Okawa Town in Kyushu’s Fukuoka Prefecture has been a hub for woodcraft and furniture making for hundreds of years. Okawa’s kiri-dansu, a wooden dresser used for storing kimono, was once a sought-after piece of furniture in the homes of the well-to-do in Japan. Now a young generation of craftsmen is struggling to keep Okawa’s furniture business afloat.
Okawa developed as a fishing port and a market for agricultural products and lumber during Japan’s Edo Period (1603 -1867). Its prime location at the mouth of the Chikugo River where it flows into the Ariake Sea made it an ideal spot for a trading place. The Chikugo River starts from a mountainous area in northern Kyushu and lumber was shipped down the river for further usage as building material or for ship building.
Carpenters settled in Okawa which became a centre of woodcraft some 470 years ago. Kumenozuke Enokizu, a native of this area, began to apply shipbuilding techniques to furniture making in the middle of the 16thcentury. He is now considered to be the “father of woodworking” in Japan. By the middle of the 20thcentury, woodworking had become the town’s main industry.
Okawa furniture sold well and spread all over Japan after Makoto Kouti, a local furniture designer, won a price at an industrial exhibition in Osaka in 1955 for a tansu that did not have any handles. It became famous all over Japan as the “Okawa-style handle-free” dresser.
The Bubble Economy of the 1980s brought fortune to Okawa as the demand for furniture in Japan soared and industrial mass production took off. However, after the bubble burst, like many other places in Japan, Okawa went from boom to bust.
Drive through Okawa now, and you will see some abandoned factories as manufacturing was re-located to cheaper locations in Southeast Asia. However, there are still many furniture showrooms as Okawa’s specialty still is the making of furniture for homes, offices and public facilities.
Many of Okawa’s craftsmen try to build on the area’s century-old woodcraft tradition and find their niche in a dying market. They design and make furniture in their small family-run workshops and only produce one or a few pieces at the time for a local or regional clientele. Advertising is by word-of-mouth or the occasional exhibition in Kyushu’s bigger cities, such as Kumamoto and Fukuoka.
Let’s hope that the young generation of craftsmen takes on the challenge and carries Okawa’s woodcraft heritage into the future!