Satsuma Kiriko is a style of cut crystal glassware produced in the Kagoshima region. The production of Satsuma Kiriko was started in 1851 at the factory complex called the Shuseikan which neighboured the stately home and gardens of the Shimadzu clan, Sengan-en. Lord Shimadzu Nariakira had ordered his samurai to create a product to show the cultural and scientific development of his domain. Production began in earnest, and the glassware received high praise, but with the death of Nariakira in 1858, and the destruction of the workshops during the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, production was stopped and the glass blowing and cutting techniques were lost for over 100 years.
Discovering Satsuma Kiriko
In 1985, Shimadzu Limited began research into reproducing Satsuma Kiriko and built a workshop the following year. After intensive research into the original techniques, production was started, and this previously lost craft was brought back for the world to enjoy.
It was around this time that a young programmer called Yamaguchi Noriko first saw the newly created Satsuma Kiriko. Struck by the beauty of the sparkling glass and the gentle gradation between dark colours and clear glass, she immediately wanted to try making glassware herself. Thinking back she says, “When I first encountered Satsuma Kiriko, it was love at first sight. I wanted to become a craftsperson and make such beautiful things myself, so I phoned the glassworks and asked if they were hiring. Unfortunately, they said they weren’t and they didn’t accept mid-career hires. I kind of knew it wouldn’t be that easy to become a craftsperson and I was a bit disappointed, but I didn’t want to give up.”
Rejection by phone wasn’t enough to deter Yamaguchi, so she visited Shimadzu Limited in person. She recalls, “I kept asking and asking but they kept turning me down. I didn’t want to give up, but was beginning to feel Satsuma Kiriko was out of reach. It was hard, but I was still very interested in glass products, so I went to the library and read many books about glassmaking. I decided if I couldn’t do glass cutting, I would try my hand at glass blowing instead.”
The Long Road to Mastery
Yamaguchi travelled all over Japan visiting artisans and glass studios to expand her knowledge. She was eventually told about a glassblowing school in Notojima, Ishikawa prefecture where she could meet other aspiring artisans. Yamaguchi says, “I went to a place called Notojima Glass Studio where you can live in a dormitory for a year and learn glass blowing. I studied there for one year, then I went to a glass studio in Aichi prefecture where I worked for two years blowing glass.”
Yamaguchi couldn’t forget about Satsuma Kiriko and made the decision to return to Kagoshima and pursue her original passion. “The more I got involved in glassmaking, the more I began to wonder why I couldn’t make glass in my hometown of Kagoshima, where we have wonderful glass crafts. I couldn’t work out why I was making glassware in another prefecture, so, I decided to come back home and try approaching Shimadzu Limited again.”
Satsuma Kiriko Acceptance and Apprenticeship
Now with some experience and proof of her dedication, Yamaguchi got in touch with the Shimadzu Satsuma Kiriko Glassworks again. This time she was accepted, nearly 10 years after her initial phone call. It was still to be a long time before she could create the kind of original works she had envisioned as a young programmer, and she would have to work her way through the ranks right from the beginning. She says, “You can’t make glasses and items like that at first. Instead, you have to start with something small like a key fob and work your way up. You have to gradually improve and reach the next level. I actually bought the first keychain I made and still have it with me. It’s like a good luck charm, and I just had to buy it.”
Yamaguchi is now one of the senior craftspeople involved in making Satsuma Kiriko, and has a lot more freedom in making creative decisions. One of her recent projects brought craftspeople into the spotlight. She explains, “Craftspeople essentially make the same kind of item many times over. That’s the kind of work that we have trained for many years to do. Last year was the 35th anniversary of the restoration of Satsuma Kiriko, and I was the project leader. We did a project to introduce the craftsmen, who don’t usually see the limelight. It was very well received and we got great feedback.”
Adapting Tradition to the Future
Yamaguchi now feels the responsibility to uphold the legacy of Satsuma Kiriko for future generations. She says, “Satsuma Kiriko is a traditional craft like and we have to protect it, but I think there are also parts that we have to change. Satsuma Kiriko was created during the reign of Shimadzu Nariakira, and at the time it was highly advanced. We can look back from the present day and see it as traditional. We also have to look forward and think about the challenges we will face in the future. When we look back 50 years from now, 500 years from now, the work we have done today will be part of the tradition.”
Yamaguchi realises that upholding tradition yet keeping it fresh for each successive generation is no small task, saying “We have to take on many challenges in order to realise that vision. With our own personal development and the work, we take on we discover new market demands and uses for Satsuma Kiriko. This is very important. I really want the Satsuma Kiriko I make to be something that enriches your life and your soul a little bit each day. I think Satsuma Kiriko has to be continued, and in fact, it died out once already, so we have to make sure that we pass it on to the next generation.”
Visitors to Sengan-en and the Shoko Shuseikan Museum can see Yamaguchi and other craftspeople at work at the Shimadzu Satsuma Kiriko Glassworks. Finished products are on display in the Iso Kogeikan gallery shop next door and the Sengan-en Brand Shop alongside Satsuma ware pieces.