Harmonious Fusion

Fudemaker Yasuhiro Sanemori
Shiseido Top Hair & Makeup Artist Miyako Okamoto

For the Japanese, using a fude(writing brush)to write conjures up a particular atmosphere that naturally makes one sit up straight. You line up the words in your mind first and then, as if an extension of your breath, the ink flows from fude to paper, stroke by stroke, character by character. Although fude calligraphy takes time to learn, once you know how to do it, it gives a thrill of wonder that you, your thoughts, and your words are united through the movements of the fude.

Fude, as we shall see on this trip, are made through the combination of natural materials and incredible skill. Miyako Okamoto, a Shiseido Top Hair & Makeup Artist also active in a variety of media, paid a visit to find out more. Today she is calling in on Yasuhiro Sanemori, a Fudemaker renowned for handcrafting custom-made fude for calligraphers across the nation from his workshop in Kumano, Hiroshima Prefecture—the town of fude making and a pride of Japan. Okamoto sees Sanemori's meticulous handiwork and unwavering focus, and experiences one of the most basic elements of creating a thing of beauty.

A Journey to the Town of Fude Making—Kumano, Hiroshima

Then and now, Kumano is sustained by the skill of its craftsmen.

Our journey begins at Hiroshima Station. A 30-minute car ride later, through the Yano Pass and up 250 meters above sea level, we arrive in Kumano—the town of fude making. It is not the first time Okamoto has been by Kumano. In 2009 she also paid a visit during the development of the successful Shiseido Foundation Brush 131. Kumano has an 80% share of Japan's fude industry. This means that the majority of the fude in the country find their origins in this tranquil mountain village.

Kumano has flourished thanks to the skill of its craftsmen. In an age of technological advancement, here production is still performed almost completely by hand—all the way down to inexpensive fude used by elementary school students. We hear that even today around 2,500 of Kumano's inhabitants are involved in fude making in some form or another.

Some of them are nationally certified as Masters of Traditional Crafts, expert Fudemakers that pass their techniques on to the modern generation and take custom orders from calligraphers all across the country. Fude made by these masters are not just comfortable to use as a tool; they also possess the inherent beauty of traditional handcrafts. Yasuhiro Sanemori (professional name: Tokuzen) has received numerous awards for his calligraphy fude and also took part in a special study of objects related to "hair" in the Imperial Household's Shosoin collection. Naturally, Sanemori, one of the world's most famous Fudemakers, is certified as a Master of Traditional Crafts.

The Intense Focus of a Fudemaker

See, select, arrange—a skill that is almost divine.

As it turns out, Okamoto and Sanemori have met before. When Okamoto visited Kumano in 2009, she observed Sanemori himself at work. As she greets the master with, "It's good to meet you again," Sanemori smiles gently and says he remembered her immediately when he heard her name.

Calligraphers select fude that best express their preferred thickness, roughness, and shape. The head—the part of the fude dipped in ink and applied to paper—determines each fude's personality. The trained intuition and the delicate sensitivity in the fingertips of a Fudemaker that go into creating these fude heads demonstrate an almost superhuman skill. Different from makeup brushes and paintbrushes, a calligraphy fude is made by combining hairs from many different animals depending on its use. First, raw hair is selected, rubbed to get rid of oil content, and arranged by removing the fluff. The tips are then assembled by rhythmic tapping against a brass plate, after which they are cut, and then the hairs of different kinds and subtly different lengths are blended. It is a painstaking process that commands awe and respect.

Particular highlights are the removal of reversed and worn-out hairs and the blending. With a tassel of hair in his left hand and a small knife in his right, Sanemori removes reversed and worn-out hairs, indiscernible from others at first glance, and retains only the highest quality hairs. He makes it look simple, but it is actually an exquisite technique that requires perfect precision. "Look," he says. "These hairs are worthless," and indeed they are too fluffy or facing the wrong way. As an onlooker, one cannot help but gasp in admiration.

The blending process transforms a bunch of uneven animal hairs into a uniform fude head. A viscous paste made from seaweed is applied to the refined hairs spread out on a platform, and bunches of hair are brought together with other bunches and then separated out again in a blending process. This technique is repeated again and again so characteristics of the different kinds of hair—rough, soft, supple, and permeable—are all combined to create a fude with a superior feel.

"You really use a lot of hairs from different animals, don't you?" says Okamoto. "Different hairs have completely different characteristics," he explains, and picks up a bundle to show to Okamoto. "This is horse hair – touch it." "It feels pretty rough and hard." "Right. Horse hairs are hard, which makes them suitable for keeping hair tips together. Here we also have raccoon dog hair. It stays firm even when loaded with ink. These sheep tail hairs are also quite hard. The lower you go, the harder they become… they take strength to cut at the base."

Today, Okamoto gets to experience the finishing process. The head, now attached to the shaft, is soaked in seaweed starch and squeezed with a thread to remove the excess. After watching Sanemori's example she tries it for herself. When applying the starch, the fude is beaten down along its axis several times to spread the hairs. Sanemori fans her enthusiasm, calling out, "Come on, harder, harder!" But the sound is nothing like that when Sanemori does it. Sanemori beats the fude with a steady rhythm and momentum, and you can see the starch permeating the fude head.

"What is it you like most about making fude?" asks Okamoto. After a short hesitation, he answers, "Selecting the hairs, I think. The end result of the fude is decided by the type and volume of hairs. Selecting hairs is the part where I most feel I am in control of creating my own fude." Fude heads are basically the raw material in an unaltered state; even when trimming the length, the tips are never cut, only the roots. In other words, the hairs are used just the way they are. As one would imagine, hairs from the same animal come in different conditions. The skill lies in knowing how to select hairs and combine them in a balanced manner. In Japanese, Fudemakers are called "fudeshi" or "fude masters." As the Japanese logography of the name suggests, they literally "master" or "command," and Sanemori feels that they came to be called as such because the essence of the job is to "command the personality of the fude."

Although calligraphy fude and makeup brushes are two different things, Okamoto works with a lot of brushes every day in her position as a makeup artist. "I must have about 30 different brushes on constant standby," she says. "They're all different in how they hold and spread makeup. To stay close to my clients' wishes and bring out their intrinsic beauty, I need to combine my technique with the right brush for each particular task. Perhaps that is similar to the way Sanemori makes his fude. Selecting the right hairs to fit the calligrapher's order and using those hairs' characteristics to create a fude with the best possible combination of materials. Seeing his work up close and feeling some kind of connection to my own line of work really moved me."

A Gift of Beautiful Harmony, from Kumano to the World

Tradition and innovation, balanced as one.

Kumano does not have a ready supply of animal hair or bamboo, used for fude handles. So how did it become known for fude making? The origins go back to the late Edo Period (the mid-19th century), when Kumano had very little arable land and was unable to sustain itself through just agriculture, so farmers went to work elsewhere during the off-season. Before they set out for home, they purchased fude and ink in what are now Wakayama and Nara Prefectures, and sold them as street vendors on the way back to Kumano. In this way, the people of Kumano gained a connection to fude. In the intervening 170 years or so, fude have become an integral way of life for Kumano.

Sakakiyama Shrine, for example, is the scene of a yearly fude festival. There stands a monument as a memorial to the fude that have served out their use. During the festival, people pray for the animals whose hairs they have used and show their appreciation for the fude they have lovingly used over time. Today, Okamoto takes this chance to pay her respects to a dozen or so of her long-time favorite makeup brushes.

At Fude-no-eki, operated by the fude workshop Hokodo, Okamoto witnesses the skills of calligrapher Hiroaki Tsuno (professional name: Bizan). "Is there a secret to writing beautiful characters?" asks Okamoto. "Balance is everything," Tsuno explains. "Define the space with the first and second strokes, tie it together with the middle strokes, and be bold with the last strokes. That's how you write beautiful characters." In a tense atmosphere, his fude starts moving as if possessed by his very breath. He writes the character for "beauty." Everything is just so, and his strokes make one re-recognize the strength and beauty of this particular character.

While Kumano is intent on protecting traditional fude making, it has also started using the same techniques to produce makeup brushes and paintbrushes. Kumano currently has the largest share of the Japanese calligraphy fude market, and also exports many fude overseas. Moreover, as part of the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency's Japan Brand initiative, the development of the KUMANO-FuDe, a fude suitable for horizontal writing, is part of a larger attempt to show the world the excellence of Japan's calligraphy fude.

Sanemori has given us a glimpse of the mastery of blending natural materials to bring about a beautiful outcome. Meanwhile, Tsuno's calligraphy is infused with the rhythm of his own breath and full of balanced beauty. Nature, human soul, craftsmanship—all these elements are beautifully infused into the long handed-down Kumano fude. As Okamoto makes her way back to Hiroshima, she expresses her hope that the harmony of Japan's unique aesthetics will continue to spread worldwide.

"To unite nature, thought and skill.
That is what it means to command the fude as a Fudemaker."

Fudemaker Yasuhiro Sanemori

"Using uncompromising technique and a love for creating beauty to draw out the beauty in others, that is what being a makeup artist is about.
I believe that you cannot create true beauty if either of those is lacking."

Shiseido Top Hair & Makeup Artist Miyako Okamoto

Yasuhiro Sanemori


A third-generation Fudemaker of Sanemori Seijitsudo, a workshop with a tradition that spans over a century. His professional name is Tokuzen. 2000: Certified as a Master of Traditional Crafts in Kumano fude making. Recipient of many awards, including the Chairman's Award from the National Association for the Manufacture of Calligraphy Products in 2002, the Director-General's Award from the Chugoku Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry in 2004 and the Distinguished Service Award from the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry in 2009. 2012: Appointed to a special study of the objects related to "hair" among the Imperial Household's Shosoin collection.

Miyako Okamoto

Shiseido Top Hair & Makeup Artist

Lived and worked in New York for five years. In New York Fashion Week, she still works as the chief makeup artist for numerous maisons even today. Broadly active in media including commercials, graphics, TV, and magazines. Helped produce the smash hit Shiseido Foundation Brush 131. Regular personality on Beauty Book, part of TV Asahi's BeauTV VoCE programming. Member of the Mainichi Fashion Grand Prix Selection Committee.