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Posts Tagged ‘maeda koin’

Since the fire at Shuri castle / palace / gusuku this past October, I have been reading a lot about the site; about the process leading up to its postwar restoration in 1992; about the events that have been held there since 1992, including the revivals and reenactments of various forms of court ceremonies and entertainments; and about the meaning, significance, and character of the site for people before and after the tragic October 31, 2019 fire.

The royal throne, imperial plaques (扁額), and decorated pillars produced by Maeda, or under his instruction, in the upper throne room (大庫理, ufugui) of the restored royal palace at Shuri. All lost in the 2019 fire. Photo my own, Sept 2016.

In the process, I have enjoyed learning about some of the people who played a prominent role in these processes. Outside of the field of Okinawan art, I would imagine Maeda Kōin 前田孝允 isn’t a name very many people are familiar with, at all; probably not even within Okinawa, except among those within particular circles. But Maeda was perhaps the leading lacquerware master involved in the restoration work, creating reproductions of the ornate red-lacquered, gilded royal throne (with mother-of-pearl inlay); red-lacquered and gilded plaques which hung over the throne, bearing the calligraphy of Qing emperors, as well as plaques hanging over many of the castle’s gates; and the decoration of the pillars framing the throne, encircled with multicolored and gilded dragons; among many other objects.

Maeda Kōin 前田孝允 was born in 1936 in the village of Ôgimi, in the Yanbaru/Kunigami area of Okinawa Island. A small village near the northern end of the island, Ôgimi is today home to just over 3,000 people, and is famous for its shikuwasa (a fruit related to the lime), its kijumunaa (local spirits somewhat akin to leprechauns or menehune), and perhaps the highest life expectancy in the world, with a considerable number of residents over one hundred years old.

Above: Maeda on Oct 31, 2019. Image from the Okinawa Times.

Maeda would have been 14 when the University of the Ryukyus was established, in 1950, right atop the ruins of Shuri castle (destroyed in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, along with much of the rest of the island). He later attended that university and graduated with a degree from the fine arts section (美術工芸科). His teacher Adaniya Masayoshi 安谷屋正義 (recognized now if not back then as one of the *giants* in early postwar Okinawan painting) then introduced him to a job as a designer in a lacquerware company. Five years later, he showed his works for the first time in a large lacquerwares exhibition, and reportedly made a big impact. In 1968, he opened his own workshop, the Maeda Shikki Atorie 前田漆器アトリエ (Maeda Lacquerwares Atelier).

At some point, he was later designated by the prefecture a “holder of Intangible Cultural Heritage” 県指定無形文化財保持者 – a title granted to those who are exceptional masters of particular traditional cultural techniques, skills, and knowledge. He also came to serve as an advisor to the prefecture on matters of traditional arts, and taught courses as a lecturer at both the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts 沖縄県立芸術大学 (Okinawa geidai) and Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidai). It is difficult, he has said, however, to maintain and pass down a tradition of the most expertly refined skills, and of producing the highest-quality works, when popular conception is of your works as “souvenirs.” From the 1950s or so onward (if not in the prewar period as well), Ryukyuan lacquerwares began with increasing rapidity to be produced ever more cheaply, and ever increasingly with styles or motifs catering to a tourist or export market. Americans, as well as Japanese tourists and tourists from elsewhere in East Asia, wanted lacquerwares they could buy as affordable and stereotypically “tropical” or “Okinawan” souvenirs. As many lacquerware makers began to regularly cut corners and to use new techniques to save money, thus producing works they could afford to sell for less, the traditional techniques of how to produce the finest objects began to be lost; Maeda worked to revive that tradition by studying in mainland Japan and bringing such techniques, knowledge, and skill back to Okinawa – such as the skill to select the best part of the turbo shell, and to slice it as thinly as 0.07 mm, to produce the most delicately colorful and iridescent mother-of-pearl inlay.

When he was in his 50s (in the 1980s), he proposed to his partner by saying “let us rebuild Shuri castle together” (一緒に首里城を造ろう),1 which I think is really kind of beautiful, and says something about how engaged and supportive she must have been. Her name is 栄, and I want to be able to talk about her here by name, at the very least, rather than only calling her “his wife.” But I sadly have not yet come across anything which indicates how she pronounces her name. I’ve known some men named 栄, and they pronounced it “Sakae.” Is she Sakae-san? Or is it perhaps Yô-san? Clearly, she deserves profound recognition as well.

The “Shurei no kuni” 守禮之邦 (“Land of Propriety”) plaque hanging over the famous Shureimon near the entrance to Shuri castle is also one of Maeda’s works. Photo my own, Jan 2020.

In a 2013 interview, Maeda said he had discussed with his wife that he would retire at age 90. What will I do when I am 90 and weak? he says he asked her, to which she responded, it’s better to think of that once you turn 90.2

Learning of the fire on Oct 31, 2019 from his hospital bed, Maeda spoke of his hope to leave the hospital soon, after which he would immediately jump back into work reconstructing what was lost. “It’s not over” (「そしたら、すぐにでも復元に飛んでいきたい。まだ、おしまいじゃない」) the Okinawa Times quoted him as saying. His wife Sakae (or Yô?) added, “This is this man’s good point. He can’t help but to keep going.” (「それがこの人のいいところ。また頑張るしかないね」)1

Sadly, Maeda passed away a few month later, on Jan 14, 2020, at the age of 83. He lived to see the destruction of all those priceless lacquerwares in the castle fire, along with many produced in the time of the kingdom, but not to return to his workbench, or to the palace site to share his wisdom, his knowledge, his masterful skill to recreate what has once again been lost. But he will be remembered. If the name Maeda Kōin does not already appear in textbooks, I hope that it will. I most certainly will talk about him if and when I ever get to teach a course on Okinawan art history; Heritage & Tradition; or the like.

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1. 「「まだ、おしまいじゃない」 首里城の玉座制作の漆芸家 落胆の涙を拭い前向く」, Okinawa Times, 1 Nov 2019.
2. 「90歳までは仕事をして、90歳になったら遊ぼうねと、妻と話をしています。足腰も弱る90歳で何をするかと僕が聞くと、妻は『90になった時に考えればいいさぁ』。」“Shitsugei Maeda Kōin-san: Shurijō ni inochi wo fukikonda shitsugei sakka” 漆芸前田孝允:首里城にいのちを吹き込んだ漆芸作家, ”Shuri: Ryūkyū no miyako wo aruku” 首里:琉球の都をあるく, Momoto special issue 別冊モモト, Itoman: Tōyō kikaku (2013/8), 28.

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