Interview with Yoshizumi, Nobuhiko
DF: Why do you make small kites?
Y: I didn’t start with small kites at the beginning… I was making big kites, like two- or three-meter size. As you know, transportation is a very big deal in Japan; it is troublesome carrying a big kite bag and taking and transferring trains at the same time, so I started downsizing my kites to one-meter size, then miniature size. I got a hint from New Year’s greeting cards from our kite group in Kyoto. We made a kite group in Kyoto area that time and we started exchanging New Year’s greeting cards. I thought it might be fun to fly the card as a kite. Then I made a post card-size kite. It became kind of popular among our group, and we compete with size. It was a good motivation for everybody to make miniature kites. Miniature kites can fly pretty much anywhere under a no-wind condition, like inside of building. It became popular gradually… After Drachen Foundation had a miniature kite competition in Japan, many people started making them. Yes, our group sent many entries for that competition.
DF: Do you have a miniature kite making workshop in Japan?
Y: Not really….Japanese people don’t like to learn from other people. We prefer to work alone, not in a group. Sometimes, a few people get together and make them. We can’t critique negatively on somebody’s kite. It is a rule of JKA (Japan Kite Association).
DF: I heard that your miniature kite is in a Guinness book of records…
Y: Yes, it is. It was in 2000. The kite I made was about seven millimeters. I made a smaller one later, but I haven’t registered it yet.
DF: How important is it to teach bigger format of kite making? How important to continue Japanese tradition?
Y: When we make a bigger kite, we don’t need to worry about detail too much. We can adjust bridle line when the kite is on the ground easily. We determine the length of bridle line and the position of bridle line, based on a longtime experience and analysis. The balance of bridle line is critical. That’s why conveying tradition is very important. Like Shirone style, we can’t make any mistakes on those big kites. We pass the traditional technique on to the next generation. That’s “dentou” (to convey tradition). But I believe that just conveying tradition isn’t dentou. It is slightly different from the region, but the base should be the same. The technique of bigger kite making is the base of everything. Kite makers in Japan have passed on the traditional way to the younger generation. The technique hasn’t been changed for two hundred to three hundred years. But it seems like the traditional technique has beenadopting different cultures a little bit for the long run. We only used hemp back then, but we adopt different kinds of strings now. I believe that dentou is not only conveying tradition, but also making an environment in which we can combine things available at this point with the best based on the history. We can apply this rule to miniature kites as well. Everything we do is based on the big kite format.
DF: Where do the kite makers sell kites? Galleries? Museums?
Y: I have been making kites for more than thirty years, but I don’t really sell my kites. They are done to give away as a gift or donate for auctions. Personally, I don’t like to sell my kites for money. In Japan, kite business can’t really succeed all through the year. Fewer people are interested in kites and go fly kites generally. On the other hand, people purchase kites for New Year or a special occasion, such as a birth, the kids’ day, or a birthday….etc. I do make kites and sell them for these special occasions only if I get requests. I own my business and I get this particular job every year. My friend and I started making free kite gifts for my friend’s company to give away to the customers for New Uear. At the beginning, we started doing this for fun and made about a thousand copies since then. Everybody loved the idea, and we have been doing this project once a year. I design a kite and send it to the factory for a mass production. I have to finish designing a kite by February and the factory makes thousands of copies with colors by summer. I make profit for my business, Cokeian. Other than that, I don’t really promote myself. I made my web site about six years ago. I haven’t really updated it since I have launched my site. Once in a while, I get orders from companies or people who found my site. Yes, in this case I do business with them. Disney Japan found me through the web, and made an offer to make a big kite of Pocahontas.
In our culture, we do have the twelve animals (one animal for each year). When people see the animal, they tend to think it’s only for a New Year, and they can’t display it at home after a New Year season. And also, when they see kites, they have a “kite = New Year” type of brain setting. Actually, we fly kites in a New Year culture. That image is very strong. That’s why we have a hard time to sell kites at the galleries or museums and during the exhibit.
My wife and I have an annual exhibit together before Christmas for a week. My wife is a weaver. Almost all our friends come and say hello to us during the exhibit. It’s very rare to sell our stuff on exhibit, but sometimes we get orders. In Japan, people won’t buy kites on exhibit. Speaking of museums in Japan, they have a very low knowledge of the kite as being a piece of art. They think kites are just toys for kids. So do almost all Japanese people. Here is a good example. A museum had an art kite show a few years ago with an American pop artist, Robert Rauschenberg. The museum curators only emphasized the paintings with a kite shape frame. They didn’t emphasize that they are kites first of all. Secondly, they don’t think kites are art. It’s difficult to see it from a Japanese cultural perspective. Japanese people think that kites are corny. That show didn’t bring in many people to the museum in Japan. On the other hand, the show had a huge success in other countries.
In Europe, there are many younger people involved in the kite business. Maybe that’s because they can still do business with kites. It’s not going to happen in Japan. Kites are only a hobby. Japanese younger people are so used to things like “ready to make” stuff. They can’t create kites from scratch. They need a kite kit. They can’t even sit down and endure at least thirty minutes, unfortunately.
I don’t think it’s right to define the money value of somebody’s kites. I don’t want anybody to judge how much my kites are worth, because I do have a pride on my work. I saw the web site of Gomberg (American flyer), and noticed that he sells Mikio’s kites on his site. It was during a Christmas season and I found there was a sale on his kites. The sign said three for $$$...that kind of deal. I felt really bad when I saw it. If they were my kites, I would be really unhappy. It might be related to Japanese culture. We don’t want to talk about money with friends, generally speaking. If someone asks me to make a kite, I would do it but I can’t ask for money, so I just give it to that person as a gift. It happens to me a lot….
I don’t trade kites and collect others. We don’t have enough space in Japan. So, many people just let the organization borrow kites for exhibit or donate their kites and put them all together in a labeled box and keep them at the office. Now, one third of these kites are here, at the Drachen office, as a Tsuji Collection.
DF: What do you think about the other kite makers and their approach to making kites?
Y: Skill-wise, most people are just experimenting, except for Robert Trépanier. That is just from my thirty-year Japanese kite making point of view. Their kites are beautiful, a piece of art like pictures in a frame. Their priority is the outer look rather than flyability. They are beautiful on the wall. That’s great. I wish I could do it, but it would never be accepted in Japan. I think that kites are the flying object. They are beautiful up in the sky, not on the wall…their lives are up in the sky.
Unfortunately, technique is not high enough. So, it’s not necessary to use bamboo, really. This time, we used Japanese bamboo. You can’t find Japanese bamboo that much in the US. Just Chinese ones. Japanese uma-dake is very flexible and strong. The bamboos we used this time are still young. In Japan, we don’t really use them yet; we will wait until they get dried out with light brown color. Their length of string, where you tie bamboo together on both sides, is not the same. It is supposed to be the same, for the balance when you fly it. That’s a big “no no” in Japan. Plus they use too much string to tie bamboos. That’s not good because they are putting more weight on kites by doing that.
Speaking of Scott’s sode kites, the patchwork is amazing! I am so amazed because he just creates a variety of different designs out of the same shape of patches. The framework is also good, too. Nowadays, the framework of Japanese kites is getting simpler than his. One thing I should say technically about his style is the way he glue patches together. He uses two-millimeter double-sided tape. It is OK for that size; however, he can’t apply the same technique to the small kites because it gets heavy. Double sided tape has three layers: glue, paper and glue. Using glue only is much lighter and more efficient.
Speaking of efficiency, there is the easiest way to glue pieces. When I saw Anke glue a corn piece one by one, I thought she should have tried this way: if she lays down pieces together, sliding each other a little and expose the surface she needs to put glue on, she can glue all pieces at once. Therefore, she can save her time, too. Scott should try this way. Well, I must be very Japanese. I can learn from how people do one certain thing, like gluing. I observe. Then I look for a better way to do it. It is interesting because it shows their nationality very well. Japanese might be the type who thinks how he/she can do something easier and faster to save his/her time. Or…is it just me? I always think about good innovations to save my time.
While we were in the residency program, I was observing other kite makers. They don’t split bamboos but they shave them to adjust the balance. In Western culture, they are not really familiar with bamboo, so they don’t know what to do with it. Bamboo can split itself easily without using a knife all the way down. You just need a knife at the beginning, something to start with. They think that we need to “cut” bamboos, but we just need to “split,” not “cut”. We only need a knife at the beginning; then we can just use finger, nails…anything! A good thing about bamboos is that we can make any sizes we want. If you can’t find the exact size of spars, you are in trouble. A bad thing about bamboos is that there are knots. They cause unbalance, so we have to shave them off and make spars balanced.
DF: After the event, you made a kite of rabbits making mochi (Japanese rice cake) and give it to Jan at the Panama Hotel. Where did that idea come from?
Y: Jan told me about the story of Japantown, where the hotel is located right now. She told me that there used to be many traditional Japanese stores there like a mochi store. She tried mochi before. She didn’t like it at the first time, but now she loves mochi and I noticed a kine and usu (very traditional Japanese mochi making tools made out of wood) displayed by the coffee shop windows. So, I got a sense of her enjoying mochi. Then, I was reading a Japanese paper one day and found a picture of hapi coat with rabbits making mochi. That was a photo of one of the exhibits the museum had in February. The picture was two rabbits making mochi on the full moon day. I just wanted to make something with a memory of the place we had an event. Then I thought that I can make a sode-style kite, just like the way a hapi coat is. This is going to be a gift for Jan at the Panama hotel. I used sumi ink. Sumi is a great way to create three-D feeling with a tint effect. In Japan, we have a story of the full moon: we are saying that there is a picture of a rabbit making mochi inside of full moon. In Germany Frank told me that they have their story about the moon, but he didn’t remember it… If I have time during this visit, maybe I can start painting one more kite for Drachen, then finish everything next time when I am here. Does it sound good?