Japan’s dominant producing region

Himeji City, the land of Kuroda Kanbee, an outstanding 16th-century samurai strategist who never lost a battle in the age of warring provincial lords, boasts Himeji Castle―Japan’s first UNESCO-designated World Heritage site as well as one of Japan’s national treasures―which is a popular destination for tourists and history lovers from overseas and Japan. In addition to this beautiful internationally known castle nicknamed the White Heron Castle, it is worth remembering that the region of Himeji and its adjacent Seiban is a land of various indigenous industries that have been cherished and nursed by history and tradition and that have engaged in day-and-night endeavors to capture the hearts and needs of a fast-changing world. Among these industries is the production of Himeji leather. Its origins go back some 2,000 years when immigrants from the Korean Peninsula brought into Harima (the present Hyogo Prefecture) their tanning skills. The production of leather and leather crafts enjoyed remarkable prosperity in the Edo era amid the development of a commodity economy. Today, Himeji City accounts for a large share in the number of companies and value of shipment in the nation’s leather market.

Himeji white leather

It may be said that the tanning of animal skins and hides was for mankind the first industry to utilize chemical reactions in nature. Most probably, the first clothes humans wore were their kills’ hides that were dried and made soft by chewing and kneading. The “fur garment” of natural fibers must have been the best outfit to protect them against the freezing cold of winter. As civilization progressed, tanning techniques also made fantastic progress. The method of producing Himeji white leather, internationally called Japanese white leather, is unique and invaluable from a worldwide perspective in that an industry skill has been passed on for so many generations. Today’s Japanese leather industry owes a great deal to the history of Himeji white leather.

It was in the 10th century that the name of Harima, an old designation of the present Hyogo Prefecture, appeared in the Japanese historical archives as one of the nation’s main leather production sites. The book was Engishiki, an official book of law enforcement ordinance, submitted to the Imperial Court in 927. Already in these days was valuable leather used for tools of rituals and ceremonies. It came to be used for various purposes such as saddles, harnesses, armor, footwear, boxes for precious items, carpets, clothes, belts, swords and bows, strings, decorations, bellows, and so forth. The technique of tanning is regarded as being brought into Harima from the Korean Peninsula about 2,000 years ago by immigrating artisans.

As many samurais competed to obtain Harima’s leather made by adept artisans, its high quality was well established and famed. The main production region of leather was today’s Himeji and adjacent areas. In Himeji, Takagi Village was said to produce the best Himeji white leather. Artisans soaked cattle hides in the Ichikawa River and depilated hair by the action of bacterial enzymes developing at the animal hair root. They used salt and rapeseed to knead the hides, exposed them to the sunshine, and finally placed finishing touches on them to give them the color of light opaque white.

When the skill of tanning was still under development, the quality of leather was greatly contingent on the natural conditions of the production site. The Ichikawa River in Takagi Village, located 10 kilometers (six miles) upstream, had a mild stream and a wide riverhead, both of which were suited to tanning hides. Under the typical climate of the Seto Inland Sea area, it was warm and did not rain much in the village. It was best suited for exposing hides to the sun. It was easy for the village to be supplied with the salt necessary to preserve and process the hides. Moreover, it was easy to obtain cattle hides since a huge number of cattle were fed in western Japan. In terms of sales channels, Himeji was close to the big consumption centers of Osaka and Kyoto.

High-level skill

The skill needed to produce Himeji white leather seems to have been perfected in the mid-Edo era (1603-1867). However, even before that, its high quality was well known and many related stories passed into legend. In the fall of 1580, years before Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified Japan with the help of samurai strategists like Kuroda Kanbee, he inspected the harvest in Takagi Village, a former territory of Kanbee, during a military drill. An old woman came up to Hideyoshi and made him a present of a sheet of leather. It was so splendid that the happy Hideyoshi rewarded her with a well that he ordered his men to dig. The well never failed to provide water to the villagers even during drought seasons.

In the days of samurais, leather was invaluable in terms of procuring armories and war-related tools and outfits. In fact, when Kanbee’s first son, Kuroda Nagamasa, was awarded with the land of Chikuzen (the present Fukuoka Prefecture) by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the 260-year rule of the TokugawaShogunate, he set up a village called Takagi in his new territory and invited leather artisans from Himeji. Artisans of Himeji with high skills were very popular and many were invited to live in Kaga (the present Ishikawa Prefecture), Ise (the present Mie Prefecture), etc. It was testimony to the fact that feudal lords of various domains wanted to keep able leather artisans.

According to Leather Industry and Trade published in 1959, Himeji white leather and leather crafts became a commodity in high demand and sold nationwide by merchants of not only Himeji but Osaka, Edo (the present Tokyo), Owari (the present Nagoya), etc., too. Division of labor already existed according to region. Himeji white leather was in high demand as a raw material of leather crafts. It had its own markets nationwide and was delivered to craft artisans in various parts of the country. At the same time, in the central castle town of Himeji, too, many were engaged in producing leather crafts such as boxes, cases, armory, and harnesses. A certain leather craft merchant delivered these commodities to more than ten feudal lords outside of Himeji.

History of saving the Himeji domain from bankruptcy

As a commodity economy advanced in the Edo era, many feudal domains came to suffer from financial crisis under the hereditary lords. The Himeji domain was no exception. The deficit kept climbing with accumulated interest to be paid to big merchants. It amounted to an astronomical 44 billion yen in today’s value. The lord of the Himeji domain ordered Kawai Sunno from the hereditary minister family to save the domain from the disastrous situation. The challenges he faced started in 1808.

Sunno steadily displayed his financial competence. In addition to the routine issuance of the thrift ordinances of the days, he embarked on a variety of economic stimulus policies to promote local industries including agriculture, manufacturing, and commerce together with logistics. The leather industry on the verge of prosperity was destined to serve as a new financial source.

In 1820, Sunno decided to protect the local leather industry at the request of 21 local leather craftsmen and prohibited sales of products made outside the Himeji domain. A leather exchange was established in the center of the castle town to give a guarantee seal to each piece of local craft for sale. In 1824, another leather exchange was founded in Takagi Village, the center of hide tanning, to issue a guarantee seal to each sheet of leather. By issuing these seals to guarantee the quality of Himeji white leather and Himeji’s leather crafts, the feudal authorities taxed each seal. The leather industry of tannage and leather crafts was successfully incorporated into the feudal state-protected monopoly.

The thriving industry gave birth to a leather tycoon in Takagi Village. His name was Kyudayu. Owning some 15 hectares of arable lands, 63 percent of the village’s total, he was said to be capable of visiting adjacent villages without passing others’ land. Living in a castle-like mansion and called Mister or Boss, Kyudayu took command of all channels of the leather business. He was supplied with cattle hides by merchants in Osaka. Receiving them at a nearby port village, he transshipped them to a small boat up to the Ichikawa River and allotted them to villagers for tanning. All the sheets of leather were brought into the leather exchange in the village to receive the authority’s guarantee seals. He then shipped them to wholesalers in Osaka for sales in and distribution to other feudal domains and big towns.

It took 27 years, but Sunno managed to bail out the Himeji domain by paying back all the astronomical debts. The prosperity of local industries including the leather business contributed a lot, of course.

Himeji white leather processing is a technique of which Japan is proud from an international perspective. It prospered until the end of the Edo era. After the ensuing Meiji era, the westernization of life and low productivity gave way to the promulgation of more time- and labor-saving vegetable tannin tannage and chrome tannage. Especially after the end of World War II in 1945, chrome tannage prevailed in the Takagi area.

Yet the leather industry marked a spectacular prosperity between 1951 and 1963. The 1970s saw the rationalization of management and modernization of equipment. Today, major production sites extend to Himeji City, Tatsuno City, Taishi Town, etc. In terms of the number of companies and value of shipments, the Hyogo prefectural region accounts for more than half of the national total.

Leather, Himeji’s traditional craft

Production and sales of leather crafts prospered in both the castle town and the countryside of Himeji. When the feudal lords of western Japan paid a biennial visit to Edo (the present Tokyo) to have an audience with the Tokugawa shogun, they first sailed to the port town of Murotsu near Himeji to start their opulent overland procession. On landing at Murotsu, accompanying samurais and maids bought a variety of souvenirs like tobacco cases, footwear protection, etc. made of Himeji white leather. Many stores stood along the procession roads. They also sold their commodities to Osaka, Owari, and Edo. Himeji’s leather crafts were very famous and in persistent demand.

The enduring popularity of Himeji’s leather crafts may be attributed to the decoration techniques. When the surface of leather was decorated with various pictures and motifs, a three-dimensional decoration was often mounted and supported. The artisan used a woodcut to carve patterns. On top of it, he placed leather moistened with liquid containing sea algae particles and stepped on it with his heel to emboss the pattern. This traditional method is no longer employed but, in certain cases, a woodcut is used together with a press machine. Metal molds began to be used before the mid-1920s, but they were too costly to be popular until around 1960.

Another method of printing leather with patterns was to use a hot poker, incising lines or surfaces. A hot poker traced the design paper placed on the leather. This method was often used to make leather boxes. When patterns were printed, gold leaf was attached with Japanese lacquer. Color was also given. For other parts than patterns, where color was already provided, the artisan stippled Japanese lacquer on breaks or wrinkled parts using rounded cotton balls. This method is not used for mass production, of course. The brush for Japanese lacquer has been given newly developed functions and new patterns have been created. But, basically, the traditional skills have been inherited. This method is employed for boxes, Japanese fan cases, frames for the family emblem, glasses cases, key rings, and so forth. Himeji’s leather crafts are now designated as traditional crafts by the Hyogo Prefectural Government.