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From Value One, Spring 2016 No. 52  

Kitajima's rashakiri basami are light and move smoothly
 

The Last Artisan Crafting Traditional Rashakiri Basami

Sewing scissors used for cutting cloth are called rashakiri basami in Japanese. Rasha, meaning "thick cloth," is derived from the ancient Portuguese word raxa.

From the Bakumatsu Period (1853–1867) to the Meiji Era (1868–1912), the influences of many diverse cultures flowed from the West to Japan. Western-style dress was one of them. Reproductions of Western clothing—including military uniforms—were made in large numbers. The sewing scissors used to make these clothes were also imported from overseas. Western sewing scissors were too big for Japanese tailors to handle skillfully, however. Then Yoshida Yajuro (also known as Yakichi), a swordsmith of Edo, made the scissors easier for Japanese artisans to use.

Yakichi passed on his techniques to many disciples, including a clan of scissor makers known as Edo-basami. Kazuo Kitajima, who calls himself Heizaburo II, is one of now rare makers of rashakiri basami who inherited Yakichi's skills. When he was in elementary school, Kitajima's home was destroyed in the bombings of Tokyo during World War II. He left Tokyo's Arakawa district to take refuge in Matsudo, Chiba, together with his father, Heizaburo I. At seventy-eight, Kitajima is still making rashakiri basami in Matsudo.

The true apex of the techniques Kitajima uses lies in the distinctive skill known as sohizukuri. Each part of the scissors, from tips to handles, is made by beating a single piece of red-hot steel or other metal ingot repeatedly to extend and shape it through Kitajima's dexterity and sensitivity. Life is driven into every iron piece. "Combining two blades of different shapes is the most difficult part," notes Kitajima.


However, no one is set to inherit Kitajima's mantle and carry on the 150-year tradition of sohizukuri that began with Yakichi. Many traditional Japanese crafts are facing a similar crisis, having no successors and dealing with competition from cheap imported goods.

Rashakiri basami made using the sohizukuri method can be used for half a century or more if properly maintained. Many professionals—including tailors who work only on a made-to-order basis and traditional kimono makers in Kyoto—cherish such scissors.

Traditional artisanship such as this may become extinct someday. But the cutting performance of rashakiri basami that the last artisan pours his soul into will never fade away.

Sohizukuri, a method in which the metal is beaten many times with a hammer and extended




Rashakiri basami with "sohizukuri" carved into it—proof of authenticity






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