Perspectives vol.11
Learning through a dialogue with Nakatsu broom artisan Shinji Yoshida

A deeper understanding of the creators
can
expand the possibilities of craftmaking

The Perspectives series follows Sony designers into a wide range of fields,
where they glean new insights from experts and experienced veterans with diverse ways of thinking.
For this edition, communication designer Suzuka Fujita visited Shinji Yoshida—an artisan of Nakatsu brooms,
which emerged during the Meiji Period.
Their conversation opened Fujita’s eyes to the importance of growing the materials
and the broom-making method, which has remained unchanged for decades.
Along the way, she also found out that people used to make wishes on brooms.
Through their dialogue, Fujita discovered new perspectives and possibilities in traditional craftmaking—
and their conversation led to the creation of brooms for children.

Nakatsu brooms: Born in the Meiji Period,
revived in the Heisei Period

Nakatsu broom artisan Shinji Yoshida

Shinji Yoshida lives in Sapporo with his family and dedicates each and every day to making brooms. Having moved to Sapporo from Tokyo in 2017 and now works with his wife, Akane, to run gatangoton, a broom atelier and bookstore. In a corner of the store, Yoshida makes brooms by hand, bundling, weaving, and striking corn shafts with expert care.

Yoshida creates Nakatsu brooms, which are specialties of Nakatsu, Aikawa-machi, a town in northern Kanagawa-ken. The broom-making tradition goes back to the Meiji Period and originator Tsuneemon Yanagawa, who was born in 1822. By around 1945, the Nakatsu broom industry had grown to sell approximately 500,000 brooms a year; the area established a widespread reputation as a major broom-manufacturing center.

When cheap brooms and vacuum cleaners entered the market, however, the Nakatsu broom industry died out. But eventually, in 2003, Naoko Yanagawa—the sixth-generation descendant of Tsuneemon Yanagawa—established Machizukuri Yamajo and revived the art of Nakatsu broom-making. Yoshida met Yanagawa and became an employee at Machizukuri Yamajo after graduating from university.

Breaking free from the old style of craftmaking, where artisans all gathered to work in one place, the members of Machizukuri Yamajo each work separately, living wherever they want. This new style was spurred by Yanagawa's belief that artisans can’t express themselves in their work if they’re not living fulfilling lives.

While the Machizukuri Yamajo artisans making Nakatsu brooms work in different areas of Japan, one of the events that brings them all together is the broomcorn harvest. Since the company is involved in the entire process of broom-making, from creating the materials to manufacturing the products, it grows organic broomcorn in a field measuring almost 10,000 square meters.

The harvest begins in mid-July and lasts about a month. Why are all the artisans on hand for the gathering? Because the process shapes their craft. "Getting personally involved and seeing how the broomcorns are grown in nature makes us value each and every stalk," Yanagawa explains. "We can't allow even one to go to waste."

A field of broomcorn, the material for Nakatsu brooms

Yoshida says you can make brooms wherever you want as long as you have a space of around 2 or 3 square meters and the necessary tools. Crucial to broom making are the processes of growing the material and selecting the stalks, which used to be the job of the head artisan. The stalks are selected by length, thickness, and condition and then bundled together to create the basic core of the broom. At this stage, an artisan can tell—to a certain degree—how good the final product will be.

"Broom-making is like cooking," says Yoshida. "To make a good meal, the rice has to be good. To make a good broom, you need good materials."

Crafting a Nakatsu broom doesn't just mean "making the broom." It all starts with plowing the field and planting the seeds.

The ideal form for using and crafting a Nakatsu broom

Yoshida's brooms are all soft enough that they don't damage the floors, whether the surface is tatami or wood, but the tips are firm enough to make it sweeping corners easy. If the tips start to feel worn down after you've used the broom for a while, a little trimming revives the suppleness, extending the life of the broom for years and years.

In most cases, the handles for long brooms and hand brooms are made of straight bamboo, lightweight and sturdy. The handles of some Nakatsu brooms, though, are made with naturally bent tree branches. Many of Yoshida's brooms, in particular, utilize these twists and bends to create brooms with unique, captivating shapes. It's a "one-of-a-kind" element that natural materials create—and part of what makes the Nakatsu craft so distinctly attractive, unlike mass-produced brooms.

"When you change the way the broom is made or modify its basic shape, you make it harder to use and also harder to make," says Yoshida. "The only parts I customize are the handles and the colors of the threads. Old tools all have long histories; what we have today are the forms that fit their intended purposes. They’ve stood the test of time, so to speak. There's very little that you can really change at this point."

Broom gifts for children as young as three years old

Communication designer Suzuka Fujita

After listening to Yoshida detail his craft, Suzuka Fujita floated an idea: broom gifts for children who are aged three and older.

Fujita said she got the idea after talking to Yoshida and then doing some more research on brooms. "I found out that the world of folkcrafts is full of interesting practices. Some crafts are even used as good-luck charms. For brooms, the act of sweeping was a big part of it. Old traditions say that gently brushing over a pregnant woman’s stomach will ensure a safe birth, for example, and that sweeping can get rid of evil energy in a house."

In addition, she attended a public discussion that Yoshida took part in. "I learned that many children nowadays have never used a broom and don't know how to use one. So I proposed the idea of brooms for young children as a way to pass on unique value to the next generation. Brooms have had deep roots in people's lives for centuries, so they've definitely got staying power. I hope that putting them in little hands will help children get familiar with a traditional tool and develop an aesthetic, emotional sensibility at the same time."

Fujita calculated sizes that would be easy for children to use, factoring in the ratio of the average heights of people in Japan and the heights of regular brooms, which are around 120 to 130 cm tall. She went to Yoshida and proposed 69–75-cm brooms for 3-year-olds and 102–105-cm brooms for 10-year-olds, each with thin, 2.7-cm diameter handles that would be easy for small hands to grip.

A regular-sized broom and the newly designed broom for children

A small picture book and a traditional hand towel covering

Yoshida chose a combination of deep red and pale indigo for the cotton threads to bind the broom corn stalks. Fujita refrained from making specific requests and only proposed using two complementary colors. She only made suggestions for the sizes and colors, essentially leaving everything up to Yoshida, because she didn’t want to hamper Yoshida's creativity. "Naturally, Mr. Yoshida is more knowledgeable about the Nakatsu broom, from its history to its details," she says. "My aim was simply to convey how I see things as a designer and what I've noticed through experience. From those perspectives, I knew that Mr. Yoshida could harness his creativity and expand his horizons beyond his regular craftmaking."

Yoshida appreciated that creative freedom. "Generally, I use natural dyes like plant and indigo dyes to color threads," says Yoshida. "Producing deep colors with natural dyes is difficult, so trying to fulfill an order that specifies 'this exact color' and 'this exact size' is virtually impossible. On this project, though, I could make brooms without deviating from the shapes and colors that I usually use—and they ended up being a lot cuter than I'd imagined they would." He said it felt good to try something new and that he's happy with the results.

To accompany the new brooms for children, Fujita created a small picture book titled The Broom Book. When she heard that many children have never used a broom before at the public talk, she knew she wanted to create something to build a deeper connection with younger audiences. The illustrations in the book show how brooms are used and made. In a fitting artistic touch, she modeled the broom artisan in the book after Yoshida.

The broom also features unique wrapping: the brush is wrapped in a traditional hand towel to enhance its gift appeal. It's a design element that could encourage people to send brooms as gifts—celebrations of their friends' children turning three years old, for example—and also reduces the amount of packaging.

Brooms are wrapped in traditional hand towels

Fujita, as a designer, offered new perspectives to traditional craftmaking and what lies beyond it. Fully embracing the history and essence of craftmaking artistry, the proposal has spawned new discoveries for both Fujita and Yoshida.

<Profile>

Shinji Yoshida
A Nakatsu broom artisan born in 1984,
Yoshida graduated from the Department of Sculpture
in the College of Art and Design at
Musashino Art University in 2007
and joined Machizukuri Yamajo.
He learned Nakatsu broom-making
from Yoshihiro Yanagawa and moved to Sapporo in 2017.

gatangoton
(only in Japanese)

Suzuka Fujita
Designer,
Communication Design Group,
Creative Center,
Sony Corporation.

Editing and layout by AXIS editorial staff

Text by Junya Hirokawa

Please follow the link below for details on how to purchase brooms
for children that embody a Sony Design concept.
(Broom orders take some time to be delivered)
Machizukuri Yamajo
(only in Japanese)