In China and Japan, sumi (black inkstick) is regarded as one of the bunboh-shihoh (“four treasures of stationery”) together with fude (writing brush), hanshi (thin paper), and suzuri (inkstone), and is treated respectfully as a tool for composing letters. Since sumi is a solid stick, ink liquid is produced by rubbing the inkstick against inkstone with water. Sumi writing has been found on a wooden plate in ancient China, and on a late 2nd century ceramic in Mie Prefecture — the oldest sumi in Japan.
Despite this long history, Japanese sumi (black inksticks) are now becoming rare. There are not only fewer opportunities to write letters in sumi but also fewer uses of handwriting itself. Shodo (Japanese calligraphy) is taught in art education at schools in Japan, but chemically made black ink liquid (bokuju) is often substituted for sumi.
At sumi manufacturing centers of Japan — Nara-shi, Nara Prefecture, and Suzuka-shi, Mie Prefecture — only one company called Sinseido survives in Suzuka-shi. A third-generation sumi artisan at the company, Kido Ito, continues producing suzuka-zumi (suzuka-style black inksticks) using a legendary method.
Mr. Ito says, “The history of sumi production in Suzuka is said to go back about 1,200 years. Our world is changing with the pursuit of convenience, so the number of people who use sumi has decreased, and consequently, sumi artisans have disappeared. But I will continue making sumi as long as even one person continues using it.”
Sumi is produced from pine tree or vegetable oil soot, nikawa (animal glue), and natural fragrances that add a unique aromatic scent. These three materials (soot, glue, and fragrance) are mixed, thoroughly kneaded, shaped in wooden molds, and aged from months to years.
The production peak is in wintertime, when sumi artisans work hard in early mornings when temperature is low. Sumi isn’t produced in summertime because nikawa (an ingredient made of animal protein) might spoil at high temperature. Sumi inksticks are dried in cold, dry wintertime weather to maintain good condition.
Mr. Ito continues, “I sense outdoor temperature with my skin and determine how to adjust amounts of water and nikawa glue. When the weather is frosty and under zero C° (32°F), we can make a great quantity of finest-quality sumi — large-size, luxury-class inksticks. The climate actually produces sumi.”