Inheriting a job is easier for some than others. My Dad was an accountant; my grandfathers were a printer and a dairy farmer. As a tour leader in Japan, I can hardly say I have followed in their footsteps. A good job too, I would have soon got lost had I tried.
78-year-old Yoshihiro inherited his job, an unusual one. He makes umbrellas, exactly as his father and grandfather did. Inside Mikawaya, his zelkova wood shop, Yoshihiro works while sitting on tatami – sitting on a chair is too time-consuming, he told me. He has no plans to retire – he is too busy.
The 3 generation family business began by chance. In the open port of Yokohama over 140 odd years ago, Yoshihiro`s grandfather spotted an Englishman holding a yogasa, a western umbrella. The umbrella must have been quite something – perhaps a Gents Solid, it inspired him to set-up an umbrella business back home in the mountains of Nagano.
When I told Yoshihiro I was from England, he got excited, bringing out an old newspaper article about Fox Umbrellas – Keeping You Dry Since 1868. In respectful tones, he referred to the UK as Eikoku. His deference made me feel proud, and slightly ridiculous. His image of umbrella-wielding John Bulls would be crushed if I told him about my umbrella-less upbringing (In Devon rain rises. Umbrellas are useless).
Not to be outdone, Yoshihiro outlined Japan`s contribution to umbrella-technology. The tale of Japanese umbrellas (I know you`re desperate to hear it) is a story of adaptations: first fiddling with karakasa, the bamboo and oil paper imports from China, then developing push-button and collapsible features to add to the yogasa arriving in Yokohama.
By borrowing and developing foreign models, Japan became umbrella pioneers. It`s a great story, isn`t it? Western and Chinese knowledge combining with Japanese spirit to put a portable roof over your head. Isn`t that a great story? ISN`T IT? Are you still there?
Soon converted, I bought a wide span, sturdy western collapsible for 1,800yen. Now a treasured possession, it is securely stowed away under my bed. I won`t waste it on showers.
I left Mikawaya a happy man, feeling better about the world, and even better about umbrellas. Yoshihiro`s enthusiasm for his job convinced me following footsteps does not have to be dull. It can inspire a lifetime`s labour. Now, is it too late for me to start milking cows?