Today, we'd like to introduce you to the Tazen crafters, whose stories have left a lasting impression on us at Oshinsha and also inspired us to get involved in Japanese handicrafts in the first place. The lineup consists of Tazen's founder Zenzo Tanaka, his 19th successor and copper craftsman Zen-san and his apprentice Taku Sakurai.
The Story Behind Zenzo Tanaka
Tazen’s story begins in Tanaka, Osaka, where founder Zenzo was born and lived over 400 years ago. As one of the leaders of Momoyama culture and copper "okazari" expert ("okazari" refers to the metal working technique known as "chasing" of copper items generally destined as offerings for Buddha or Shinto deities), he was personally recruited by Momoyama culture enthusiast Masamune Date himself. Impressed by Zenzo's coppersmith expertise, the lord convinced Zenzo to leave Osaka behind, take up residence in Iwadeyama to aid in the construction of Aoba Castle, and subsequently work for the Date clan. From that moment forward, he was granted the last name Tanaka and became known as Tazen, a mixture of his last (Tanaka) and first (Zenzo) names (all non-samurai were forbidden from bearing surnames starting from 1587, a decree by Toyotomi Hideyoshi that was only abolished during the Meiji restoration in 1875). It was also decided that the name "Zenzo" would be passed down and inherited by every generation, a practice known in Japanese a "shumei". At the time, this practice was believed to pass on Tazen's good reputation to the next generation. However, in the latter half of the Meiji period, it was abolished and in its place, the first character "Zen" (善 “good”) was added to the beginning of the names for all male births, a practice which is still in effect today. From Zenzo's copper expertise, the family business of his namesake was born and has been passed down his lineage for 18 generations.
The Story Behind Zen Tanaka
With 20 years of experience as a copper craftsman, Zen-san will be Tazen's 19th generation successor and is the current vice president of the company. At the young age of 15, Zen-san dropped out of high school after just 7 days of attendance. Wanting to pursue a way of life that is more in alignment with what it means to be a human being, he embarked on the journey of making the copper craft his career and became the apprentice to his grandfather's top craftsman. Zen-san often speaks of his grandfather and how he was a brilliant hard-working craftsman. His father, on the other hand, was never involved in the copper-making process. Instead, he handled the business side of the company as the current president.
Looking for the ideal location to set up his workshop, Zen-san ended up reviving copper opperations in the land where his forefathers did business, Yanagimachi (now Ichibancho 1-chome, Aoba-ku, Sendai, which also happens to be right next to our office). Zen-san strongly believes in the copper's conductive properties, not only in the physical sense, but in an abstract sense as well. While copper is a widely known conductor of heat and electricity, for Zen-san it is its ability to convey information and serve as a vector of communication that intrigues him the most. For instance, the items used for Shinto rituals have often been made of copper, serving as a medium to communicate with the gods. Likewise, Zen-san believes that the essence of copper is this extraordinary ability of "conduction", the power to convey in both tangible and intangible ways. We have never forgotten these words and it has become our motto as we believe it is extendable to all handicrafts.
As the company's 19th successor, he will eventually inherit the family business, which also implies promoting their copper brand. For Tazen, this "branding" follows their family motto of "Merchant-Crafter". Since copper is a metal that is very much a part of the daily lives of so many people, craftspeople must remember not to get consumed by their work at the risk of neglecting their merchant spirit. According to Zen-san, these are not only his grandfathers words, but also his parting words and wishes for Tazen. Being too absorbed in the creative process alone can lead to loosing sight of the important role their merchant side fulfills: observing people, how they live their lives and identifying what their needs are by actively listening to them. Without this important element, the reason for getting into the craft in the first place is lost. Through the reestablishing of the artisan-merchant spirit, the problems of today's current division of labor and alienation of consumers from their products can be tackled, and meaningful relationships can be born.
Finally, Zen-san also believe hat his responsibilities as the next successor go beyond the family motto, and extend to the protection, cherishing and revitalization of copper, the essence of Tazen. Passing on the copper traditions and techniques along with the value of the material itself to the next generations is therefore, of great importance to Zen-san. To this end, he started keeping an eye out for the best apprentice, a process which took 10 years before leading to his fated encounter with Sakurai-san.
The Story Behind Taku Sakurai
Mr. Sakurai is a graduate of the Tohoku University of Art & Design and has been a Tazen employee since 2020. His first experience with copper was in high school and fundamentally changed his preconceived ideas around metallurgy in general. His first impressions of it being cold and scary were flipped upside down when discovering metal sculptures with human and animal motifs. He was completely taken aback by the wide range of expressions metal crafts can take and from that moment on, becoming a metal craftsman became his mission. Even today he affirms creating his works by getting inspired by beautiful landscapes, plants and clouds.
After university, Sakurai-san interned at a handicraft company in Kyoto whose business is rooted in the local people and contributes to the community through its products. His deep desire to contribute to the local economy through his works inspired him to search for work in his home town in Miyagi Prefecture, and ultimately led him to discovering Tazen. As a company that has been around since the founding of Sendai and has always operated by considering the needs of the community first, Sakurai-san was eager to learn more. Just like Zen-san, copper's ability to "convey something to people" really resonated with Sakurai-san and inspired him to work with this material specifically. In his words: "The work that I create is for the purpose of communicating with others."
Currently entering his 2nd year of apprenticeship, he has enjoyed being exposed to new things, such as surprising products based on the current season or social trends and especially toilet designs of the likes he'd never seen before! Over his 3 year apprenticeship, he is looking forward to experiencing the work from all of Tazen's departments: the product department for marketing knowledge, the technology department for the acquisition of the traditional skills and techniques of Sendai's copper craft, and the sales department where he can experience first hand the reactions and feedback from customers. He is so motivated to learn that he arrives to work an hour earlier than he needs. He actively tries to pay attention to his surroundings as a whole and tries find ways to make it easier to work. Most importantly, he's determined to keep his eyes and ears open in preparation for any task that may be asked of him at any time. He is definitely on his way to becoming a skilled artisan-merchant.