As Korean crafts die out, a few practitioners seek to keep knowledge alive

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As Korean crafts die out, a few practitioners seek to keep knowledge alive

In the district of Ueno, the heart of some of Tokyo’s finest cultural landmarks, a department store specializes in selling kimonos, Japan’s traditional costumes. A single kimono, designed by a craftsman who was designated by Japan an “intangible cultural asset,” can cost up to several tens of million won (tens of thousands of dollars).
A Japanese school offers a special three-year program teaching computer-aided kimono design. More than 30 designer brands in Japan, including such fashion icons as Jean Paul Gaultier and Anna Sui, use the kimono as inspiration for designs they sell in the Japanese market.
How does Korea compare?
In many areas of traditional craft, Korea lacks people willing to learn the skills, even though traditional Korean craft is highly valued by foreigners.
During a naval battle against Japan, General Yi Sun-shin led the way to victory largely through his invention of the turtle ship. The ship had a flat floor made from locally-grown pine trees and was ideal for the sea off Korea with its rough tides.
Park Jeong-ok specialized in building traditional ships similar to those from Yi’s time. Park was designated an intangible cultural asset by the Seoul Government but died in 1994 without passing on her skills.
That is not the only instance where traditional crafts in Korea have been lost through a lack of public interest.
Today, hardly anyone in Korea specializes in tailoring traditional robes for the dead. Kim Jae-hwan, a master craftsman who was designated a national treasure as the only remaining expert in the field, died in 1988, and the tradition also died out.
“The tradition would have been maintained if there was even one person who was willing to learn their skills,” says Jin Dong-seong, an official at the Cultural Heritage department of North Gyeongsang province.
There are 46 traditional crafts designated as important intangible cultural assets in Korea. Up to 40 percent (18 areas) have no successors or aren’t clear on who will learn their skills. The areas include critical Korean crafts such as traditional print-making, screen-making, flag-making and silk embroidery.
According to a recent survey by the JoongAng Ilbo, up to 47 percent of Korean craftsmen designated intangible cultural assets predicted their skills would die with them. More than 55 percent said the demand for their crafts had reduced by half compared to the past.
Gu Jin-gap, 90, is one such craftsman. All his life, he has specialized in making traditional looms in Seocheon County, South Chungcheong province. But since he moved to his daughter’s house in Seoul, the tradition has almost stopped. A few young men in his hometown came to learn Gu’s skill, but have now moved on to other jobs.
“There would be people who are willing to learn if they could make a living through this job,” he says. “But even my children don’t want to do it.”
Time is running out. Many master artisans are getting very old.
Mun Jeong-ok, 78, who used to weave ramie fabrics, says she hasn’t worked for years because of back pain. Kim Jeom-sun, 88, who weaves silk, says the work has become too overwhelming for her.
More than half of Korean craftspersons designated intangible cultural assets are over the age of 70. About a quarter are in their 60s; as their ages increase, so does the risk of losing their particular skillbase.
The traditions could continue if potential students could be found who wanted to inherit the masters’ knowledge. Finding the right candidates isn’t easy, however. As a minor incentive, the government provides “living” grants for those who are designated as intangible cultural assets.
Jo Dae-yong, 55, whose family has specialized in producing decorative screens for four generations, hasn’t found the right candidate, perhaps because of the intensive labor involved in his craft. It can take up to three months to complete a single screen. Jo’s son, 27, who works in shipping, learned the technique from his father but it’s unclear whether he will take over the job.
“Korea’s crafts were put at great risk as the industrial development led to changes in our lifestyle,” says Mun Yeong-cheol, an official at the department of intangible cultural assets at the Cultural Properties Administration. “Up to 70 percent of crafts are slowly dying out.”
A few are quietly surviving, however. At 32, Park Hyung-bak, the son of a master craftsman who specializes in silk woven hats, decided to learn the craft. The son believes in the power of tradition. The father, however, was unhappy about his son’s decision at first, mostly due to a declining respect for traditional crafts and craftspeople in modern Korea.
“There is no design more delicate and unique in the world than a hat woven from a silk thread finer than a strand of your hair,” Park Hyung-bak says. “Just wait. There will be a day when our hats become cultural products as popular as kimono.”
Park Eun-ah and Park Eun-young are sisters who recently opened a studio in Seoul to make home accessories out of black bamboo. It was a bold decision by Eun-young, who was ready to fly to Europe to study Italian furniture after eight years of nursing. Instead, she became a student of Yun Byung-hun, 72, the world’s only master in the field.
“It is mainly foreigners who come to our studio to see the work,” Eun-young says. “I don’t see why young Koreans try to go abroad to study when we have beautiful crafts of our own.”


by Special Reporting Team

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