Sitting down with master brush maker Yusui Teragauchi

Kumano produces over 10 million brushes a year, from the mass-produced to those of the highest quality which are crafted by officially recognised traditional master craftsmen known as dentou-kougei-shi, fourteen of whom are based in Kumano.

Teraguchi Yusui is one of two kougei-shi that work at Koyudo in Kumano. We meet him in his workshop located in the building where Koyudo’s calligraphy brushes are made. A native of Kumano, the soft spoken Teraguchi actually started his working life as an electrical engineer, but, at the age of 24, he was invited by his uncle and company founder, Fujimori Uematsu, to start working on brushes. Teraguchi says that he learnt in the traditional shokunin (craftsman) style, by sitting next to his boss, quietly observing everything he did and then trying to emulate it. Teragauchi worked in this way, from morning until late at night, day after day, honing his skills and gaining an intimate knowledge of his materials and tools.

It has been 39 years since his uncle set Teragauchi on this path and 11 years since he was certified as a dentou-kougei-shi. These days he focuses on specialist orders while staff on a separate floor work on their own specialized parts of the process to produce the bulk of the company’s calligraphy brushes. This division of the labor allows Kumano’s brush companies to train staff relatively quickly. It also serves to protect proprietary manufacturing methods in the event of staff moving between companies, as only a select few, like Teragauchi, have mastery of the entire process.

Teragauchi says that the creation of one of his brushes requires an incredible 98 separate steps, all which need to be perfected to create a brush worthy of a great calligraphy teacher or artist. As he talks, he shows us how he transforms flattened clumps of hair of various types and lengths into the shape of a brush head, before tying it off and sealing with a hot iron.

Asked about the abilities needed to become a top brushmaker, Teragauchi nonchalantly says that once you learn the basics, anyone can master all the steps with practice. What makes the difference, however, is the ability to read the different kinds of hair that only comes with years of experience, he says. That, and whether you are willing to say, “That’s good enough,” or if you are driven to achieve ever better results.

Looking back, Teragauchi says he was fortunate to learn his craft when he did. Before the Japanese economic bubble burst in the early nineties, he could challenge himself to make just about any kind of brush he wished and there would always be a buyer. These days, he works to order rather than from creative inspiration. High quality raw animal hair is increasingly difficult to source and costly material and brushmakers can actually find themselves losing money, or, even worse, without a buyer at all.

Part of his role as a dentou-kougei-shi is to spread knowledge of his craft and Teragauchi takes part in workshops aimed at all ages. It is rare, however, he says, to come across people who are interested in pursuing a career in brush making. Although kougei-shi are generally well-respected, it is not a particularly lucrative trade and, he says with a sense of resignation, that there seems to be little appetite among younger generations to take this path.

As is the case with many of Kumano’s brush manufacturers, much of Koyudo’s business is in make up rather than calligraphy brushes. Teragauchi recalls a time when he spent much of his time, applying the skills and knowledge he had acquired from making calligraphy brushes to create some of the world’s softest makeup brushes. He gestures around his workshop and says proudly, without all this we wouldn’t be where we are today.


The undisputed brush capital of Japan | Master brush maker Yusui Teragauchi | Koyudo, brighter than the sun

Paul Walsh

Paul arrived in Hiroshima "for a few months" back in 1996. He is the co-founder of and loves running in the mountains.