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.