Edo kiriko and the Kobayashi family

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The term for an artisan in Japan is ‘shokunin’; it is heard regularly but never used lightly. At its best, shokuninsan is a title bestowed on those who evidence a complete devotion to their craft. Artisans who make their work the focus of their waking hours. It can indeed mean devoting one’s life to something but as this interview with two Edo kiriko (cut glass) masters confirms, in the more refined spheres of Japanese craftsmanship, some crafts are polished over the course of multiple lifetimes. Expertise born across generations.

Today we speak with the 3rd and 4th generations of the Kobayashi family. A father-and-son who create a style of cut glass synonymous with the refinement that came out of Edo (now Tokyo) approximately 200 years ago.

Third generation Yoshiro Kobayashi cuts glass by hand into intricate patterns. This glass is still in the early stages the process.

Can you briefly describe what Edo kiriko is and how it became a craft of Tokyo?  

(Yoshiro / 3rd generation) 

In the fifth year of the emperor Tenpo’s reign (1834), it is said that a glassblower who lived in the Odenma-cho neighbourhood of Edo (as current-day Tokyo was known until 1868) started drawing patterns on the surface of glasses using aemery stone. This led to a wholesale business that specialised in glass and eyeglasses in the area near Nihombashi (a district that remains well-known even today for its upscale department stores and narrow streets of traditional artisans and restaurants). Kiriko (a term that can be translated as “faceted” due to the intricacy and multi-sided cuts that are made in the glass) originally started in Edo and thus it is called ‘Edo Kiriko’. 

For those who have not seen Edo kiriko up close, can you explain what makes it so special?  

 (Yoshiro / 3rd generation) 

Kiriko artworks are produced only in old towns in Tokyo and pieces of Edo kiriko remain rare. The attraction of Edo Kiriko comes from the intricate cuts on the glasss surface and also from the Japanese workmanship that is evidenced in the finished piece. Simply holding or even examining a piece can bring about great calm.

I believe you and your son are the third and fourth generation craftsmen of the Kobayashi family. How did your grandfather first decide to partake in Edo kiriko?  

(Yoshiro / 3rd generation)

The first generation, Kobayashi Kikuichiro was born in 1896 (the 29th year of the Meiji period). He was originally from a rural area of Gunma (about 100 km from central Tokyo). He was the youngest of nine brothers. When he graduated from primary school at the age of 12, he was apprenticed to Ohashi Tokumatsu (one of the most famous Edo kiriko craftsman of his day).  

Ohashi Tokumatsu learnt the technique of kiriko from Emanuel Hauptman in 1881 (Meiji 14), a British glass-cutting engineer at the Shinagawa Glass Factory and shortly thereafter became famous as skilled craftsman in his own right.  

At age 18, when Kikuichiro was deemed skilful enough, he left the studio to become an independent craftsman and open his own studio. That studio remains today.

How has the business changed from generation to generation?  

(Kouhei / 4th generation) 

Until about 10 years ago, our main business came from the work contracted by a corporate glass maker but that all changed when the glass making division was considered economically unviable and shut down.   

It resulted in a lot of lost work and was a big change for usWe now sell our products independently as Edo Kiriko Kobayashi

This finished Edo kiriko glass shows the beauty of a finished pieces. This glass is very representative of the style of the Kobayashi family and isn’t the more “standard” red and blue that one typically sees.

Do you feel pressure to carry on the traditions of the first and second generation Kobayashi?  

(Kouhei / 4th generation) 

I do feel that pressure. The first generation started the business more than one hundred years ago and it has survived the Great Kanto Earthquake (in 1923) and a World War. As the baton passes from one generation to next, the weight of that baton and the pressure on the successive generation increases. As the fourth-generation representative, I would like to create something relevant and also add artistic value to our craft.

What drives you to achieve such exemplary quality in your work?    

(Yoshiro / 3rd generation) 

This is not something I think about much. I would prefer to let others judge our work. 

How do you maintain such concentration where one small miscalculation will ruin a piece of art? 

(Kouhei / 4th generation) 

With any increase in the volume of work that needs to be done, it becomes inevitably harder to concentrate on a single piece but, perhaps surprisingly, the thing that I find most vital to maintaining the utmost concentration and attention to detail is simply looking after one’s health. If you are tired or hungover or out of shape your concentration will falter.  

Aside from this, it is really important to maintain your motivation towards the job.  

What was the training process like to get to this level of craftsmanship? Do you feel it was taught to you or is it something that simply exists in your family’s DNA? 

(Kouhei / 4th generation) 

It’s not a matter of DNA. I grew up with Edo kiriko. It was always around me and part of the environment I lived in.  

I received very little training from the previous generations. Japanese craftsmen have a saying “senaka wo mite manabe”. Children learn by watching their parent’s every movement and carefully replicating in a system of trial and error. This is the environment in which I grew up and learnt my craft.  

This may sound inefficient, but it ensures that the skill is engrained through a repetitive system of PDCA (plan, do, check, adjust). In the long run, this builds foundations of adaptability and power of thought. 

Is there an aspect of the Japanese concept of ‘kodawari’ that affects your work?

(Kouhei / 4th generation) 

Yes. Our “kodawari” is about the quality of our products. Even someone without knowledge of Edo kiriko will notice a misplaced cut. It is evident by sight and to the touch of the hand.  

Our pieces will outlive us so even if we are making the same product over and over again thousands of times, every single one must be made of uncompromising quality and each cut made with precision. This is our ‘kodawari’.  

These chopstick rests done by 4th generation Kouhei Kobayashi are not a traditional Edo-kiriko motif and shows how the family is trying to make Edo-kiriko more accessible – and affordable – to new buyers.

How would you define the Japanese term ‘shokunin’ (a term given to Japanese crafts-people)? 

(Yoshiro / 3rd generation) 

This is a person who loves what they do. Once a job is started, he or she is immersed completely in their work and in this immersion notices a meagre moment of happiness. That is a shokunin

Have there been many pieces where a mistake has meant that a piece of Edo kiriko was rendered unworthy and had to be destroyed?

(Yoshiro / 3rd generation) 

Absolutely. But I don’t break them recklessly. These repeated mistakes are perhaps better referred to as “effort”. For craftsmen, successive failure is what allows for growth. If you don’t try something you will never know if it is possible. The applications of this are infinite. This is why studying is something that must last one’s entire life.

How is the reception for your work different between Japanese and overseas buyers?  

(Yoshiro / 3rd generation) 

It’s not something that can be easily summed up. The reception amongst Americans, Europeans, and those from Southeast Asia have all been slightly different. 

In my experience, the Europeans have focused on the tradition behind Edo kiriko whereas many from Southeast Asia have an aspirational appreciation for Japanese crafts. Meanwhile, I have been made to feel that the Japanese are not interested in crafts.  

Regardless of nationality, there are those with a strong appreciation of crafts and these individuals have discerning eye. They understand the different levels of sophistication in terms of skill and originality. Perhaps I should have been better at adjusting my work to the demands of the public but, unfortunately, this is not something I’ve been capable of. 

The Mount Fuji motif is often seen on Edo-kiriko glases but this is really quite exceptional and evidence the craftsmanship of top tier artisans such as the Kobayshi family.

Do you feel there is a balance between staying loyal to a traditional craft and also to add your own artistic design?  

(Kouhei / 4th generation) 

This balance invariably differs with each artist. I am often experimenting between tradition and innovation but as each piece has its own expression, this balance is never fixed. My new ideas for pieces are built on a foundation of traditional fundamentals. If I allow these ideas to age and develop into my own personal, unique style, I believe that these can form the basis of a new tradition.  

(Kouhei / 4th generation) 

For me, I am not just looking for new designs in an abstract sense, more tangibly I am endlessly pursuing new possibilities of Edo kiriko as jewellery and smaller goods that haven’t traditionally been made as Edo kiriko 


Interview by Tyler Palma and Yu Mizuno 


Edo kiriko
Edo kiriko is crafted by select workshops in Japan. These red and blue glasses are more typical Edo kiriko pieces and because of the far less intricate patterns, much cheaper than the work of the Kobayashi family whose work is shown above. Photo by Alastair Donnelly.

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