By RYOKO NAKAMURA
RAFU JAPANESE STAFF WRITER
As the sweet smell of candy wafts in the air, a craft worker quickly creates a delicate figure such as a horse or rabbit with warmed candy. Many people in Japan used to enjoy seeing this traditional street art “amezaiku” in the old times.
The technique came down from China during the Heian Period, reached the masses during Edo Period, and became very popular after World War II. However, in the wake of technological advancements, the consumers’ attention turned to computers, video games, and karaoke, and those talented artists disappeared from the streets by the 1970s.
Forty years later, Takafumi Ichiyanagi decided to pursue a career as a professional candy man or “amezaiku-shokunin” in Los Angeles. He has been learning everything about amezaiku from his uncle, Shan, who has been in business since 1972 performing his craft in diverse locations from city sidewalks to high-end Hollywood private parties.
Born in 1984, more than a decade after the amezaiku boom passed, Takafumi grew up in Sapporo, Hokkaido, and recounts memories of his early exposure to the art form.
“To me, it wasn’t anything new or rare. Every time my uncle visited us from Los Angeles, he showed us his amazing technique. He even let us try to make some animals,” he said.
As a child, he didn’t recognize how lucky he was, as most of the youth in his generation grew up without ever witnessing this type of candy making in person.
Takafumi’s blessed circumstance conversely made him disinterested in amezaiku. Instead, he was hoping to pursue a career as a professional baseball player. “In high school, I reached the limit of my ability and lost my motivation not only for baseball but for my life as a whole,” he recalled. He graduated from high school with no clear-cut goal.
Since then, he kept changing jobs and lived his life day-by-day. When he was 22 years old, he started working at a construction company. “Working with people who have a lot of life experience made me realize that the world I was living in was so small and there was a huge world out there,” he said.
It was then that Uncle Shan’s success came to mind. When he was young, he and his family visited Shan in Los Angeles. “I remembered Angelinos’ sparkling eyes when my uncle demonstrated his work on the streets of LA. I thought that was it,” said Takafumi.
He soon picked up the phone to ask his uncle if he could teach him amezaiku. Takafumi left for Los Angeles six months later.
From Life Attitude to Table Manners
“The learning experience was very tough. My uncle was very strict,” Takafumi recalled. Shan showed his nephew no mercy. He taught him everything from life attitude to table manners, to fitness training. “At first, I didn’t understand why those were important for becoming an amezaiku-shokunin,” said Takafumi.
Shan always told him, “An amezaiku-shokunin is a street performer as well as a high-end entertainer. As a professional, you need to provide the best to your customers. Even though you are an excellent performer, if you are a messy eater or if you don’t have knowledge of history, culture, or art, you can only go so far. You need to understand the proper decorum as a true performer.”
They often clashed. More than once or twice, Takafumi packed up his stuff intending to go back home. But every time, his American best friend convinced him to stay, reminding Takafumi how fortunate he was to have one of the best amezaiku-shokunin in the world as his teacher and to be in a position to carry on the Japanese tradition.
It’s been six years since then. Being in the U.S., he constantly identifies himself as Japanese, which he never thought about when he was in Japan. “Unlike in Sapporo, a small town in the northern part of Japan, people here see me as a Japanese man. That made me think that I should live up to its name. I then completely gave up on the idea of trying to escape,” Takafumi said.
Preserving amezaiku gives him a positive pressure. “I’d like to keep the tradition alive, and also add the modern taste with my personality and originality to it,” Takafumi said.
He said his next challenge would be “to look at the world with a broad view.” To take his craft to audiences beyond Los Angeles, Takafumi says, “I will need at least ten years of training here in the U.S., and then I can re-export modern version of amezaiku, like adding a few steps of dance or magic to my performance,” he said.
Takafumi understands bringing “new” amezaiku to Japan won’t be easy since they already have a fixed concept of how it should be. But he is convinced that “By improving my skills and technique, I think I can do it. I can be an amezaiku-shokunin who brings a smile to customers’ faces, just like my Uncle, Shan.”
Amezaiku is creating beauty from simple material
In 1971, Shan Ichiyanagi came to the U.S. by himself from Sapporo, to become a bilingual businessman. At the adult school where he was learning English, one of his classmates, Masaji Terasawa, demonstrated amezaiku in front of their classmates. That instantly brought back Shan’s childhood memories.
“After the War, Japan lost everything. We were all poor. We didn’t have anything. As a child, looking at amezaiku on the street all day long was the only entertainment. I was so fascinated by the process of beautiful pieces of work emerging from wrinkled old person’s hands. I never thought I could see the art again, especially here in the U.S.,” Shan recalled.
Since then, the beauty of amezaiku captivated him again. “I never thought of becoming an amezaiku-shokunin since it was a very tough business, but under the mentorship of Mr. Terasawa and after countless practices, I was able to perform in front of many clients,” Shan said.
Amezaiku usually shapes a simple figure, but Shan’s work is more realistic and even has an uplifting feeling. When he made a simple abstract horse for an American customer a long time ago, she said her horse didn’t look like that at all. Since then, Shan has studied animals, added muscles, and made the figures look more realistic.
Being a Karate instructor and a graduate gemologist (GIA), Shan was able to utilize his physical strength, balance, and sophisticated eyes to bring beauty to his amezaiku performance skills. He soon became a well-known ameizaiku-shokunin in America.
Looking back at Takafumi’s training days, Shan gave his nephew high praise for identifying himself as a Japanese. “That was a big step for him. By realizing who he really is, he can finally set life goals.” Shan now sees growth in Takafumi, who used to spend his days in a state of malaise.
“A good entertainer won’t disappoint customers. And to become that, flexibility is the key. At performance sites, people will ask you about amezaiku, certainly, but also about Japanese history. They will want to chat about everything from politics to economy. You always have to be ready to have any kind of conversation with your customers,” Shan said.
He still clearly remembers seeing all the children’s excited eyes when they saw a beautiful piece of work coming out of amezaiku-shokunin’s hands in the old times. “Takafumi’s generation wouldn’t know this, but the customers’ sparkling eyes haven’t changed since,” said Shan.
He hopes that Takafumi understands the history behind amezaiku and the real meaning of traditional art. He said, “It’s not about money. From the homeless to the president of the U.S., amezaiku can make people feel happy. Today, a billionaire proposes a plan to build 80,000-person Mars colony. I want Takafumi to carry on the tradition as if he were going to perform in Mars in the near future.”