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Japanese Culture Shock: Brushes from Slovak Margita-san

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  • Martin Votruba
    A Japanese newspaper has a story about a Slovak woman who learned to cope with Japanese society, with the craft of traditional brush-making, and with her
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 29 4:43 PM
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      A Japanese newspaper has a story about a Slovak woman who learned to
      cope with Japanese society, with the craft of traditional
      brush-making, and with her mother-in-law.


      votruba "at" pitt "dot" edu

      x x x

      A Slovak's Brush with Destiny

      The Daily Yomuri, Saturday, July 30, 2005

      HIROSHIMA -- It was just a part-time job, Margita Bajo thought, when
      she began working at a brush manufacturer 15 years ago. But making
      brushes, or fude, has become more than a job. It has helped the shy
      Slovak mingle with the locals of this Western Japanese town and
      fueled her enthusiasm to become a master in the traditional craft.

      Bajo's first years in Japan were filled with surprises--even
      bewilderment at times. Moving in 1978 to her Japanese husband's
      hometown of Kumanocho, the couple lived with his parents. She had a
      hard time communicating, especially with her mother-in-law, Tsuyumi,
      who speaks bluntly and with a strong dialect. Cultural shock also
      came in a nonverbal way.

      "She wouldn't look me in the eye when we talked," the 52-year-old
      said in Japanese, recalling of her mother-in-law when they started
      living in the same house. "I didn't get it, although now I kind of
      get why she was that way. I figure she just wasn't sure how to get on
      with me."

      The language and cultural barriers initially seemed high between
      them, but the walls were gradually broken down as Bajo found a common
      interest with Tsuyumi--fude-making.

      Her mother-in-law, a native of the town where 80 percent of the
      country's brushes are produced, has more than 65 years of experience
      in the craft and makes calligraphy brushes at home on commission. As
      she closely observed the fude-manufacturing process, Bajo became
      fascinated with the craft and tried her hand at it. In time, Tsuyumi
      began teaching her the basic techniques.

      "I wasn't against her taking up the craft. But I just didn't think
      she could do it because even I'm not satisfied with my skills yet,"
      the 82-year-old Tsuyumi said.

      But Bajo is grateful to Tsuyumi for teaching her the basics. "If she
      hadn't been doing this job, I wouldn't have got into the craft," Bajo

      The two now seem to get along well, talking to each other in a heavy
      Kumano dialect.

      Yasuko Mimura of Bunkodo Co., Bajo's current employer, said: "She
      [Tsuyumi] always had a bit of an attitude, but she always looks after

      Bajo was born the youngest of five girls in the southwestern Slovak
      city of Nove Zamky. As their mother died young, the sisters helped
      each other, forming close bonds. After graduating high school, Bajo
      went to a culinary school and became a licensed cook. What she refers
      to as her "fateful meeting" with her husband, Masahiro, took place in
      1976. Masahiro, who was posted to Slovakia by his company, was a
      regular at the company cafeteria where she worked. They married not
      long after that, but the couple had to live separately for two years
      before eventually settling down in the Hiroshima town.

      "Japan was a faraway and strange place to me. I spent lots of time
      fretting about whether I should come here or not. My sisters worried
      about me, too," she said.

      Bajo hoped to become integrated into the Japanese community quickly,
      but never imagined herself trying to follow in the footsteps of her

      In 1990, Bajo was offered a job at Bunkodo, the company to which
      Tsuyumi occasionally contributes her works. At first, Bajo did not
      take the job seriously, thinking of it as a part-time job where she
      could spend her free time constructively, just as she had done
      before. "I took the job mainly because it was so close to my house,"
      she said with a chuckle.

      Indeed, her house is located only a few hundred meters from the
      company, where she works for about five hours every day. Her main
      work there is mixing hair, one of the most important steps in
      producing quality brushes. Hair from horses, deer, goats, raccoon
      dogs and weasels are commonly used for brushes. The hair, with its
      different qualities and characteristics, is blended thoroughly and
      then trimmed straight and combed well to prevent strands from facing
      the wrong direction.

      These are only some of the more than 70 steps in manufacturing fude.
      Today, each process is carried out by a different skilled worker.
      Most of the work is labor-intensive and requires a high level of
      technique and experience.

      Surrounded by mountains, Kumanocho has a population of just over
      26,000, of whom about 2,500 are involved in the brush industry,
      according to the municipality's statistics.

      The Kumano fude dates back to the late Edo period (1603-1868) when
      local farmers, who worked away from home when they were not farming,
      acquired fude-making skills and brought them back to the town.

      In recent years, the Kumano fude has grown in popularity,
      particularly for makeup, as brushes produced in the town have won
      acclaim from professionals in the cosmetics industry and among
      Hollywood actresses.

      Earlier this year, Bunkodo and eight other fude-making firms
      participated in an international trade fair in France to showcase the
      craftsmanship to the world.

      But a declining number of people are taking up the craft. In an
      effort to pass the fude-making skills down to the next generation,
      about 15 licensed traditional craftspeople in the Kumano fude sector
      are offering comprehensive seminars on fude making. Bajo is one of
      the students.

      Bunkodo's Mimura admires Bajo's efforts. "Young people tend to shy
      away from fude-making as the craft requires patience and extensive
      experience. Plus, you get messy dealing with animal hair. I think the
      traditional craft should be passed down to motivated people like
      her," she said.

      Bajo's passion for the craft seems to grow the more she learns. "It's
      fascinating that every brush we make is distinct because of the
      differences in quality and characteristics of the hair," Bajo said.

      She also bashfully expressed her goal of becoming a certified
      artisan. Pausing a moment, she added, "But I still have a long way to
      go before I get to that point."
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