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Fukui: craftsmanship and beyond

Jan. 19, 2018

Fukui Prefecture lies on the main Japanese island of Honshu, facing the Sea of Japan. There are many places in Japan that are famous for traditional crafts, and Fukui is no exception. This feature looks at crafts made by local people, including new products that are gaining attention around the world because they combine traditional techniques and progressive ideas.

Fukui prefecture is blessed with a breathtaking coastline and rich fishing grounds. It is home to archaeological ruins and historic buildings.

It has long been renowned for craftsmanship. Washi, or Japanese paper, lacquerware, and other traditional crafts continue to captivate people from around the world. Fukui prefecture is where tradition meets innovation.

The Fukui tourist office’s catch phrase is "Zen," because the prefecture has many Buddhist temples. Cathy Cat has a report from a famous temple.

Daianzen-ji Temple was founded 350 years ago. It is an important historic site because the building is an outstanding example of the work of miyadaiku, or shrine and temple carpenters, and it is very well-preserved.

You can see their skill in the detailed wooden decorations around the doors and around the roof. One specific trait is carving and polishing the trunk of a 1000-year-old tree down to its core layer, creating sturdy and long lasting material for the building.

Fukui Prefecture has a rich local cultural tradition. The region is now getting international attention for its always evolving craftsmanship, and some businesses that are exploring new possibilities in traditional crafts.

Fukui Prefecture in winter is known to be covered white with snow. But one company is gathering attention with the opposite color.

The black textile produced at their factory is known for its depth of color.

A well-cultivated dyeing technique, developed over many years, has enabled the company to create a textile in black that doesn't fade.

It is called, "Blackest black ", and countries in the Middle East have been importing it for the past 60 years.

The company continues to claim a major share of the Middle East market, more than any other of its Japanese rivals. Black textiles are used in Saudi Arabia to make women's wear known as Abaya.

While working in the Middle East as a correspondent, Newsroom Tokyo anchor Hideki Nakayama reported on the local popularity of this company's product.

But other Asian rivals, China and Indonesia, are catching up. So the company is embarking on a new strategy to design and sell its own high-end Abaya.

"Our scope is not limited to the Middle East; we are also considering Southeast Asia," says Shinya Ataka, a project manager from the company. But we have to add value. I know we can't accomplish everything at once, but I hope we can expand our market."

Quality dyeing is not the only craft in demand from Fukui. Artisans in this town have been producing Japanese washi paper for 1,500 years.

It is the only place in Japan where a goddess of paper is enshrined. Traditional crafts of Echizen-Washi have transformed into new forms over time and are attracting attention from abroad.

One local businessman is preparing a showroom displaying Echizen-washi, the traditional paper made in this area. Yoshinao Sugihara is a wholesaler of washi products. With strong sales overseas, he is demonstrating new ways of using washi in interior design and display.

"In the US, we're getting orders primarily from the cities of New York and Los Angeles," he says. "This order from Italy will use washi in architecture."

Objects made of washi adorn some of the world's most famous shops and restaurants. Designers overseas are enthralled with the soft resilience of washi, which has been known to last for a thousand years.

Kazuya Osada is one of craftsmen making washi. He is developing traditional washi methods to make products with an avant-garde style.

"Washi is a basic element in almost everything we make," he says. "We must cherish these techniques and take care to preserve them."

Fukui's traditional crafts continue to evolve into new forms for use on the world stage.

Innovations based on traditional craftsmanship are getting attention from foreign buyers. But this is in part due to competition from overseas products. Sales of traditional crafts produced in Fukui have fallen by more than 60 percent in the last 20 years. That is because people don't see them as practical, and because of competition from cheaper imported products. The washi business is just one example.

Mr. Osada specializes in making traditional sliding doors called "fusuma". But demand has fallen drastically as more Japanese people now live in Western-style houses. So Mr. Osada decided to start working on new washi projects. His elegant designs are based on drawings used in traditional fusuma.

Another problem is that fewer young people are interested in becoming craftspeople. In the last 20 years, the number of artisans in Fukui has fallen by 40 percent.

A city known for craftsmanship is tackling these challenges, and people there are getting some help from technology. NHK World's Yosuke Takanashi explores this innovative approach.

The city of Sabae is a center of traditional manufacturing. But it is also looking to the future, finding innovative ways to use IT technology.

Lacquerware is one of the traditional industries that Sabae is updating.

The craftsmen making it are a dying breed. 65 years ago, there were around 120. Today, there are only about 10. If a company orders a prototype, it can take several months.

The city has teamed up with a graduate school in Tokyo to streamline the process, and now computers are used to make a detailed design. Then, a 3D printer outputs the prototype. It costs only about 3 dollars, a tenth of the cost of a wooden prototype. Even better, it takes only about 10 hours, so prototypes can be delivered promptly.

Yuta Akutsu has been studying how to make prototypes through 3D printing technology for half a year.

"Anyone who’s used a computer will be able to learn to use the technology quickly," he says. "And it has lots of features."

The 3D printed prototype is painted with lacquer, so it looks like an actual product.

Akutsu hopes that the technology will make it possible to produce a lot more attractive lacquerware.

“I always have an image in my head when I design something. But sometimes the finished product differs from what I imagine," he says. "Using this technology, I immediately make small adjustments, which means I make many prototypes.”

Sabae has turned to technology to help with another pressing concern: how to administrate the city more efficiently.

"With limited resources and people, there’s no way we can respond to residents’ needs, which continue to diversify and grow more complex," says Hyakuo Makino, the mayor of Sabae. "In the IT era, AI and robots are coming. That's where we'll focus our attention for survival."

The efforts include the development of apps related to city government. For example, there’s an app that locates fire hydrants, so firefighters can find them even if they are hidden under snow.

There’s also a library app. The user enters the title of a book and instantly finds its location among the 150,000 books in stock.

So far, more than 200 apps have been developed. It started when the city released data in a format compatible with app development. That impressed a number of domestic and international companies, which offered support.

For example, many of the computers at the lacquerware production base were donated by a global IT company.

Eyeglasses are another major industry in Sabae. A global IT giant asked a company that produces eyeglass frames to develop one for smart glasses.

The base is securely attached using a unique method developed by the company. The glasses can be connected with another device that allows a smartphone display to appear on the smart screen. It can also show aerial video taken by a drone.

"This city has really embraced technology," says Kazumi Komatsubara, the president of the eyeglass frame company. "We have the backing of the city itself, which creates a sense of trustworthiness."

The market for smart glasses is projected to grow 120-fold. They will mostly be used in industries such as healthcare and distribution.

The city's bold efforts are helping revitalize its local economy, and are allowing designers to go on creating new products.

Newsroom Tokyo anchors Aki Shibuya and Hideki Nakayama interviewed Taisuke Fukuno, who manages an IT company in the city of Sabae and advises the city government on its IT development. Watch the video for their discussion.

Fukui also has close ties with another industry: nuclear power. Decommissioning ageing nuclear plants is a challenge for Fukui, as well as other parts of Japan and places around the world.

Fukui has 15 nuclear plants, which is more than any other prefecture. Some are set to be scrapped. It is a daunting task, so a team of engineers is working with companies in Fukui on technology to make it manageable.

Together, they have developed a device that could even help out at a stricken nuclear plant in another prefecture, Fukushima Daiichi. NHK World's Kazuto Hashiguchi reported on the story.

A laser cuts through steel. Researchers believe that it could even break down nuclear fuel debris from the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi meltdown.

During the disaster, Fukushima Daiichi's cooling system failed, which caused the plant's 3 reactors to melt down. Nuclear fuel is thought to have melted and mixed with reactor parts, creating fuel debris. The operator has been pumping water in to cool the reactors which has submerged the debris.

Removing it has been the toughest part of the decommissioning process. Radiation levels are too high for workers to get inside. Researchers from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency in Tsuruga City developed the laser device. They've been working on it since 2009. But after the Fukushima disaster, they poured even more resources into it.

Toshiharu Muramatsu is spearheading the project.

"Working on Fukushima is our goal, but it’ll probably take years to get there,” he says.

He got help from businesses in Fukui to speed up development.

The researchers have attached the laser to a robotic arm. They also have a container to put the cut off pieces of steel in. It's made of heat and fire-resistant cloth. The laser head and the cloth were made by firms in Fukui. The device cuts the steel by heating it to around 1,500 degrees Celsius.

The researchers plan to equip the device with additional parts. A scanner that will be the laser's eye, a thermometer that checks whether an object has been successfully cut, and a spectrometer that identifies what the object is made of.

These items will help the device remove the debris more efficiently.

The laser even works underwater. They believe it can be used to cut up the submerged fuel debris. The researchers developed this system on their own.

But they still have to make sure the device can withstand the high levels of radiation.

"When developing new technology, you can’t just buy products off the shelf," says Muramatsu. "So we got the local industry involved at the research and development stage, which is actually more efficient." The researchers hope the device will play a key role in decommissioning nuclear plants throughout Japan. And collaboration with Fukui businesses could make it possible.

Professor Satoshi Yanagihara is a specialist in decommissioning engineering at the University of Fukui. He spoke with Newsroom Tokyo anchor Hideki Nakayama about the decommissioning efforts. Watch the video for their discussion.