Japanese Magic Mirror Maker

Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan, and it was prosperous for various craftsmanship. After moving the capital to Edo, many craftsmen left Kyoto, and because of the trend of modernization, the craftsmanship passed down from ancient times to the present has gradually withered and disappeared. Some traditional craftsmen may have been the last to guard Kyoto in their respective fields.

Yamamoto Alloy Manufacturing Co., Ltd. was founded in 1866 at the end of the Edo period. The Yamamoto family’s workshops inherited from generation to generation the work of Japanese mirror makers headed by Ise Jingu and dedicated to shrines and temples across Japan. Most of the mirrors we see now are glass products imported from the West, but in Japan before the Meiji era, people used mirrors made of alloys such as copper, tin, and white lead.

The casting of mirrors, the making of mirror back patterns, and the polishing of mirrors passed down from ancient times are all done by hand in this workshop. The workshop is located in a residential area in Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto, retaining the simple layout of a street factory in the past. Opening the sliding glass door, Mr. Akira Yamamoto, the fifth-generation descendant, greeted him. He and his father, Mr. Fujio, can be said to be the last mirrormakers in Japan. Mr. Akira said that he grew up watching his father and grandfather make a mirror, and he really became interested in this job when he helped his family work as a part-time job at university.

Make a magic mirror, show the miracle
The production and mirror are roughly divided into three stages: casting, sawing, and polishing. The first is the casting process, which uses sand to make models. If you want to create a pattern on the back, you need to use a bamboo grate to engrave the pattern on the mold. After the mold is fired and dried, pour the molten copper and tin metal solution at a high temperature. Once the casting is over, it must be peeled from the model, sanded the mirror surface and the edges, and then used a long file stick or a softer and more delicate tool “shovel” to finish the file. The lines formed by the file rod should be further polished with a “shovel”, and the small unevenness formed by the “shovel” needs to be polished with a whetstone for a long time. After that, Pak charcoal and Suruga charcoal are used for further fine grinding, and the final step is either gold plating or alloying. These sorting steps were previously done by various industries separately, but from the time of Mr. Akira’s grandfather, except for the final gold-plated products, all have become the entire manual work of the spectacleist.

Mr. Akira said: “I worked in the casting factory in the southern district for six years at the earliest. I only did one operation, which was to make sand and soil into a mold, then melt the metal and pour it into it. Later, in the workshop in the Shimogyo district, Next to my grandfather, I began to delve into the steps of grinding with charcoal after demoulding. I showed my grandfather the work after desperately grinding, but he answered me, “It would be better to grind a little longer. For the next two years, I have been practicing these steps repeatedly. At that time, I couldn’t help thinking how not to teach me other jobs. But I knew my grandfather was observing how satisfied I was. When I exceeded the benchmark, he would teach me the next step. In this cycle, I realized this standard in about two years. After that, my grandfather taught me all the steps.”

The length of time required for production varies. With a new pattern, a small mirror with a diameter of about five centimeters will take one to two months, and a large one with a diameter of 20 centimeters will take two to four months. Mr. Akira said that he is still in the learning stage. And one of the most important techniques he inherited from his grandfather is the “magic mirror”. Mr. Akira started making magic mirrors in his twenties. This Yamamoto alloy factory has also become the only place in Japan that produces a “magic mirror” that can reflect the hidden appearance on the back of the mirror.

The “magic mirror” is an ordinary mirror from the front and back, but when it is illuminated by light, the pattern on the back can be clearly seen. The surface of the mirror has many concave and convex holes that are invisible to the naked eye. After the mirror is polished to a thickness of about one centimeter, the pattern on the back will become a shadow and cast on the surface. This is also called the “magic mirror phenomenon.” Because the mirror surface will be broken if it is polished too thin, it must have enough delicate technology. Regarding the magic mirror, the most well-known is that Christianity was suppressed in the middle of the Edo period in Japan, and the pattern hidden in the magic mirror is Jesus Christ. Although the pattern on the copper plate on the back of the mirror is pine trees or cranes, in a dark room with no light, facing the mirror to the light source, the mysterious Jesus statue hidden inside will emerge. Holding such a magic mirror allowed the Christians of the time to secretly maintain their faith. In modern times, people can certainly analyze and interpret it from a scientific point of view, but this magic mirror that hides the icon of Jesus was made about three hundred years ago. For people at the time, it was really mysterious. Metaphorical.

However, with the end of the Edo period, the suppression of Christianity disappeared, and the magic mirror was no longer needed. In the Meiji era, cheap glass mirrors became popular, the number of traditional mirrormakers who hand-made bronze mirrors dropped sharply, and the magic mirrors were at the end of their lives. The person who resurrected the magic mirror in 1974 was Mr. Akohisa’s grandfather, Mr. Shinji Yamamoto, the third-generation descendant of Yamamoto Alloy Manufacturing Co., Ltd. This technology is now recognized as an intangible cultural property by the Japanese government, and the magic mirror of Jesus made by Mr. Akira and his father and grandfather was presented to the Pope of Rome as a gift when Prime Minister Abe visited the Vatican in 2014.

Mr. Akira said: “The origin of the magic mirror is unknown. The oldest surviving magic mirror in Japan is the triangular-rimmed beast mirror from the Kofun period. It can show what we call the magic mirror phenomenon. There is also a saying called Himiko (Ancient Japanese Witchcraft Religion). The instructor of) has used magic mirrors, but they are still inconclusive. There are three magic mirrors that hide the image of Jesus in Japan. They are indeed made deliberately under the premise of familiarity with the process. Other mirrors may only be due to the thin surface of the mirror. Occasionally triggered the phenomenon of magic mirror. As a makeup tool used by women every day, the metal material of the mirror will become blurred, so the spectacleist will polish it once or twice a year to restore its luster. This process is repeated several times. Ten years or even hundreds of years, the mirror surface will naturally become thinner. We will continue to polish it for a month in order to artificially make the magic mirror phenomenon, but in the previous era, the thinning was naturally formed, so people guessed that maybe in Xiangyang The spectacleist who polished the mirror in his room discovered this phenomenon by accident.”

Repair ancient mirrors and extend life
Magic mirrors are called “translucent mirrors” in China. It is said that they have existed since the Han Dynasty about two thousand years ago, but it only became popular in Japan during the Edo period. The technology resurrected by Mr. Akira’s grandfather should indeed be inherited and passed on to future generations, and Mr. Akira hopes that its charm will be widely spread. On the other hand, he also worked on the production of bronze mirrors enshrined in shrines and temples and the restoration of ancient mirrors, saying that he also learned a lot from the restoration work.

Mr. Akira said: “The quality of mirrors in the Edo period was actually not good. In the past, mirrors were only used by noble people, so the mirrors produced were of different shapes and good quality. But in the Edo period, mirrors became common people. For common people’s daily necessities, everyone began to use bronze mirrors. The precision of mass-produced products was low. In order to increase profit margins, material costs were reduced, so most of the mirrors at that time were very thin. The mirrors we made for long-term use were three to four centimeters thick. However, the products from the Edo period are only 1.5 to 2 centimeters, and they are indeed thin enough to cause the phenomenon of magic mirrors. When repairing these thin and scarred mirrors from the Edo period, they can fill in the scars. The technology has also been greatly improved. The mirror will be polished and thinner, so after the scar is inlaid and filled, the thinned part should be properly polished. Ancient mirrors need to be repeated inlaid and polished. There are a thousand processes. So many.”

Only with such careful process and craftsmanship can we create high-quality mirrors and magic mirrors. Nowadays, the props used are almost the same as those hundreds of years ago, and the only craftsmen who used the same method to produce are Yamamoto and his sons. “After the quality of bronze mirrors fell, glass mirrors appeared, and this technology was lost. But my first generation of ancestors started this business in the late Edo period and have been making mirrors enshrined in shrines. This technology has been firmly established. When I take it down, and hope to continue to pass it on. I feel very happy.”

The Japanese have three kinds of artifacts: mirror, jade, and sword. Among them, the mirror is the most sacred existence. It can not only reflect the appearance of oneself, but also can be said to be the entrance to another world, and sometimes contains special philosophical significance. In addition, when restoring a mirror made by an ancient unknown mirror maker, he felt that he was touching something very important. This work was like extending the life of an old object. Mr. Akakisa said he felt Incomparable charm. At the same time, there is only one workshop that can carry out this work, and he really feels the responsibility he bears.

Mr. Akira’s hands moved back and forth, and the sound of “shooing” when rubbing the copper material echoed quietly in the small workshop. Small metal shavings continuously popped up here, and the mirror over there gradually exuded an elegant brilliance. When he watched the steps of charcoal grinding, he felt that the water seemed to give some incredible power to the metal. In this way, the metal material is continuously polished, so that the originally fuzzy mirror surface gradually becomes clear, until it can reflect the real world. The reflection method of the mirror is also different from that of the glass, which makes people feel a little soft. Looking at it all the time, we feel that there is something clearly and tangibly other than the actual picture seen by these eyes. I am afraid that everyone can feel this.