Japan’s Gorgeous, Precarious Fishing Poles
While Japanese master craftsmen command up to $100,000 for turning bamboo into a fishing pole, aspiring younger makers can barely find anyone to take them on as apprentices. And this isn't the only time-honored Japanese craft at the brink of extinction. How could this happen in a country that, for centuries, has served as a model of hand-made perfection?
Story and photography by YUKARI IWATANI KANE
Some years ago, my cousin in Japan, a modest man with a passion for fishing named Tomoki Koharu, told me that he was training to become a maker of Japan’s traditional bamboo fishing poles. The market for them was small, and Tomoki said it was impossible to make a living at it, but apparently he had fallen hopelessly in love with this centuries-old tradition.
The poles that had become the target of my cousin’s obsession are called Edo wazao, because the craft originated in Tokyo, known at the time as Edo. The poles are prized for their delicate lacquer finish and collapsible portable form, which allows them to be enjoyed both as an exquisite tool and as a work of art. Today, a small, but avid group of fishermen uses the smallest versions of these poles to fish for tanago, a freshwater species no bigger than a couple of inches. There is no reel, and the line is dropped, not cast. Like most fishing around the world today, this is a catch-and-release sport. In this case, however, the goal is to hook the smallest fish, not the biggest.
Judged simply by performance, a wazao cannot touch the strength, flexibility, and efficiency of a single piece of carbon fiber, which is the material used for most fishing poles and fly rods today. But a wazao possesses a certain integrity. The essence of fishing, of course, is a day spent outdoors—bonding, if you will, with nature. For wazao aficionados, I learned, it only makes sense to use tools that come from nature.
I was proud of my cousin for taking up a noble profession that requires years of training. Having grown up in Japan, I knew of a number of traditional crafts that were struggling for survival. I assumed that my cousin’s interest would be welcomed by the wazao masters because it meant that their craft would survive. His reality, I soon learned, was much more complicated.
“I spent all night thinking about it to no avail,” he wrote on his Facebook page one day, regarding his struggle with a particularly difficult bamboo cutting technique. “I’m going to read a master’s book as I go to bed. #dreamingofbamboo.” In the winters, he uploaded pictures of forests where he went to forage, searching for the perfect stalk of bamboo.
Over time, I learned that he was also plagued with a deep uncertainty and fear. “In a few years, the masters will be gone, and their world will be gone with them,” he wrote at one point. “It’s … frightening to think that I’m pouring my life into a trade that can’t provide a living.”
All over the country, it is widely known that Japan’s famed apprenticeship system has broken down. The reasons are myriad, but the end result is that the old masters can no longer afford to support apprentices. If the wazao industry is an illustration, the masters have now put themselves into a Catch-22: They are unwilling to compromise their craft by modifying traditional training methods; at the same time, they won’t acknowledge the work of younger craftsmen—because they hadn’t trained them.
By this point, the average age of the dozen or so remaining makers who are active in the wazao guild is about 70 years old. Not a single one has an apprentice. In the oldest pole-making family, the son of the last master chose to become a businessman rather than a pole maker. Although the craft has only three craftsmen under the age of 50, including my cousin, only one had been invited into the guild.
All of this struck me as bizarre. Around the world, Japan is synonymous with the idea of craftsmanship in its most hallowed form. And the country’s artisans, as well as their works, have never been more respected than they are today. Yet, here was a craft where its masters didn’t seem to care about the future of their own profession. I decided to return to Japan to find out why.
PERFECTION IN SIMPLICITY
I started my inquiry at the workshop of Saochu, the top wazao craftsman still working today. It took a small miracle to get this meeting—Saochu agreed on the condition that one of his customers, a major wazao collector, be present. My cousin joined us, primarily because he didn’t want to miss an opportunity to hear the great one speak.
Now 85, Saochu has become a legend, and he only makes poles for those he considers worthy. In an industry where most fishing poles sell for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, his best is rumored to have sold for $100,000. But he is the exception. After thriving for generations, the wazao industry almost collapsed in the late 1970s when it was nearly obliterated by the introduction of carbon fiber rods. Since then, prices for most Edo-style bamboo poles have remained virtually unchanged, leaving their makers unable to keep up with rising costs of living. While tanago fishing has enjoyed a small resurgence in the last decade, a craftsman with a decade of experience makes less than $30,000 a year. My 42-year old cousin still lives at home with his parents because he can’t afford his own place.
Saochu proved to be a difficult interview. When I asked about his technique, he responded vaguely that it was about artistic sensibility. On questions about his standards, he deflected me. “It’s difficult to say in front of another pole maker,” he said, glancing at my cousin. If he didn’t like a question, he became silent and looked away. He was also hard of hearing, a handy disability in his case.
The one time Saochu perked up was when he was showing me his family’s poles. “Nobody move,” he said as he presented a masterpiece. As we remained still, he laid its many pieces out reverently, admiring the way an ancestor had lacquered the pole with little raised dots, in a design known as “sesame pattern.”
The Edo-wazao is estimated to have started 228 years ago, by a samurai named Tosaku Matsumoto. All of today’s top masters trace their roots back to Tosaku. From the beginning, Edo-wazao were a luxury item for the wealthy, for whom fishing had been a popular pastime akin to polo or golf. While the working class used rough, homemade bamboo poles, nobility, kabuki masters, and prominent politicians used rods tailor-made to each season and fish species.
Underneath their gorgeous lacquer, the basic parts to these poles might look relatively simple, but don’t let that fool you. As with so many Japanese crafts, the mark of mastery lies in hiding the complexity of the task, to not show it off. When perfection is achieved, the finished item should look very simple. These principles apply in abundance with wazao.
The ideal wazao is perfectly round, and straight as a ruler. As preparation, craftsmen go out every winter to collect hundreds of the straightest, strongest, prettiest bamboo they can find. Bamboo contains a lot of oil and water, so before any construction can begin it must be heated in a fire until excess oil rises to the surface, where it can be wiped off. To get rid of the last remnants of moisture, it is then dried outdoors for three months and indoors for another three years. Without this step, the bamboo doesn’t achieve its maximal strength.
Once the bamboo has fully dried, it has to be straightened, which is done by heating the bamboo over hot charcoal, then torqueing it bit by bit in a wooden mold. At this point, it’s time to assemble the pieces for a pole–a step known as kirikumi, which is the most difficult and crucial part of the whole process.
Kirikumi begins with the craftsman looking through his collection of bamboo for perfectly matching segments. Once he’s made his choices, which can involve up to 20 different pieces drawn from hundreds if not thousands of different stalks, he has to cut each one so they fit together seamlessly.
What makes kirikumi so tricky is that bamboo doesn’t grow with this kind of uniformity in mind. Not only are there different species throughout a forest, but on every tree, the joint spacing, thickness, curves, and fiber qualities are different.
During my conversation with Saochu, I had to read between the lines to get my answers, but I knew that he had struggled to achieve success. He entered the craft at age 19, and it took him four decades to feel like he knew what he was doing. He wasn’t about to share his hard-earned status easily.
Still, since the survival of the craft was at stake, didn’t he feel some obligation to pass on his knowledge? “Young craftsmen will keep making poles, and they’ll get better on their own,” he said with a note of indifference. “No one gets worse.”
THE LOST FOREST
One of the few stories that Saochu did share was about his process for bamboo selection. He often struck deals with owners of bamboo forests to get the first pick; even then, he said, it was a race to get the best quality bamboo.
This made me curious to see what differentiates good bamboo from the bad. So I asked my cousin to take me to a forest. It was March and the season for bamboo cutting had just ended. With the onset of warmer temperatures, he warned, a lot of the bamboo would likely be damaged or infested by bugs. But I insisted.
We drove to a forest near his hometown, parked, and after walking just a few hundred feet we were surrounded by bamboo. Tomoki pointed out the stalks that were too weak; others were too old, gnarled, or crooked. The goal, he explained, is to find strong but relatively young stalks—the best are only a few years old, which still have flex. After inspecting one after another, he declared the spot to be worthless.
Wazao makers tend to keep their best foraging spots secret; those who could afford it used to travel to the mountains of Kyushu, in southern Japan, which offered the best bamboo. Some worked with middlemen who would deliver bamboo by the truckful. Caretakers of these forests culled the land to make sure that each bamboo had plenty of room and sun to grow strong and straight. “It’s the same as farms and forests,” said Tomoki. “You can’t get good bamboo if they don’t get enough sun or ventilation.”
Today, however, the decline in crafts that use natural materials like bamboo have made it a waste of time and money to cultivate these forests. So most have long since given way to homes and apartments. (Bamboo forestland makes prime real estate because it tends to be at higher altitudes, with nice views and lots of sun.) “If you look around, there are still a lot of [bamboo] forests in Japan,” Tomoki said. “But pole making requires the very best, and that kind of bamboo is rare.”
To make matters worse, the country’s lacquer industry has also declined (without good lacquer, a wazao’s finish will not shine or age properly). Lacquer is made from sap, collected from the urushi tree by making small slashes in the tree’s trunk and running the sap into buckets. While getting brewed into lacquer, the sap, which is toxic, blackens the hands and can leave a worker’s eyes badly swollen. Today, only five or six people in Japan still collect urushi sap, said Kazuo Akiba, a director at the Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries in Tokyo. As a result, lacquering tool makers have also disappeared. By this point, lacquer has gotten so expensive that many craftsmen use Chinese lacquer, which they find to be cheaper in both cost and quality; the finer Japanese lacquer is then saved for the finish.
DREAMS OF REVIVAL
Apparently, plenty of other craftsmen are now suffering from shortages of basic resources. While bamboo crafts have all but disappeared, lacquer art designers around the country (particularly in regions such as Wajima, Aizu and Tsugaru) are concerned that Japanese urushi might one day be a thing of the past. Elsewhere, makers of Japanese art panels, which use rice paper and cloths, are having difficulty getting the kind of rice paper they need. And tool makers are disappearing in a variety of crafts. Many artisans now have to learn not only their craft but also how to make the tools for their craft. The downward spiral has taken its toll. Of Japan’s 1,500 officially designated traditional crafts, 400 of them, or about 25 percent, no longer exist.
Japan has seen all this coming for a while. In 1974, the government passed a law to protect Japanese crafts, and Akiba’s association was formed a year later. In the years since, the group has given traditional craftsmen financial support for training, and helped promote their crafts, both domestically and overseas. The program has had mixed results, however. Even when the group has been able to interest one person in a new business opportunity, the senior craftsmen in the industry often quash the idea. “Craft worlds in general tend to be closed but the old masters are particularly conservative,” Akiba said.
The reasons for the decline abound. No matter how expert they may be, craftsmen have been unable to compete with modern goods that are cheaper, more fashionable, and easier to use. Meanwhile, few young people are joining these professions, partly because they don’t want to put in long, arduous hours for so little return. Those who are willing to work this hard struggle to find masters who can afford to hire them. As a result, families that have run artisanal businesses for generations now encourage their children to pursue more lucrative careers.
A RITE OF PASSAGE
As my grasp of the situation deepened, I felt my cousin’s frustration, but I also felt that I was missing something about why senior craftsmen wouldn’t take on apprentices. To help me understand, my cousin took me to see his own master, Judaisaku, age 89.
From the moment I walked into Judaisaku’s small, two-room apartment, I saw how profound a craftsman’s training experience can be. Even though Judaisaku left his apprenticeship a half-century ago, he wore an outdated, full-throttle beard in memory of his great master. On the wall behind him hung a yellowed, handwritten document from 1958 attesting to his skills and granting him permission to make poles under his own name.
Judaisaku still remembers his final test—an examination of his poles by 10 senior craftsmen. “They were a terrifying sight,” he said. “They lined up in a row, and one by one, they would turn my pole around in their hands and comment on how round or straight it was.”
As we talked, I began to appreciate the traditional Japanese meaning of the word “apprentice.” It was not simply a term for someone the masters were training. It signified a rite of passage, and a deep bonding experience. Apprentices lived and worked side by side with their masters for years—typically with no pay other than room and board. They might have gotten beaten sometimes for their mistakes, but they ultimately took care of each other.
Since today’s economic imperatives no longer support such a culture, traditional Japanese crafts find themselves in a true no-man’s land—unable to sustain an old system, but without viable alternatives for a new one. The awkwardness of this reality was made clear by Tomoki’s relationship to Judaisaku. While he considered Judaisaku to be his master, Judaisaku didn’t consider him an apprentice. If pressed, Judaisaku would describe Tomoki only as someone he was teaching. Even then, Tomoki said, Judaisaku wrestled with his decision to take Tomoki on as a student, because he didn’t want to be responsible for sending a young man into a dead-end business. Tomoki said all the wazao masters felt more or less the same way.
The Japanese word “shoganai” popped into my head. Nothing can be done. It can’t be helped.
Despite the myriad difficulties, there are some rays of hope—primarly in the Tosaku family, which founded the craft. In 2015, the sixth-generation grand master died at the age of 95, but not before he trained his great nephew, who goes by his trade name Toryo. Now 30, Toryo is the industry’s last formal apprentice, slated to take on the family’s eighth-generation mantle.
Toryo is a man of few words, but when I visited he said enough to make it clear that he carries the burden of the entire industry on his shoulders.
Coming from the Tosaku line, Toryo has advantages that other young wazao makers can only dream of: a solid customer base, the full backing of his parents, a workshop with an ample supply of tools, and the best bamboo money can buy–many of them harvested at a time when the bamboo forests were properly manicured. And, in a step toward modernity, in late 2015, the family launched a retail Web site (see below), which Toryo’s twin brother manages.
Yet all of this may not be enough to give Toryo security. Although he’s been making poles for 12 years, many of his family’s biggest customers are scrutinizing his progress closely, looking for signs of whether he can rise to his great uncle’s level of talent. Toryo does plan to take on an apprentice (“Ideally it would be my kid,” he said), but none are on the horizon. His father jokingly asked me if I knew of a nice girl who would be willing to marry into a family of craftsmen with few prospects.
Clearly, these craftsmen aren’t giving up. On my way out, when I mentioned to Toryo’s brother, Shuhei, that another aspiring maker, Tomoki, was my cousin, he asked me to give him a message: “Gambatte,” he said. Hang in there.
If the minimalist approach to fishing appeals to you—or if you’re already a devotee, and would like to explore the world of high-end bamboo fly rods—please see our sidebar to the right, about keeping fishing simple.
To learn more about Japan’s efforts to preserve traditional crafts, visit the Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries.
If you can negotiate a website in Japanese, here is the shop for Tosaku, the country’s longest running family that makes traditional bamboo poles.
And another Tosaku shop run by a relative.
© 2023 Yukari Iwatani Kane. All rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of any part of this article is prohibited by law.