A perfection of the fishing pole
The quarry is the fish known as tanago:
As you can see, in this type of fishing brute strength is beside the point: this is not a marlin or evena trout or bass. This is fishing stripped to its essentials: a hook, a pole, a fisherman, and the fish. And the poles follow the same severe (but beautiful) simplicity, as described in Craftsmanship magazine by Yukari Iwatani Kane:
Some years ago, my cousin in Japan, a modest man with a passion for fishing named Tomoki Koharu, told me that he was training to become a maker of Japan’s traditional bamboo fishing poles. The market for them was small, and Tomoki said it was impossible to make a living at it, but apparently he had fallen hopelessly in love with this centuries-old tradition.
The poles that had become the target of my cousin’s obsession are called Edo wazao, because the craft originated in Tokyo, known at the time as Edo. The poles are prized for their delicate lacquer finish and collapsible portable form, which allows them to be enjoyed both as an exquisite tool and as a work of art. Today, a small, but avid group of fishermen uses the smallest versions of these poles to fish for tanago, a freshwater species no bigger than a couple of inches. There is no reel, and the line is dropped, not cast. Like most fishing around the world today, this is a catch-and-release sport. In this case, however, the goal is to hook the smallest fish, not the biggest.
Judged simply by performance, a wazao cannot touch the strength, flexibility, and efficiency of a single piece of carbon fiber, which is the material used for most fishing poles and fly rods today. But a wazao possesses a certain integrity. The essence of fishing, of course, is a day spent outdoors—bonding, if you will, with nature. For wazao aficionados, I learned, it only makes sense to use tools that come from nature.
I was proud of my cousin for taking up a noble profession that requires years of training. Having grown up in Japan, I knew of a number of traditional crafts that were struggling for survival. I assumed that my cousin’s interest would be welcomed by the wazao masters because it meant that their craft would survive. His reality, I soon learned, was much more complicated.
“I spent all night thinking about it to no avail,” he wrote on his Facebook page one day, regarding his struggle with a particularly difficult bamboo cutting technique. “I’m going to read a master’s book as I go to bed. #dreamingofbamboo.” In the winters, he uploaded pictures of forests where he went to forage, searching for the perfect stalk of bamboo.
Over time, I learned that he was also plagued with a deep uncertainty and fear. “In a few years, the masters will be gone, and their world will be gone with them,” he wrote at one point. “It’s … frightening to think that I’m pouring my life into a trade that can’t provide a living.”
All over the country, it is widely known that Japan’s famed apprenticeship system has broken down. The reasons are myriad, but the end result is that the old masters can no longer afford to support apprentices. If the wazao industry is an illustration, the masters have now put themselves into a Catch-22: They are unwilling to compromise their craft by modifying traditional training methods; at the same time, they won’t acknowledge the work of younger craftsmen—because they hadn’t trained them.
By this point, the average age of the dozen or so remaining makers who are active in the wazao guild is about 70 years old. Not a single one has an apprentice. In the oldest pole-making family, the son of the last master chose to become a businessman rather than a pole maker. Although the craft has only three craftsmen under the age of 50, including my cousin, only one had been invited into the guild.
All of this struck me as bizarre. Around the world, Japan is synonymous with the idea of craftsmanship in its most hallowed form. And the country’s artisans, as well as their works, have never been more respected than they are today. Yet, here was a craft where its masters didn’t seem to care about the future of their own profession. I decided to return to Japan to find out why. . .
There are quite a few photos, and the article is fascinating.