When Yuki Sakamoto joined Horiguchi Kiriko in 2017 at the age of 18, he was at the time Japan’s youngest Edo Kiriko apprentice. Drawn to “jewels, gems and shiny bright things,” as a kid, Sakamoto was inspired to move from Hokkaido to Tokyo straight after high school to study the decorative art of glass cutting.
First made in Edo, present-day Tokyo, Edo Kiriko began as Japanese artisans’ interpretation of 19th-century European cut glass. To produce luxury tableware more suited to the local market, intricate Japanese patterns were cut into coloured glass, creating a specific Edo style.
Today, Sakamoto is among around 100 Edo Kiriko artisans who still handcraft glassware using a rotary grinding tool to create patterns – both traditional and new. We catch up with him at the Horiguchi Kiriko workshop where he shares his experience as an apprentice and what he’s thinking about now.
This interview has been translated from Japanese. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You became interested in Edo Kiriko at a young age didn’t you?
Yes, I got to know Edo Kiriko in the summer of my junior year in high school. I was watching TV when a special show about Edo Kiriko came on. I had seen the cut glass tableware before, but the program made me realize how really beautiful and cool it was. So I researched more about it and that’s when I decided I wanted to do an internship with Horiguchi Kiriko. I told my high school teacher, who actually helped me contact them.
So you interned with Horiguchi as a high-school kid?
Actually, I ended up interning for a week with Horiguchi Glass, which is where Toru Horiguchi (the head of Horiguchi Kiriko) used to work. I think, because their names are similar, my request was accidentally sent to Horiguchi Glass, which happens to be his relatives' business.
On the last day of my internship, though, Toru just happened to come into the workshop. I think he came in just to deliver something, but the boss of Horiguchi Glass asked him if he could look after me for the day. If Toru hadn’t swung by on that final day, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now.
Wow, that was lucky. What happened during your day with Toru?
It really was a miracle. I told Toru that after a week at Horiguchi Glass, I really wanted to pursue Edo Kiriko. He said to me, “If you are serious about it, come back in a year.” A year later, when I was in my final year of high school, I went back to Tokyo with my parents during summer holidays. I visited Toru and told him I still wanted to work there, and he made the necessary arrangements for me to join Horiguchi Kiriko the following year.
Why did you pick Horiguchi Kiriko over other Edo Kiriko workshops?
I researched a lot of famous Edo Kiriko workshops, but my gut told me that Horiguchi Kiriko was the best for me. What really caught my attention was Horiguchi Kiriko’s “Kurogise Mangeyō Kittatehai” sake cup. I thought it was super cool and I wanted to be someone who could make something like that.
As someone with no background in Edo Kiriko, did you find the apprenticeship particularly challenging?
I remember one thing being quite a challenge — learning the technique for the Yorokejima series of striped glasses. That requires cutting numerous vertical lines into a glass, while gently moving it side to side to create a subtle wavy effect. The minute degrees of adjustment — how much pressure and what angle to push the glass against the rotary cutter – that’s really hard to balance.
How do you learn to master something that requires such fine motor skills?
I had to keep looking at an example Toru gave me, and go back and forth between my own sense of movements and what he showed me. Toru told me to watch his movements, break them down and think about them. If my resulting pattern was different, there had to be something off about the process, and that could have been anything from my stance to the position of the workshop lighting.
That sounds like a difficult way to learn. Was the mentoring strict too?
In the beginning, Toru and my senpai (senior mentor), Senna Misawa, supervised everything. They saw every detail, even trivial ones, with the goal of checking for quality and ensuring there was a high level of aesthetic sense in my work.
So, yeah, it was strict. They would tell me, “This is no good, this is bad,” etc. But I think that having this standard is in line with the spirit of being a true craftsman. And, of course, in order to maintain the quality of Horiguchi Kiriko.
Have you ever made a terrible mistake?
Oh yeah. … I did once. It was while I was working on waridashi, the process of using a pen to mark vertical and horizontal guidelines on an object before cutting. If the pen isn’t positioned properly, then the lines will be incorrect. Even being a fraction off affects the outcome. I screwed that up. You know, if you get that wrong, there’s no saving the glass after cutting.
But if you don’t make mistakes, you can’t really learn from them, right? I’m now supervising someone new to the team and I’m now able to teach her so she won’t make the same mistakes as I did, haha.
Has your view of Japanese craftspeople changed since you first considered becoming one?
When I was in high school, I thought craftspeople were stubborn and obstinate — that you had to learn to do things their way and only their way. But after becoming one myself, I find that I am always asking myself things like “Do I have to use this tool for this particular task?” or “Is there a better way to do this?” So I was wrong, being a craftsperson is about being flexible. In order to make things more beautiful and better, you have to use your wits and be open-minded.
The term “monozukuri” is often oversimplified in English translation to “craftsmanship,” but what does it mean to you?
For me, it is how to resolve the desire to create something beautiful, or the method to achieve this desire. It also involves being recognized by the industry and others for making something beautiful. When people see my work and then ask me to make something — that makes me happy. When my work is recognized, used and enjoyed, I’m happy to have brought a little joy into people’s lives. That’s what I personally think “monozukuri” is about.
But to be recognized, don’t you need to create something unique? Isn’t that hard to do with a traditional craft like Edo Kiriko?
Most of the designs you see in Edo Kiriko reference historical standard forms or patterns. So, however you cut it, the shapes will seem somewhat familiar. That does make it hard to express uniqueness. Working with glass follows the same procedure too: cutting, process, sanding and polishing, so all Edo Kiriko usually ends up with a similar finish. But you can have good ideas for modification.
Senna Misawa’s brand, for example, is quite revolutionary. Unlike most Edo Kiriko pieces, which are completely transparent, her glasses are matte, with a similar texture to pottery. Also, the colours she uses are different from the deep red and blues you usually see.
Do you have any ideas yourself for an original lineup of Edo Kiriko items?
I really like glass in its natural state, I think there’s something special about that. So one thing I’ve been thinking about is creating a brand that’s all clear, non-coloured glass. But sticking to that alone could really limit my range of expression. I need to develop the conviction to just pick something first and go with it. Yeah, I am still thinking about it. ▲