to keep her shop open, but it was her husband’s salaryman job that supported their family. I ask why she’s stuck with it all these years. She replies, “Because it’s still fun and interesting.” In her heart, she says, she wishes her daughter (now a mother, too) could find the same joy in making fude.

How to Try and Where to Buy

Nara Fude Tanaka

Chiyomi Tanaka sells a wide array of calligraphy and ink painting brushes, and a small selection of lip and powder brushes — all made entirely by hand in Nara by Tanaka herself. And you can assemble your own calligraphy brush in a half-hour or one-hour workshop.

Hakuhodo

Hakuhodo, which produces brushes for many makeup brands around the world, is based in Kumano, Hiroshima, but has multiple stores, including ones in Tokyo and L.A. and a flagship in Kyoto. Choose from a vast array of specialized brushes, starting at around $15.

Ryushido

If you visit Hakuhodo in Kyoto, don’t miss this brush shop next door, for stationery, ink and brushes (and for calligraphy, ink painting and the Japanese painting style called Nihonga) made by Kyoto’s few remaining fude shokunin. The store’s owners, the Ogawa family, can trace the shop’s history back nine generations to 1781, but the business is probably even older.

Kashoen 1883

In 1883, Shozo Takamoto, the founder of this storied brush company, set out to make calligraphy brushes, and moved into beauty in the early 20th century and began to export its products overseas a few decades later. You will find every brush in every style imaginable at Kashoen’s Hiroshima shop. Like Hakuhodo, the brand incorporates other types of Japanese craftsmanship, such as Urushi lacquer, into its brushes.

Rae Morris

Five years ago, the hair and makeup artist Rae Morris began working with a Kumano-based shokunin (who, like Tanaka, specializes in calligraphy brushes) to advance her own line of makeup brushes called Jishaku. Made with vegan micro crystal fibers, Morris’s brushes are precisely designed for specific uses — from angled blending at the eyes to applying blush or bronzer just at the cheekbones. The best part? The ends of these brushes’ handles are magnetized (“jishaku” means magnet in Japanese), and can hang easily from a metal display frame for easy accessibility and good hygiene.

Surratt

This New York-based beauty brand, which launched in 2012, was inspired, in part, by the co-founder Troy Surratt’s work trips to Japan while he assisted the celebrated makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin. The company has since achieved a cultlike following for its innovative color and makeup technology, and its Artistique line of brushes — all made in Kumano, half of them with gray squirrel hair — are top of the line. The brand’s smokey eye brushes are a favorite of Jesus Pulgarin, the brand’s global educator.

Tatcha

Though Tatcha is primarily a skin-care brand, its founder, Vicky Tsai, and Nami Onodera, Tatcha’s executive director of brand and culture, discovered — after visiting the Kashoen 1883 Tokyo boutique one day — that their best-selling exfoliating Rice Polish Enzyme Powder could be whipped up in a bowl and applied with a brush, similarly to how matcha is made. In addition to a brush and bowl set, Tatcha now also sells an exquisite powder brush, made with kiri wood and a 24 K gold ferrule.

Westman Atelier

The elegant brushes that accompany Gucci Westman’s breakout clean-beauty line were inspired by the makeup artist’s own collection of Japanese brushes. “When I was starting out, brushes were an investment piece,” Westman explains. While working, she prefers to keep her hand close to the face for more control, so these have handles (made from FSC-certified lacquered birch wood) that are comfortably short; the brushes, made with synthetic fiber, are also cruelty free.

Additional reporting by Takuya Kodama.

Hannah Kirshner is the author of “Water, Wood and Wild Things: Learning Craft and Cultivation in a Japanese Mountain Town.”

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