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Enchanting Edo: Craftsman ensures traditional 'bekko' turtle shell ornaments shine on

Edo bekko crafts with a caramel and dark brown color are seen at Isogai Bekko Senmonten in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on April 13, 2021. The items pictured include Kanzashi hair accessories and human-shaped charms with faces drawn on them. (Mainichi/Akinori Miyamoto) =Click/tap photo for more images.

TOKYO -- Among material of great value used to create accessories and handicrafts during Japan's Edo period (1603-1867) were "bekko," or processed turtle shells with an exquisite blend of hues of honey-yellow with dark brown spots.

    Bekko products are made from the shells of the hawksbill turtle, a species of sea turtle that live in tropical oceans near the equator. The craftwork originally came to Japan from China during the rule of the legendary Prince Shotoku in the seventh century. Along with objects using the "raden" technique of inlaying shells with mother-of-pearls, crafts adorned with bekko are among the treasures in the Shosoin Repository of the Todaiji temple in Nara. Full-scale circulation of bekko began during the Edo period, after the material was brought to Nagasaki in southwestern Japan by Portuguese and Dutch ships.

    The techniques unique to Edo bekko, which fuses shell pieces together through thermocompression to make thicker material, has been used to create "kanzashi" hair ornaments, combs, "obidome" sash clips for kimonos, among other items.

    Hideyuki Isogai, third-generation head of Isogai Bekko Senmonten, is seen examining the patterns and bumps on the surface of a hawksbill turtle shell under a light in order to determine what parts to cut out for creating a bekko ornament at Isogai Bekko Senmonten in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on April 13, 2021. (Mainichi/Akinori Miyamoto) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    In Tokyo, there remain around 20 workshops that have passed down these skills to the modern day. One such store is Isogai Bekko Senmonten in the capital's Sumida Ward, whose bekko products are currently created by 49-year-old third-generation head, Hideyuki Isogai.

    As hawksbill turtles inhabit tropical seas, shells used by Edo craftsmen were generally imported from abroad. This dependence on foreign goods remains the same today. Therefore, bekko has been treasured as material equivalent in value to precious metals like gold and silver, as well as gemstones and coral.

    As people began to shift from wearing kimonos to Western-style clothing, and lifestyles became Westernized after the end of the Edo period, the designs and purposes of bekko adornments grew diverse. Besides traditional accessories, Isogai's shop sells brooches, earrings, necklaces, and eyeglass frames. Isogai said, "Even within our family, the style of the work differs among my grandfather, father and me. They're also imbued with the trends of the times."

    A polished teardrop-shaped bekko pendant which was made after attaching two shell pieces via thermocompression bonding is seen at Isogai Bekko Senmonten in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on April 13, 2021. (Mainichi/Akinori Miyamoto) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Isogai showed us the process leading up to the completion of a bekko product. While examining the shell's pattern and the conditions of its surface, the craftsman cut out teardrop-shaped bekko pieces with a fretsaw, and used a large rasp called "gangi" to file them. The bekko pieces were polished using different tools, which brought out a distinctive gloss in the two shell pieces. The pieces were then bound together with string, placed between heated iron plates, and compressed in a vise.

    After a 7-minute wait, the two turtle shell fragments became stuck together as one and the thickness of the material doubled. Isogai said, "How much heat is applied is based on intuition fostered over many years. By repeating this process, we create bekko chunks, and these are processed into various shapes." The last step is to polish the piece on a high-speed cylindrical grinding machine wrapped with cloth; the final product was a teardrop pendant that shone in a subdued and refined manner.

    While one turtle shell fragment is around three- to five-millimeters thick, they are hard to the touch and do not seem liable to crack easily. Shells serve as a protective suit that shields turtles' bodies from rock reefs and coral on the ocean floor, so naturally, they are tough. The marks left after parasitic barnacles attached themselves to the sea turtles can be seen on the shell. Surprisingly, the hard shell gets soft when heated. Protein in the shell melts and acts as glue, allowing shell pieces to be affixed to one another.

    "The whitish-yellow parts called 'shiroko' are especially valuable. Working out ways to gather these yellow portions and make them thicker is one skill of bekko craftsmen."

    The situation surrounding bekko changed greatly in 1994. Hawksbill turtles were added to the list of rare animals and plants to be protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or the Washington Convention, and were thus banned from international trade. The shells now existing within Japan were all brought to Japan before 1992. "For my family too, the material stored at home is all we have. As they are luxury goods and therefore not items that get sold frequently, I think I have enough material to create works for a lifetime," said Isogai.

    A taxidermy hawksbill turtle is seen at Isogai Bekko Senmonten in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on April 13, 2021. (Mainichi/Akinori Miyamoto) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Why have these bekko crafts been cherished around the world since ancient times?

    "It must be the unique caramel color that is different from the color of amber gemstones. The way it refracts light gives it a subtle beauty. It's lightweight but also durable. Its refined and subdued presence may be what makes it a beloved item that transcends time." So said Isogai as he stroked a taxidermy hawksbill turtle.

    * * *

    The first kanji character used for the word "bekko" denotes Chinese softshell turtles, which inhabit rivers across Japan and have also been consumed as food. Legend says that during the mid-Edo period, when regulations banning luxury were in place, the kanji was used so that individuals could get away with possessing the high-class items by claiming that they were cheap goods made from the shells of softshell turtles.

    * * *

    A taxidermy of a hawksbill turtle made in Cuba with a body around 60 centimeters long was placed in a corner of the workspace at Isogai Bekko Senmonten. Hawksbill turtles that live in the Caribbean Sea are a bit smaller than green sea turtles and loggerhead sea turtles that live in waters near Japan, and have narrow hawk-like beaks unlike the round-faced green sea turtles.

    * * *

    The Japan Bekko Association, to which Isogai Bekko Senmonten also belongs, has begun aquafarming off Ishigaki Island in Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, in order to generate a domestic supply of hawksbills, which are banned from international trade. Wild hawksbills also live in the warm waters near the island, and the natural environment makes for a perfect habitat.

    (Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

    * * *

    Hideyuki Isogai, head of Isogai Bekko Senmonten in Tokyo's Sumida Ward, is seen holding a taxidermy of a hawksbill turtle with its stomach facing up in this photo taken at the shop on April 13, 2021. The sea turtle's stomach, referred to as the "shiroko" or "harako," has a honey-yellow color and is extremely valuable material for bekko. (Mainichi/Akinori Miyamoto) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    A word of wisdom: Nothing can replace the precious material used to create bekko

    I was astonished to discover that the elegant ornaments with a dignified air in hues of amber and dark brown were made from the shells of the large sea turtle before me. The juxtaposition of the stern-faced hawksbill taxidermy and the charming accessories was even a bit amusing.

    The dark speckles on the surface of the turtle's upper shell is apparently called "barafu," whose dark and light brown colors I recognized as the hues used in bekko eyeglasses I've seen before on display. However, the key body part of the hawksbill turtle is its stomach, or the "harako," -- also called "shiroko" -- which has a rich yet transparent honey-yellow color and is extremely valuable material. Material taken from the lower edges along the turtle's body, including its rear, are also said to have great value.

    Isogai Bekko Senmonten's third-generation head Hideyuki Isogai said that the refined taste of bekko's unique color, especially under light, may be what distinguishes it from other material. Watching him demonstrate the process of combining shell pieces into one thick mass using only heat, water, and compression also made me realize that hawksbill shells are not only valuable for its appearance, but also for its ability to become a self-adhesive.

    Meticulous work went behind the creation of the tiny pendant, such as the careful examination of fragmented shells to determine what parts should be cut out and combined in order to accentuate the rare honey-yellow hue. When asked the temperature of the heated iron plates used to press shell pieces together, Isogai said that he does not know the exact number, and rather relies on the way water reacts when sprinkled on the surface. Subtle adjustments in temperature as well as the selection and combination of bekko cutouts showed that this craftwork is based on intuition fostered through years of practice.

    Isogai showed us tiny human-shaped bekko good-luck charms that are said to bring good fortune. Again, I was amazed to find that the rough material of turtle shells had been transformed into such delicate, smooth crafts which were the size of a fingernail.

    Behind the distinctive craft of bekko was also an elaborate creation process.

    "There is no replacement for this material." Isogai's words carried much weight.

    (By Chinami Takeichi, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

    * * *

    Isogai Bekko Senmonten is located at 2-5-5 Yokoami in Tokyo's Sumida Ward.

    Hideyuki's grandfather Kurata Isogai started a workshop in the current location in 1939, or the 14th year of Showa. Kurata, who apparently acquired the traditional skills of bekko craft while training under an Edo bekko craftsman in the neighborhood, devoted himself to creating bekko ornaments until he passed away at age 102 in 2016. His son and second-generation head Hajime handled accessories befitting modern times, which widened the range of design. Various Edo bekko crafts made by the three generation heads line the store.

    * * *

    Enchanting Edo

    The 'Enchanting Edo' series puts a spotlight on traditions, crafts, artisan's techniques and culture that date back several hundred years. Stories offer a glimpse into old shops in Japan's capital, which are all searching for ways to protect long-established skills and talent, while also keeping them alive in the modern day.

    The original Japanese versions, which can be reached via the link located at the top right below the headline, include "furigana" phonetic characters to assist in reading all kanji characters that appear in the text. The family-friendly text primarily targets grade school kids in Japan, but can also be used by non-Japanese readers learning intermediate-level Japanese. We encourage any readers interested in Japanese culture, language, or both to make full use of our series.

    'Enchanting Edo' will be published every other Tuesday.

    In Photos: Precious Japanese turtle shell crafts something to treasure

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