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Simple and Easy-to-Use Glass Containers Created at the Long-Established Okuhara Glass Manufacturing (Naha City), Founded in 1952
post : 2018.11.05 18:00
One of the most popular arts and crafts in Okinawa is the Ryukyu Glassworks. This is probably because they are useful, reasonably priced, and are perfect for souvenirs and as keepsakes from Okinawa as the varieties available in the market represent the islands very well. Many people may already know, but Ryukyu Glass is actually the newest addition to the traditional arts and crafts of Okinawa, with a much shorter history than others. It is said that it began around the 50s, during the post-war period when Okinawa came to be under the administration of the US government. Glass blowers used the colorful glass bottles of soft drinks and beer which were becoming readily available at that time, and they became very popular among the US military personnel and the people associated with the installations. So glassblowers and artists began to produce various creations. This was the start of Ryukyu Glass. Today, there are more variations and unique creations that meet every taste, made in glass studios all across the prefecture. For this article, I visited the oldest operating glass studio, the Okuhara Glass Manufacturing (Okuhara Glass hereafter), which was founded in 1952.
Okuhara Glass is located on Kokusai Street in Naha, run by four staff who run the introductory workshops, gallery, and shop in the Naha City Traditional Arts and Crafts Center. When the company was first founded, it was located in Yogi, Naha, and like the many other glass manufacturers, they produced lamp shades, medicine bottles, square bottles that contained various candies at mom-and-pop stores, milk bottles, and other every day things. In the 60s, though, they began to export their goods to L.A., San Francisco, Guam, and other places. Presently, the company makes glassware for every day use as well as decorative vases and other items.
One of their signature products are the water pitchers and glasses, which are available at special select shops both in and outside of Okinawa. The secret to their popularity, I think, is the simplicity of design and the colors, which are unchanged since the founding of the company. “The present designs are the result of our basic principles since our founding, to make practical items. We’ve worked over the years to improve our products so that they are easy to use, easy to handle,” says Yukiharu Uezato, the manager of the glass studio. All of their products were a little different from many of the Ryukyu Glass on the market, and are simpler in their colorings and contours. The best descriptive words to their items would be “functional beauty.” I think that’s what makes their glass pieces more inviting to the user and for any occasion.
“We also make glassware on request from small retailers and individual customers looking for a specific design. We get such requests from arts and craft stores and special select shops in mainland Japan, too. We also still get special requests and orders from US military-related customers, like we have for many years.” The manager points to the order-made samples aligned on the shelves and continues, “We get all sorts of orders for the design, and in order to meet those requests, we have to have strong basic techniques and skills. I, too, was taught by the second generation CEO, Mr. Masao Tobaru himself, and by the other senior craftsmen at the company.” At the company, he explains, one of the pillars in the training of the younger craftsmen is to have them make items according to the samples. This way, their skills in creating the same products are strengthened.
“For example, the handles on the pitcher and the openings of the sauce bottles are made by connecting the parts to the actual body. Because we’re all human, each one of the craftsmen have their own uniqueness and ways. That’s why these parts are a little different when they’re made by different craftsmen. But we finish the entire piece so that they are closely similar. Since glass breaks easily when cooled, we have to work fast and accurately while the glass is still hot to accomplish this,” he explained further. Mr. Uezato’s parents both loved Ryukyu Glass, and he remembers there were always Okuhara glassware at his home since childhood. After graduating from school, he worked at a regular office job for eight years, but he couldn’t put aside his wish to create things, so he left that job and without hesitating, knocked on the door of opportunity at Okuhara Glass.
This year marks Mr. Uezato’s 24th year with the company, and this seasoned veteran’s passion to train the young successors is also great. He says, “The quality of the finished product depends largely on the initial Motodama, or the small sphere of glass blown at the first steps. This ball can’t be fixed or adjusted later, so this is very important. It varies by person, but it usually takes about three years to be able to blow this motodama ball nicely.” Presently at Okuhara Glass, aside from Mr. Uezato, there is another seasoned craftsman, Mr. Tobaru who has 20 years of experience, and also a craftswoman who moved to Okinawa from mainland Japan, as well as a local Okinawan man, both of whom have been training for about a year now. A few young trainees gained experience and knowledge with Okuhara Glass and went on to establish their own studios.
When asked for advice to people who are interested in the world of Ryukyu Glass, Mr. Uezato responded, “You can’t keep going in this world of glass-making if you don’t enjoy creating. I’m not talking just about having the skills and techniques, but you need passion for arts and crafts, too. Just like with other work, there has to be that commitment, that heart where you want to create and make quality things. It’s important to want to keep improving. We have had some people who knock on our door thinking that making Ryukyu glasswork is not that difficult, but…”
“The recycling of used glass and recreating something new out of them is the foundation and essence of Ryukyu Glass, I think. We’re able to achieve this smoothness and feel of the glass simply because the original material is recycled glass. That said, it’s necessary to embrace change according to the times. In order to bring new ideas to create new designs, and to actually creating these designs with glass, we need the strong basic skills. So, to simplify, as long as we have the basics down solid, we are good and can keep going,” During the time of the last CEO, they challenged themselves in making new, innovative items, like collaborating glasswork with the traditional Ryukyu Shikki lacquerware.
At the studio of Okuhara Glass, they are accept applications for introductory glassworks. If you’re interested, why don’t you give it a try?
Okuhara Glass Manufacturing
Address: Tenbusu Naha, 3-2-10 Makishi, Naha, Okinawa
Business Hours: 10:00-18:00
Open Every Day
Okinawa CLIP photo writer, Nobuya Fukuda