Japanese Culture Shock: Brushes from Slovak Margita-san
- 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
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
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
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
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."