KOBE -- "Amezaiku" is a traditional Japanese art in which a variety of animal shapes made with "mizuame" starch syrup are shaped with the fingers and Japanese scissors. Minori Baba, a 44-year-old resident of this western Japanese city's Hyogo Ward, chose the path of an amezaiku maker 15 years ago, after being inspired by memories of her father, who died in his 60s in the aftermath of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.
Although the coronavirus pandemic has seen her lose opportunities to perform at events, and her partner, who manages a photo studio with her, is also working much less, Baba said that she goes on with the hope that she will make people smile.
On Jan. 17, 1995, Baba's home in Hyogo Ward was partially destroyed by the Great Hanshin Earthquake. Her father, who ran a water supply maintenance firm, collapsed and died about two weeks later while out on rounds to customers affected by the disaster. After the earthquake, the demand for repairs was unrelenting. There was not time to rest, and it appears he died from overwork. Though devoted to his job, he was also a kind father who would bring home wounded pigeon and sparrow chicks he'd found. There wasn't even time to mourn his sudden loss.
Baba was in the third year of high school, and she went on to study at a vocational school. At 21, she started a mobile crepe stand, setting up at events and other locales. After about six years her business was under severe pressure. She was even short on food, and at one point her 157-centimeter frame weighed just 37 kilograms. Baba thought she was at her limit. When the possibility she might die crossed her mind, she remembered an episode in her childhood when she saw amezaiku candy sculpting at a nighttime stall with her father.
It was a summer festival at a shrine in her neighborhood. The amezaiku sculptor put sweet, thick mizuame liquid on the end of a stick, and using Japanese-style scissors he cut and shaped it into a small bird with its wings spread. It was beguiling to watch, as within several dozen seconds, an animal was produced from his fingertips, the candy shining beautifully under the stall lights. Baba held her dad's hand, and she was so focused on what she saw that not even the sound of the fireworks reached her.
It was when remembering this that she thought, "There were many who died in the quake who never wanted to lose their lives. Instead of dying at this time, I want to try and be someone who can give that same sense of excitement I felt to others."
She decided to try and make 1,000 amezaiku candy sculptures, and to quit after that if it didn't work. Baba then set about relying on her memories and other sources to research how to heat and reduce mizuame liquid. In 2007, she exhibited her skills for the first time on a local shopping street, where she saw children sitting and staring at her art in the same way she had done years before. Baba added a twist of her own, singing while making the sculptures, and went on to become so good she would make numerous appearances at overseas events to introduce Japanese culture.
But Baba's trials continued. Six years ago, she developed laryngeal papillomatosis, a kind of benign tumor growth in the throat. Despite undergoing three operations, she still struggles to sing. Her approximately 70 event appearances a year were cut in half. In October 2018, she founded a photo studio with her partner, a cameraman, within the grounds of Kai Jinja Shrine in Kobe's Tarumi Ward.
It looked like they'd found a way out of their troubles, but then the coronavirus came. Since February 2020, she's had no events to show her amezaiku candy skills, and the photo studio's workload is only around 20% of what it was in 2019.
But Baba does not despair. Even at difficult times, she thinks of the days when she was learning amezaiku and finds strength in the memories. She has endless ideas, and has recently been wondering whether she could bring joy to people like her who struggle to speak by expressing the songs through sign language performances.
"The start of all of this was the memory of that time with my father. All I can do is thank him," she said. On the anniversary of the earthquake on Jan. 17 this year, she'll bring her hands together in prayer at home, just as she has every year.
(Japanese original by Kimi Sorihashi, Kobe Bureau)