|Traditional Craft Skills that Fashion Umbrellas
from Bamboo and Paper
Still known today as a center for the production of traditional Japanese umbrellas, manufacture of wagasa began in the Kano district of Gifu City in the middle of the 18th century. At that time the state had feudal organization and the local lords had a great deal of economic and political autonomy within the domains to which they were assigned. The feudal lord who was transferred in to rule the feudal domain around Gifu had to contend with a local economy that was devastated by floods. He saw an opportunity to stimulate local industry and to provide the means to supplement the living of the impoverished lower samurai (warrior elite) by encouraging them to make umbrellas.
The local area had a long history of paper making. Mino-washi, a local product, was a strong handmade paper due to the long fibers it contained. Good quality bamboo was to be found in the valley of the Kiso River, and it was easy to obtain sesame oil and lacquer from the local mountains, indispensable for water proofing. These advantages made the area well suited to umbrella making, since the basic construction of Japanese umbrellas involves affixing paper over a frame of bamboo-strip ribs, and then applying oil and lacquer for waterproofing.
Production peaked at the beginning of the 20th century,
when over a million umbrellas per year were manufactured. Since then the
metal-and-cloth Western-style umbrella has become generally used, and the
number of people who use Japanese umbrellas has dwindled. These days the
local craftworkers make only few tens of thousands of wagasa a year.
The traditional Japanese umbrella uses only natural materials and, requiring several months to undergo the various separate processes that are needed for completion, the skilled hands of a dozen seasoned craftworkers contribute to the finished item. In addition to the usual type of rain umbrella, Gifu Wagasa also come in various other types including large red outdoor parasols that are used to provide shade on outdoor occasions, such as tea ceremonies. Then there are smaller colorful buyo-gasa that figure in performances of traditional Japanese dance. Gifu Wagasa are an indispensable part of traditional Japanese art and culture.
Photos: (top) Colorful janome-gasa (paper umbrellas with bulls-eye design) are exposed to the sun for drying; (middle) an artisan attaching sheets of paper on bamboo ribs. (Gifu City)
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