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Sunday, Feb. 15, 2009

WEEK 3

Eco-sweepers get to push their dust in the ancient way


Staff writer

In the future, when some oddly inclined academic sits down to pen the definitive history of the broom in Japan, several key years will stand out like piles of dust littering the corridors of time. One of them could be 2009.

News photo
Cleaning up: Junichi Takano sits in his Tokyo store with his traditional brooms. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

But before the historian's saga sweeps into our eco-minded and econo-chastened 21st century, it will first have to revisit the year 680. That was when, as Tokyo broom-seller Junichi Takano informed me last week, there was the first recorded mention of the broom in this country.

"The term hahaki is used in the 'Kojiki' ('Record of Ancient Matters')," Takano said. "That was what they called a hoki (broom) at the time."

In fact, simply by leaning back to reach into his well-stocked wall of merchandise, Takano — the manager of Shirokiya Nakamura Denbe Shoten in Tokyo's Kyobashi district — was even able to show me what an 7th-century sweeper looked like.

Retrieving a red-bristled broom from the wall, he declared: "This is what's called a shuroboki," thrusting it in my hand. "It's been largely unchanged for more than 1,000 years."

Putting it to the test, I found its bristles disappointingly limp.

"Push, don't sweep," Takano instructed. "It's made from the fibrous bark of a shuro tree (Chusan palm), so they don't flick like a normal broom. You have to push the dust."

I wasn't exactly swept off my feet by that modus operandus, but it turned out it didn't matter. Takano added solemnly that the curtain was about to fall on the illustrious shuroboki because the last man capable of harvesting shuro bark died a few years ago.

Since then Takano's been making the brooms using stock kept by a relative of the late harvester. "But we've been told there is only enough left for another five years," he said.

That sounds like another milestone for the historian to note: 2014, the year the ancient shuroboki succumbed to extinction.

Since the end of World War II, the fortunes of the Japanese broom — traditionally handmade by specialist craftsmen — have declined as the nation's economy has swept upward.

"Over the last 50 years people have predominantly been interested in things from the West," Takano said. "People started using vacuum cleaners and lost interest in brooms."

In fact, the year 1978 may represent the peak of gloom and doom for the broom. That was when Japan's brand new gate on the world, Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture, opened. It's a little known fact that among the farmers who vehemently protested the construction of the airport were some who made a living growing hokimorokoshi (grain sorghum), which in Japan is the grass used to make Edoboki, another popular type of broom.

"Edoboki are now the most common brooms," said Takano. "Their stems are more elastic than the shuro bark fibers, so they have a characteristic flick when you brush them against the floor."

When the Narita farms closed, Takano's company (which dates from 1830) started sourcing their hokimorokoshi in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture.

"We have contracts with all the farmers. If it wasn't for us, they'd be cultivating something else," he added.

Takano said there are now only two companies making handmade brooms in Japan: his and another in Iwate Prefecture. "It's a very small market," he said rather sheepishly by way of explication.

Nevertheless, it's growing, and that's why 2009 stands a good chance of making it into the hoki history books.

"We have seen increases in sales every year of late," Takano said. "We are now at about 150 percent of where we were five years ago."

Another positive development is the emergence of what you might call the "boutique broom." Takano's top-of-the-line product, the Tokujo model of an Edoboki broom, retails for ¥50,000 — twice the price of your average vacuum cleaner. It's woven from only the best grass from each year's crop — Takano's four broom-makers put aside the thinnest and most supple grass especially for it (the stuff that "bends like a fishing rod," said Takano). In 2008, 15 of the brooms were made, and all but one has been sold.

So, why is it that in 2009 — in the midst of a global recession — we are witnessing a boom in old-fashioned brooms at new-fangled prices?

Takano says the main reason is increased eco-consciousness. "Brooms don't use electricity," he pointed out.

User feedback on online retail hub Rakuten, where several stores are stocking Takano's brooms, backs up his prognosis.

"It's convenient and good for the environment," said one user.

Another said they were enjoying an "eco life," adding that they also liked it that their broom was quiet. "I can clean while listening to music," the happy homemaker wrote.

Takano added that many of his customers were condominium residents who needed to clean at night after they got home from work. "They're worried that vacuum cleaners will disturb the neighbors," he said.

But Takano thinks a deeper psychological shift is also at play. "It is people in my generation, in their 30s and 40s, who are buying the brooms," the 36-year-old said. "People my age have a real interest in Japanese things, which sets us apart from our parents. Our approach to cleaning is part of that."

Takano said that his clients enjoy the psychological satisfaction that comes with cleaning with a native broom. "It is related to our culture of taking off your shoes inside the house," he said. "Maintaining the cleanliness of the house is at the core of the Japanese lifestyle."

Likewise, Takano thinks the current economic crisis will result in an uptick in broom demand. "Sales are continuing to rise at the moment," he said. "I think the recession will result in a move from straight consumerism to a desire for fewer, more high-quality items."

And thus to the historian's take on 2009: the year of financial crisis that threw Japan into deep disarray — and led to new old brooms being called on to clean up the mess.



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