Situated in old, downtown Tokyo (formerly, Edo) and nestled between the Sumida and Arakawa rivers, Senju was once an important gateway town for travelers in the Edo period as a post town or shukuba connecting Nihombashi or "the Bridge of Japan" in the capital with the outer provinces. Senju is also often referenced in classic art and literary works, including the haiku poems of Basho Matsuo and the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido woodblock print series of Hokusai Katsushika. Nestled in between Tokyo's two great representative rivers, the location is blessed with a rich water supply comparable to a cove, thus providing the perfect place for craftsmen who require a substantial amount of water to carry out their work sufficiently. As a result, many master artisans once gathered in Senju to then deliver their wares to Edo, in turn bringing great prosperity to the area.
The above, however, is now a mere tale of "days gone by." Like many other places in Japan, Senju has witnessed some dramatic changes to its landscape in the wake of the high-growth period of the Japanese economy in the 50's and 60's. These days, it is surrounded by metropolitan expressways and high-rise condominiums abound. And yet despite the transformation, there remain even today under the neon lights of the city men who stubbornly continue to conserve and maintain the traditions of old beneath a generous pile of fresh wood shavings—a humble factory set on a river bank in Tokyo, where the smell of sawdust still clings to the air. That factory is Tanuma.
You might be led to imagine the soothing slide of a plane in the right hands or the rhythmical tapping of hammers. If you thought craftsmen were a taciturn bunch, however, you would surely be mistaken. In fact, you would be amazed sometimes at the resounding bellows coming from some of the older men here. "Still haven't kicked the bucket? Hah, if I go first I'm dragging you along with me!" These master craftsmen are quite fond of such jokes and while their way of building rapport might seem rather blunt, their hearts are in the right place. They may be heavy smokers, yell rather than talk, and even devote most of their free time to playing slots down at the pachinko parlor but beyond that, it is easy to appreciate how good our craftsmen are. These guys may not have silver tongues, but they definitely have the golden touch. Give them a design and the full extent of their professionalism is immediately obvious—the most intricate decisions and calculations will already be laid down as if some kind of supercomputer has been set off inside their heads.
Landscape art of Senju at the time (from Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido)
View from the Tanuma rooftop (The view of the Sumida River Fireworks Festival from here can't be beat!)
Mr. Hirakawa—loud mouth, golden touch
Difficulties reconciling old and new! Hear each other out and treat each other with respect.
Working together unites us in mind and purpose.
"kansei – Japan Design Exhibition" held in NYC
Loud mouth, golden touch. However, with the market for cheap, imported furniture, fewer and fewer people were discovering just how good they were. Gradually, the craftsmen got used to wandering off to the pachinko parlor more often. It was then that they met a designer by the name of Tsuneyuki Fujioka, whose grandfather was actually the company's founder. Fujioka had been pondering the potential of bamboo, an eco-friendly super-material believed since ancient times to possess strong antibacterial properties and that is capable of regeneration within a three-year period, but that had conversely been ignored as unprofitable and having limited versatility. "Why don't we create a new product using bamboo?" he proposed. The craftsmen all opposed this idea as bamboo is very difficult to work with. It takes three times as long to process than more conventional timbers. When shaving bamboo with a plane, the timber breaks off into sharp splinters causing injury to fingers and nails. During the rainy season, it shrinks in the damp and unless sufficiently dried out, cracks easily on a fine weather's day. What is more, bamboo timber is so hard that even a master craftsman's most prized plane, tried and true for over forty years, would crack under the pressure. In short, bamboo was a venerable pain in the neck. Without first gaining cooperation from the craftsmen, however, Fujioka's dream would not come true. The designer made countless attempts at trying to persuade the craftsmen to come around to his idea, to convince them of the benefits of bamboo. "Why use bamboo instead of regular timber? Our children's generation will be dealing with some major environmental issues—this is a huge problem in society. It's important now that we set up some sort of foundation for this. For us living here in our so-called 'disposable culture,' it's the very least we can do." Having said this, the designer humbly sat down beside the craftsmen in a show of deep sincerity and the two parties then set to work together, side by side. Finally, in May of 2007, the designer and the craftsmen found the big break they had been waiting for at last. A "Global Green Project" exhibition was being held at the Isetan department store in Shinjuku. This time, Fujioka's products had been selected under the Project's "cherishing the bond between parent and child" theme—a bond the designer himself shared with his own children and the craftsmen with their grandchildren. This was the moment when the designer and the craftsmen were finally on the same page, united as one in mind and purpose.
And so it began, with products created together through the sharing of a common affinity—the tender, loving care of the craftsmen for their grandchildren and the designer for his children—with an added hope for the children of the future. A year after the success of their first sale, that affinity has gone on to strike a chord with moms and dads in countries as far away from Japan as France and Italy. Their enthusiasm for their work has also hit home in the hearts of moms and dads in countries ranging from the United States and Canada to Hong Kong, Thailand and Lebanon.
Pooling their knowledge, the craftsmen began to look for ways to prevent the bamboo from splitting. They introduced diamond blades and dryers for drying out the timber during the rainy season. Despite their efforts, however, the bamboo still causes splinters and other injuries to their hands and nails today and remains capricious throughout the rainy season. But regardless of the difficulties of working with bamboo, the craftsmen are steadfast in their new resolve. Once so opposed to the idea of working with bamboo timber, they now assert there are "far too few of us in the trade right now to properly give voice to the enthusiasm we have for superior bamboo craftsmanship."
Currently celebrating its 64th anniversary, Tanuma is one of only a handful of custom furniture makers still in Tokyo. In the period following the war, three survivors, all master furniture makers, got together amid the devastation that was post-war Tokyo to establish a furniture workshop on the banks of the Sumida River. Since then, Tanuma has been a consistent producer of furniture, including items used at the prime minister’s official residence and custom-made items for the National Diet Building and the studies of various government ministers who served during Japan’s high economic growth period.
Trees are being depleted at an alarming rate. As furniture-makers who have been in the business for over half a century, our livelihood has also profited from the environmental destruction that is deforestation. While we take pride in having brought comfort and luxury into the homes and offices of many through our furniture making, we also believe that companies must act as responsible members of society. If a company cannot make the necessary contributions required by the society to which it belongs in the present, that company will not survive in future in the long term. Through addressing environmental issues responsibly in an active and positive manner, we hope to continue to serve our customers in our chosen capacity as furniture makers, while also making a worthy contribution to society on the whole, as a company that takes its role as a member of society with both pride and integrity.