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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.”

When Mr. Ito was age 20, he quit his job and started training under his father — his master and predecessor in the factory. At that time, several dozens of artisans including his father dedicated themselves to making sumi in Suzuka. A while after beginning to help his father’s work, Mr. Ito noticed that some truly loyal customers came to his father because they felt his sumi inksticks alone could satisfy them. Then Mr. Ito became intrigued by his father’s expert know-how.
He says, “These loyal customers declared they could only use sumi made by my father. But when my father passed away, they also supported me by saying, ‘Stay calm. Don’t panic. We’ll use your sumi, too.’”
Ever since, Mr. Ito has continued making sumi all by himself. One day, a newspaper article dubbed him “the last sumi artisan in Suzuka.” “My son read it and came back to the factory, saying he wanted to take over this work someday.
“I tried to persuade him not to be a sumi artisan. I told him that this is tough work and this industry has no bright future. But at 3 a.m. when I went to the factory, my son was already there, waiting for me. He was rushing to keep up. So I admitted him. Eight years have passed since I told him we could work together,” says Mr. Ito.
He adds, “My father was excellent at making jet-black sumi with a glossy quality. In contrast, I dedicate myself to making usu-zumi (gray ink) sticks that enable calligraphers to display 3D effects on paper. Black varies in the sumi world. My son will produce his own black sumi some day. It’s not easy to create the real thing, but if he continues making the right efforts, he’ll move users of his sumi.”
Mr. Ito is working to expand the possibilities of sumi while continuing to pursue his own “world of black” as a sumi artisan. His projects include developing iro-zumi (colored sumi) and sumi paints for architectural purposes.
Mr. Ito says, “The most enjoyable part of this work is exploring all the possibilities of sumi that can really surprise customers and improving handling ease while using traditional techniques and materials. My work may seem to be tough and uncomfortable, but it’s actually quite fun and I cannot stop.”

[photo]Kido Ito

Kido Ito

Born in 1964 in Suzuka-shi, Mie Prefecture. At age 20, Mr. Ito was apprenticed to his father, Kamekichi Ito, and learned all sumi-making processes by himself. In 1998, he became the representative of Sinseido Co. Ltd.; in 2000, he created an industry first — sumi inksticks in eight colors called Setsu-Getsu-Fu-Ka (Snow Moon Wind Flower); also in 2000, he was accredited as a Traditional Craftsman by the Minister of International Trade and Industry. Today, Mr. Ito continues making suzuka-zumi with his son Harunobu Ito, a 4th-generation artisan at Sinseido.