In the same way that every grandparent will tell you that their grandchild is exceptional, every Japanese will tell you the same about their country. With the grandparent you smile benignly and hurry back to reality, but with Japan it is different, as more often than not Japan is truly different.
Riello (2008) consistently highlights the great significance of leather as a material in both the pre-industrial and early industrial world, but also the fact that the supply of leather was mostly influenced by the “national cattle asset and its slaughtering rate.” In the pre-industrial economy, leather was “a scarce material used in the production of a wide range of goods.” Since bovine material provided, and still provides, over two thirds of the world’s leather making material and its most significant segment in terms of functionality he argues that “the production of leather in all pre-industrial economies was confined to the natural world and to a stable cattle asset.”
For the production and use of leather location-based resources such as natural resources, labour skills and technical know-how are required. This involved access to water, to vegetable tanning materials and to hides and skins. In Japan, geography, history, economic, religious and philosophical development made available a mix of resources that were quite different to any other country in the world. Furthermore, this unique mixture also significantly changed the end uses for leather compared to other countries for all but the last fifty years or so of the last two millennia.
For a variety of reasons the history of leather in Japan has not been well documented. Some of this is because matters to do with the slaughter of animals and the processing of leather were restricted to a low caste of untouchables, who historians ignored and would not write about. What is more the Japanese dating system based around the reign of the Emperor often creates confusion as does miscommunication in translation of technical and scientific terms.
Japan is a group of small islands that run the distance of Morocco to Finland, with high mountains and few flat spaces. It is subject to tropical storms, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis. There is very little good grazing land and this tended to be reserved for crops for eating. Most of the suitable land is used for growing rice, which is done in Japan using a quite different technical system from the rest of Asia, most notably not using animals or wheeled vehicles like wheelbarrows at any stage.
Consequently, while Japan had good resources for tannin in the forests and plenty of water it never had a significant cattle population on which to build its leather industry. Also, whereas around the world the leather industry has been noted for large scale destruction of forests – for hemlock in the Adirondacks and the Catskills in the USA, oak in Wales and South West England and mangrove in some parts India and Middle America – to obtain tannin in Japan the danger of landslides meant that forests were not touched in any destructive ways: not even cleared to build terraces for crops.
Cattle and horses were introduced into Japan around the 5th and 6th centuries and neither was to play a major role in the society and its development. With the introduction of Buddhism, we read of commands that meat should not be eaten, but the evidence is that apart from a very small number of localised situations meat was always eaten, although never in high volume. Fish offered an easier supply of protein. With Japan never being a big meat-eating country leather was not available to many ordinary people. Footwear was largely based on straw or wooden clogs. Rules regarding obtaining maximum value from the hides and offal were laid down. Demands that brains be removed – also a norm in Korea – are taken to imply brain tanning was used. (Matsumoto, 2016). But the interest in meat eating was always low and in the 19th century when Japan opened to western visitors remarks that the country was almost totally devoid of livestock were common.
The raw material that was available came from the interface with wild animals and was primarily deer. We know that bears also abounded and would certainly have been used for their fur, given the extreme climatic conditions, but we have little record of this. Rather than tanning the deer with vegetable tannin the alternative technology of brain tanning was used. This approach would also have been perfectly adequate for any fur skins.
Brain tanning has been most researched in relation to the native American population where the technology was much used. It is also thought that Inner Mongolia was the Asian originator of this technology (Covington 2012) with the lack of trees for tannin and shortage of water pushing them towards its invention.
According to the Japanese Traditional Culture Promotion & Development Organisation (JTCP) “The Chronicles of Japan”, the second oldest book of Japanese history, says that artefacts made with deer skin were brought to Japan around the end of the 5th century by leather craftsmen from “Goryeo, one of the ancient Three Kingdoms of Korea.”
Matsumoto et al (2016) argue that brain tanning began in the northern Tungus – a large area from the river Tungus to the Pacific which runs from the Arctic into Manchuria. They also name two individual craftsmen who travelled from Korea to Japan to introduce the deerskin brain and smoke tanning technology. At the same time, they note that recent archaeological finds indicate that the technology was prevalent in another Korean kingdom, Silla, which is also a possible origin. Certainly, around the 7th and 8th centuries one of the names which emerged for tanners were “people from the Korean peninsula”. (idem p 132)
One curious aspect of everything to do with Japan is that despite the leathers being highly individualistic and clearly Japanese in character history suggests that all the technologies involved were imported, mostly from China or from China via Korea. Often it is suggested that the timing was to do with arrival of Buddhism from China and the development of Nara and Kyoto as major cities, built along the lines of the then capital of China, Xian – known at that time as Chang’an. For quite a long period around the 7th and 8th centuries diplomatic, religious and mercantile exchanges were extensive.
More research is needed on this as it is generally thought that Chinese leather technology was considerably advanced beyond brain tannage by this time. Nevertheless, for deerskins and the uses to which they were to be put such as garments and carrying pouches brain tannage as then carried out offered an excellent and simple process. The leather was easily made, required little or no water, was soft, light and water resistant. The brains of one animal was sufficient to tan its skin.
Indications are that this tanning method was widely distributed around Japan and continued into the second half of the 20th century in a few places. The leather was strong and flexible. As such it was used for garments, certain types of footwear, purses and certain traditional carrying bags and for saddlery. It was added to in middle of the Edo period – a 250-year period from 1603 when Japan was largely closed to the outside – with surface embellishment via the application of lacquer in distinctive designs. It is suggested that these were Indian designs taken from cloth imported from India through Nagasaki – the only port allowed to trade internationally, under very tight control.
The treatment was applied to the skin using silk screening, a technique which was highly advanced in Japan by the 1600s. The silk stencil was probably treated with glue made from the fleshings of the skins and other parts of the deer, to cover the areas where penetration was being discouraged. This process was to be copied in the US and Europe towards the end of the 19th century in an early attempt to make what is now called patent leather. Named “Japan leather” it was made by first clearing the surface of all grease and then pouring on specially made coats of varnish. After the first was dried it was buffed with fine pumice powder to ensure the next coats would adhere. Extensive drying was done for many hours at temperatures varying – depending on the leather required at between 50 and 100 degrees C. (Watt, 1905) Whereas Japanese lacquer is made from the sap of Rhus vernicifera tree and, subject to the removal of impurities and excess water, can be used directly that used elsewhere is often based on shellac or linseed oil.
This has relevance to the extent that today one extended family in the first city to do the “Inden” leather lacquer treatment controls and manages the technology of the leather from start to finish and are the sole makers of high-quality ladies’ bags and a wide variety of small leather goods using it. Based in Koshu, in Yamanashi Prefecture, just 90 minutes by train from Tokyo they operate an upmarket showroom and five stores selling the output from 40 craftsmen.
Deer skins are now imported from China as the numbers of the high-quality small skins needed are no longer easily obtained in Japan: nor is the famous Japanese lacquer which now also comes from China. The leather is no longer brain tanned which at some stage in the 20th century was viewed as too odiferous for the operative. The imported skins are contract tanned in Himeji. The smoke tanning process, using a specially grown straw with the skins nailed to the outside of a wooden drum continues, but it is not clear why. Perhaps it is more integrated into the lacquering process as much as to offer an additional aldehyde tan from the acrolein in the smoke or even more likely is to give the distinctive colour.
The market for the finished articles is almost totally in Japan, and any overseas sales are very limited and managed in such a way as to reflect a premium luxury goods positioning which is in large part helpful in Japan where there is a risk of confusion between whether these items are a craft item or luxury good.
This historic tanning method is the most complex of two that have dominated the Japanese leather industry for the last 1500 years, up until the introduction more international and industrial methods at the start of the 20th century. Matsumoto (2016) states that the introduction of brain tanning for deer came alongside the already existing “plain tanning” which involved the “physical removal of the fat and unnecessary protein and the repeated washing and drying on the riverside.”
It is still a little unclear what this white tanning method consists of. Given that the leather is often presented as white it was for a while thought that it was picking up an alum tannage from the river, whose use and “special properties” are frequently commented on, but this has now been discounted, and a subsequent kneading of oil into the leather after application of salt provides an oil tannage which is the actual basis of the Himeji leather which remained in production until the early 20th century.
In modern recreations rape seed oil is used and this makes sense as historically it is thought that Inuit used fish oil while the Japanese and Ethiopians used rape and safflower oils. This is a similar process to making of chamois leather where an unsaturated oil is used and polymerised in situ by oxidation, through the addition of heat. (Covington, 2009, p 315). For chamois cod oil is used as it is highly unsaturated. Rapeseed oil is not as good but is still serviceable. Whereas in Europe the heat required to initiate the oxidation was provided by putting the skins into wooden stocks which could pummel the leather (and later by a temperature-controlled drum) in Japan stamping under the feet continued as a communal activity. The degree of tannage imparted by this method as measured by the rise in shrinkage temperature is slight and it was often combined with either alum or aldehydes. It tends to be classed as a “leathering” process rather than a full tannage albeit the product is quite serviceable. Many of the end uses to which this leather was put appear to have mostly been decorative, while the deerskin produced the more functional material, and did not require a high shrinkage temperature.
The Himeji leather is often today called white Himeji leather although most of the pieces currently being made are buff coloured as would be expected from an oil tannage. It has variously been said that the white aspect comes from the bleaching of the oil tan in the sun or from the way light is reflected by the distinctive grain pattern created by endless stamping. Certainly, extended use of sunlight, perhaps in part to keep the skins at a high temperature while the oil completed its oxidation, was an essential process and would have influenced the colour. More research is required here as some modern pieces have clearly been made quite white using alum.
This leather appears to have been used throughout the last 2000 years. It would have been quite versatile enough for a wide variety of end uses and helmets and armour are much discussed. This sort of use would particularly fit cattle hides which will be thicker and stronger than deer for this purpose. For most uses, if it was no more than the basic oil tanning, then the arrival of brain and smoke tanning would give a superior product for many uses. Like the brain tannage the technology is said to have come from Korea or China. Himeji was chosen because of the climate, the central location near important cities, and for the river. Perhaps the fact that the river offered hard water assisted in the absence of a liming process.
In the 17th to 19th century we began to see the application of lacquer to these Himeji leathers and the creation of beautiful boxes sold to the passing Samurai and their entourages. These were not screen printed with patterns in the way of the Inden, which being discontinuous allowed the soft deer leather still to flex to a good degree, but instead covered the whole piece. A few these boxes were on display at the Vienna Show of 1873 and drew a lot of attention, including some awards.
While the tanners worked in the three towns near Himeji, on the Ichikawa River, Tatsuno City, Takagi City and Guchogo City the leather items made from their leathers were largely produced in an artisan district close to the castle. As these became more famous a demand grew for the leather in other parts of Japan.
At the start of the 20th century when Japan was industrialising the international methods of tanning began to be introduced. The timing is curious as it meant that both the traditional vegetable tanning and the very new chrome tanning came to Japan together. Tanneries like Sanyo were established about this time – Sanyo using Russian technicians to introduce the new processes.
Not long after the second World War it became easier to import foreign hides and the Himeji tanners moved into distinct family units rather than working as a cooperative as had been the norm historically. The easing of import restrictions meant others considered entering the business such as Midori Leather, now a top auto-leather producer, in different parts of Japan.
Third party working, as seen mostly today in Italy, was common in Himeji so that each unit only carried out a part of the process. In the 1970s each of the cities was provided with a dedicated effluent treatment plant. The one in Takagi is apparently a little larger and takes the partially treated waste from the other two for final purification. While there are a small number of vegetable leather producers most the tanneries appear to be making a conventional chrome tanned side leather for footwear and leatherwoods in plants that employ fifteen or fewer workers.
The industry was set up using merchant companies to help buy hides overseas and sell the leather. This situation largely remains with Marubeni dominating the supply of overseas hides to the tanneries and other wholesalers involved in the chain to customers in Tokyo. During the 90s the industry lost quite a few of its domestic customers as cheaper products were sought out in China. Small scale tanners are not well suited to supplying the larger, highly consistent, orders required for this business. The move to China by shoemakers accelerated because of the destruction of manufacturing plants in the 1995 Kobe earthquake.
“Beauty, stability, reciprocity, elegance and mutual respect” are the goals in life in Japan according to Macfarlane (2007, p 59) and the use of these simple historic processes for more than 1500 years is indicative of this approach. Demanding too much of the detail of the chemistry and mechanics of the production is in some instances treated as rather vulgar. For the Inden leather, the methodology is in fact precisely managed, keeping the details of the individual elements as tacit knowledge and well separated has been part of the process of maintaining them as trade secrets. By this means the extended family hopes to maintain a monopoly for many years to come.
On the other hand, for the tanners in Himeji who are not making highly specialised leathers the lack of interest in technological advancement may prove a problem as their heart and soul appears to lie in making a commodity which is not likely to offer a profitable future for too long. As they now explore the launch of the Tatsuno Brand hopefully this will be a great stimulus to young generation of well educated owners.
In addition to this tanners around Tokyo also produce pigskin leather from domestic pigs. The volumes constitute over ten per cent of Japanese production and is mostly sueded for garments. The history and technology is not known.
As such Japan does indeed have a leather industry like no other in the world, with a distinct and unique history based on technologies that were soon replaced in the rest of the world. Yet its leathers continued to have an elegance and a utilitarian value quite suited to Japanese society.
Written 22nd September 2016
Covington, Anthony (2009), Tanning Chemistry, The Science of Leather. RSC Publishing
Japanese Traditional Culture Promotion & Development Organization.(JTCP) (2016)
http://www.jtco.or.jp/en/tradition_report/?id=19 Retrieved September 2016
Macfarlane, Alan. (2007) Japan Through the Looking Glass, Profile Books, Ltd, London
Matsumoto, Naoko and Bessho, Hidetaka (2016) coexistence and cultural transmission in east asia. Routledge,
Riello, Giorgio (2008) Nature, production and regulation in eighteenth-century Britain and France: the case of the leather industry. Historical Research, vol. 81, no. 211 (February 2008)
Watt, Alexander (2005) Leather Manufacture, A Practical Handbook of Tanning, Currying, and Chrome Leather Dressing. D.Van Nostrand Co, New York