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Saturday, May 8, 1999

The tip top of a beautiful craft

Staff writer

At the corner of a room in their house in Iriya, Tokyo, Isamu Sase and his wife Hatsue work day and night making glass pens. They have had a surge of orders from shops all over Tokyo such as Tokyu Hands, Matsuya department store and Itoya in Ginza, which will keep them busy straight until June.

Sase, the only glass pen artisan left in Japan, has been creating glass pens since 1955. He left his home in Chiba at the age of 18 to apprentice in Tokyo right after graduating from high school.

Although nowadays glass pens can be seen everywhere in the world, they used to be less common. According to Sase, they were first invented in Japan in 1902 by the owner of a furin (wind bell) factory. They were widely used in post offices, banks and registry offices and were exported to Southeast Asia until 1973 when sales dropped and to Germany until about five years ago.

Now a rarity even in Japan, Sase is proud to continue making his original glass pens. Every glass pen created is a result of a joint effort by Sase and his wife. Sase makes the body and tip of the pens and his wife polishes the tip by drawing circles on paper. This has been her job ever since she married Sase 38 years ago.

Carrying out a task that requires a great deal of stamina and concentration on small details, Hatsue says that she has been on the verge of a nervous breakdown more than once. But now, she thinks of the job as something that she's destined to do. "Who would do it if I didn't do it?" she says with a peaceful smile.

There are three different kinds of pens that the couple currently makes. First is the kind that has a body made of bamboo and the glass tip glued in. Then there is the type where the glass tip can be screwed off the glass body. Finally, the most popular type, one developed three years ago, is the solid glass pen in which Sase incorporates different twisted patterns.

The most difficult part in the making of glass pens is creating the tip, or more specifically the part that threads the ink evenly down to the very end, says Sase. There are eight grooves that serve as ink channels and Sase has to melt each one in order to create the right point. Applying heat to it from an oil burner, he twists both ends of the glass tube at the same speed. Then he pulls both ends until all that is left at the separation point is a glass thread which then breaks, leaving the tip. "It takes about six years to master this difficult skill," Sase says.

The colors of glass used to make the tips are varied and include transparent, white, light brown, light purple and light green.

With prices ranging from 350 yen (disposable bamboo pens) to 16,000 yen (original glass pens), they are mostly used for drawing or writing calligraphy. Other customers buy them as birthday presents and gifts for wedding ceremonies (hikide-mono).

"Older people buy them to place in frames and wall decorations, but I'd rather they use the pens to write with instead. That's what they're for," says Sase.

"There isn't one pen that is the same as another. They all have different patterns depending on my feeling that day. I'm usually satisfied with only one or two pens a month, but when a unique pattern is created, it makes me very happy."

Sase Kogyosho: 2-29-8 Iriya, Taito-ku, Tokyo, (03) 3873-1564.

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