Japan's Artisans: The Way It Was ... And Still Is

In a country obsessed with perfection, very few artisans can claim to have truly mastered their craft. Those who have are known as Living National Treasures.

Hellen van Meene
OF 7

Komao Hayashi, Toso Dolls

Hayashi became the apprentice to a 13th-generation doll maker at 18 and a Living National Treasure at 66. Taking inspiration from classical Japanese literature and the cultural exposure of growing up next to Kyoto’s Imperial Palace, he carves a body shape from paulownia wood, then painstakingly sculpts details (head, legs, arms), applying toso, a claylike paste of mainly paulownia sawdust. (The technique dates to the Edo period.) He makes the doll’s clothes out of dyed washi. His crafts embody more than a thousand unbroken years of Kyoto culture’s beauty. He has no apprentice. Craftsmen like Hayashi, 80, with no one to carry on their work, are not unusual. It’s not enough to pass on the requisite skills; a successor must also possess the concomitant artistic sensibility.