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The Deshi

Paulownia Drawer Maker

Akie Shida

Passing on artisanal skills from generation to generation has been the foundation of Japan’s ability to create and craft the world’s top products. Yet, with each day a new skill dies and with it an entire culture is lost. This column explores some of the last DESHI’s (apprentices) a few young souls who work diligently to hone a unique skill and in doing so keep culture alive.


Aizu Paulownia Chest Company

There is a woman who at the tender age of 18 became an apprentice to the Aizu Paulownia Chest Company in the town of Mishima, Onuma County, Fukushima  Prefecture. Akie Shida is currently 21 years old. In today’s Japan, where an increasing percentage of students go on to college, have you ever heard of an 18-year-old who knows what they want to do from the time of graduating and directly approaches a company regarding an apprenticeship?

Born and bred in Tokyo, what prompted her to enter and train in the world of artisanship in Fukushima? And what compels her to continue creating away from the city despite having completed her apprenticeship? We visited the Local Crafts Museum, the hub of her activities. 

Shida’s interest in making things came from her father. A keen fixer upper himself, he kept a whole set of tools in the house. Since elementary school days she loved rummaging round the various shops in the Yanaka/Sendagi area of Tokyo, bringing along her friends and mother after school and at weekends. Once at junior high school, she devoured books and magazines on interior design and went on to a high school specialized in woodworking.

 It was during her second year of high school that her aspiration to enter the world of craftsmanship grew stronger. During a class given by a craftsman of traditional Edo wood joinery, she felt captivated by the visiting teacher’s work. Especially tansu (chests of drawers). She describes how she has always loved the sturdy appearance and chunkiness of these chests.

However, up until the summer break of the last year, she was just like her classmates in aspiring to higher education after graduating.

“There was one university I had my eye on since my second year of high school and doing an apprenticeship had never crossed my mind. But during the meeting between me, my school and my parents, I suddenly uttered “I’ll find a job”. I was somewhat aware around my junior year of high school that just working on my own initiative was not going to be enough for me to get anything properly done.

Rather than facing up to the formation of my character during those long 4 years at university, I wanted to pursue how precisely I could make something against a tight deadline each time, while aligning to others around me. My thinking began to change, and I believed that if I did eventually reach the level of professional artisan, I could create to my heart’s content. In which case, I should focus first on trying things that I can’t do now.”

 Following that parent/teacher interview, Shida launched herself into her apprenticeship. However, the reality is that if you call a company out of the blue asking them to take you, you are likely to be rejected for being “still at high school” or “because you are a woman”. The Aizu Paulownia Chest Company was the only one that offered to take her on, telling her to “come along if you want to do it”. 

In April 2019 she bid farewell to her parents in Tokyo to start a new life in the town of Mishima, Onuma County, Fukushima Prefecture. Living away from her parents in a world known for the strict relationship between master and apprentice, was she not worried about the path she chose?

“I came here resigned to do whatever it takes. However, due to the lack of heirs and the fact that I am the youngest, everybody was so kind and went out of their way to show me the ropes. I was totally fine with being away from my parents. On the contrary, I thought I needed to be in an environment where I couldn’t just throw in the towel and go back home when I’d had enough. I made the choice to come here to do what I love, and thus needed to move away from my comfort zone so I wouldn’t be able to quit one day on a whim.”

Shida’s firm resolve is evident in every word. How was she able to take on craftsmanship and face herself head-on at such a young age?

“I really am good at nothing. I’m not good at studying and have no other talents to speak of. But when it comes to making things, aside from whether I’m good at it or not, I genuinely like it. So I am keen to treasure my one redeeming feature.”

In April of this year, she completed her three-year apprenticeship and despite having the option to become a bona fide employee, decided to branch out on her own. While many of the teens and 20-somethings from Mishima are moving to other prefectures for higher education or employment, Shida says she hopes to continue producing her work here in the future:

“Fukushima Prefecture accounts for 40% of the nation’s production of paulownia wood, making it the largest producer in Japan. I don’t only use wood from Mishima Town in mywork, but using local products is an aspect of artisanship that I have aspired to since I was a high school student. While it is often inconvenient compared to the city, I also feel that there is no other place in the world that is so blessed in terms of resources. That is why I would like to think a little more about what I can create in this land, or rather, what this environment enables me to do. While retaining the old methods and ideas of the past, I would like to make wood more accessible in the future, with designs that are not confined to the places or people who use them.”

text & photography | Yuta Kato