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A Slovak's brush with destiny

Margita Bajo covers a calligraphy brush with a plastic bag at one of Bunkodo Co.'s workshops in Kumanocho, Hiroshima Prefecture.
Bajo talks with a coworker.
Bajo and her mother-in-law, Tsuyumi, chat in front of their house. Fude-making has brought the two together after rough times early in their relationship.
Bajo examines tomatoes grown in the neighborhood.

Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

KUMANOCHO, Hiroshima--It was just a part-time job, Margita Bajo thought, when she began working at a brush manufacturer 15 years ago. But making brushes, or fude, has become more than a job. It has helped the shy Slovak mingle with the locals of this Western Japanese town and fueled her enthusiasm to become a master in the traditional craft.

Bajo's first years in Japan were filled with surprises--even bewilderment at times. Moving in 1978 to her Japanese husband's hometown of Kumanocho, the couple lived with his parents. She had a hard time communicating, especially with her mother-in-law, Tsuyumi, who speaks bluntly and with a strong dialect. Cultural shock also came in a nonverbal way.

"She wouldn't look me in the eye when we talked," the 52-year-old said in Japanese, recalling of her mother-in-law when they started living in the same house. "I didn't get it, although now I kind of get why she was that way. I figure she just wasn't sure how to get on with me."

The language and cultural barriers initially seemed high between them, but the walls were gradually broken down as Bajo found a common interest with Tsuyumi--fude-making.

Her mother-in-law, a native of the town where 80 percent of the country's brushes are produced, has more than 65 years of experience in the craft and makes calligraphy brushes at home on commission. As she closely observed the fude-manufacturing process, Bajo became fascinated with the craft and tried her hand at it. In time, Tsuyumi began teaching her the basic techniques.

"I wasn't against her taking up the craft. But I just didn't think she could do it because even I'm not satisfied with my skills yet," the 82-year-old Tsuyumi said.

But Bajo is grateful to Tsuyumi for teaching her the basics. "If she hadn't been doing this job, I wouldn't have got into the craft," Bajo said.

The two now seem to get along well, talking to each other in a heavy Kumano dialect.

Yasuko Mimura of Bunkodo Co., Bajo's current employer, said: "She [Tsuyumi] always had a bit of an attitude, but she always looks after Margita-san."

Bajo was born the youngest of five girls in the southwestern Slovak city of Nove Zamky. As their mother died young, the sisters helped each other, forming close bonds. After graduating high school, Bajo went to a culinary school and became a licensed cook. What she refers to as her "fateful meeting" with her husband, Masahiro, took place in 1976. Masahiro, who was posted to Slovakia by his company, was a regular at the company cafeteria where she worked. They married not long after that, but the couple had to live separately for two years before eventually settling down in the Hiroshima town.

"Japan was a faraway and strange place to me. I spent lots of time fretting about whether I should come here or not. My sisters worried about me, too," she said.

Bajo hoped to become integrated into the Japanese community quickly, but never imagined herself trying to follow in the footsteps of her mother-in-law.

In 1990, Bajo was offered a job at Bunkodo, the company to which Tsuyumi occasionally contributes her works. At first, Bajo did not take the job seriously, thinking of it as a part-time job where she could spend her free time constructively, just as she had done before. "I took the job mainly because it was so close to my house," she said with a chuckle.

Indeed, her house is located only a few hundred meters from the company, where she works for about five hours every day. Her main work there is mixing hair, one of the most important steps in producing quality brushes. Hair from horses, deer, goats, raccoon dogs and weasels are commonly used for brushes. The hair, with its different qualities and characteristics, is blended thoroughly and then trimmed straight and combed well to prevent strands from facing the wrong direction.

These are only some of the more than 70 steps in manufacturing fude. Today, each process is carried out by a different skilled worker. Most of the work is labor-intensive and requires a high level of technique and experience.

Surrounded by mountains, Kumanocho has a population of just over 26,000, of whom about 2,500 are involved in the brush industry, according to the municipality's statistics.

The Kumano fude dates back to the late Edo period (1603-1868) when local farmers, who worked away from home when they were not farming, acquired fude-making skills and brought them back to the town.

In recent years, the Kumano fude has grown in popularity, particularly for makeup, as brushes produced in the town have won acclaim from professionals in the cosmetics industry and among Hollywood actresses.

Earlier this year, Bunkodo and eight other fude-making firms participated in an international trade fair in France to showcase the craftsmanship to the world.

But a declining number of people are taking up the craft. In an effort to pass the fude-making skills down to the next generation, about 15 licensed traditional craftspeople in the Kumano fude sector are offering comprehensive seminars on fude making. Bajo is one of the students.

Bunkodo's Mimura admires Bajo's efforts. "Young people tend to shy away from fude-making as the craft requires patience and extensive experience. Plus, you get messy dealing with animal hair. I think the traditional craft should be passed down to motivated people like her," she said.

Bajo's passion for the craft seems to grow the more she learns. "It's fascinating that every brush we make is distinct because of the differences in quality and characteristics of the hair," Bajo said.

She also bashfully expressed her goal of becoming a certified artisan. Pausing a moment, she added, "But I still have a long way to go before I get to that point."

(July. 30, 2005)
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