Skajan gains popularity abroad as a cool Japan cloth. Zigzag stitching embroidery is a traditional embroidery technique used for skajan that has been steadily declining in recent years. SHISHUMANIA a.k.a Fukumori Tankuma is a man who found new possibilities in such techniques through incorporating it into the two-dimensional world expressions. After encountering embroidery in the SDF, he has studied and cultivated his skills in Kiryu, Gunma Prefecture technology. Such a sophisticated skill now attracts a variety of clients including famous musicians. We visited him who is now preparing for an up-coming solo exhibition from July 17, and we heard about his own career, lost traditional technology “zigzag embroidery”.
Possessing a longing for the Skajan, Fukumori left SDF for the world of zigzag stitching embroidery
——I heard you met embroidery at the SDF.
Fukumori Tankuma (hereinafter referred to as Fukumori): Originally I wanted to be a pilot. When I was a child, I really liked the airplane insomuch that I used to go to the airport to see airplanes every week. Even when I was in junior high, I still wanted to be a pilot. I had passed the exam to become the Aviation Self Defense Force Student (※ Currently abolished), and after graduation of junior high school I was assigned to Kumagaya base in Saitama Prefecture.
——It seems there is the other path to be a pilot than being a part of the Self Defense Forces, such as getting a position in an airline.
Fukumori: I really wanted to leave my hometown Miyazaki and move to Tokyo. Besides, although I look like this kind of man now, at that time I studied quite hard (laughs). So if I become a pilot, I thought the Aviation Self Defense Force would be better. You can get a salary while studying, and you are highly likely to become a pilot in the future. What more do you want? My parents said that “maybe you should go to ordinary high school?” But I gave it a try and passed the extremely competitive entrance exam with only 4 percent of the applicants accepted.
——That’s great. What did you learn there?
Fukumori: First of all, there is a foundation course. You do various trainings while studying as a high school student, and you determine which path to take at the third grade. I took exams to become a pilot and an air controller, but was rejected at the aptitude test in the second stage of both ones. When I was 28 years old, I received a diagnosis of developmental disorder at the hospital, and I think this disorder may have possibly related to these results.
Fukumori: I worked hard only because I wanted to be a pilot. But my childhood dream was suddenly collapsed, and I absorbed a first setback in my life. However, I had to choose a job as long as I was in the SDF. So I thought that I would like to do an unfamiliar job, and I took an exam for an information officer because even the instructor didn’t have a detailed information about it and it sounded like 007, which was cool. I didn’t think I would pass the test because that job seemed to be the most popular. But I got a place and decided to try my best for the time being.
——And how was that job?
Fukumori: I was feeling blue every day because I had difficulty at work, and my relationship with colleagues was not good at all. I was like “I am useless and not wanted because I am off the beaten path.” Even when the work is over, I returned to a 5-person room of the dormitory which was always dark due to the closed blackout curtains. We were not allowed to make any noise in the room because all the roommates were working in different shifts, regardless of the time of the day or night. I even lost track of night and day. Besides, the base I was assigned to was located in a remote island with nothing but the base, I could not go out. At night, I was crying from the window of the toilet, looking at the city lights on the opposite shore.
——It must have been hard for youths who want to go out at night to stay in a such place. It sounds depressing.
Fukumori: What kept my spirits up then was my hobby: hand embroidery which I did with extra threads originally used for sewing the rank insignias and unit badges to the uniforms. Since it emptied my mind, I did it during a break and after work. On a day off I was doing embroidery all day long like mad. My boss who saw that situation reported to a higher official that I was a little mentally ill, and recommended me a counsel with a psychiatrist who visits the base on a regular basis (bitter laugh). Then, my boss also kindly searched the embroidery workshop on the Internet for me because he understood how passionate I was about it. I asked workshops if they are accepting disciples, and I finally found a place after sending inquiries to thirteen workshops.
——Then, you retired the Self-Defense Forces and entered into the world of embroidery.
Fukumori: I was not suitable at all and just became a nuisance to everybody else, so I decided to quit it to start a new life. I thought I’d try this because I’ve been embroidering for a long time. So to speak, it was my last hope.
——By the way, there are many different types of embroideries. What is the zigzag embroidery?
Fukumori: Nowadays, most of the embroideries are done with computer sewing machines, but the machine used for the zigzag embroidery is the zigzag sewing machine, a primitive form of the recent model. Zigzag embroidery is a technique of embroidering done by adjusting the direction and angle manually while manipulating the width of the embroidery with the foot. So the result is completely up to a craftsman’s feeling. This will prevent the embroidery from becoming too clogged, resulting in a soft, three-dimensional and expressive finish.
——Why did you get interested in the zigzag embroidery?
Fukumori: The biggest thing was my longing for Sukajan and the fact that I had the one from Toyo Enterprise. After that, I continued working for SDF for about half a year, but when I was 19, I retired and started training under the most famous master in the zigzag embroidery industry in Kiryu City, Gunma Prefecture.
After a false accusation of stealing the master’s job
——What did you do for the training?
Fukumori: First, I started with remembering the pattern and proceed to traditional Sukajan motifs such as tigers and peony. However, instead of the so-called apprenticeship system of “seeing and stealing skills,” you have to pay if you want the master to teach you. It was like a one-on-one workshop. There were some people who became disciples after me, but they quitted soon after that. Seriously, there is just few works. The apprenticeship is a system that can exist on the basis of a lot of work. At that time, I realized that the reason why there are no young craftworkers is that there is no work even if I try hard to learn it.
——But the wages per case were not bad, right?
Fukumori: The brokers extract such outrageous commissions that the amount of money a craftworker can get is incredibly low. Still, the reason why the craftworkers can manage the business was that many of the them are housewives. Everyone was married and could work to earn a little extra spending money. However, I had to make my living by myself, so I had three part-time jobs. In doing so, I was taught on weekends or once a week from noon to 6 pm.
——Since you were self-taught already, your master must have been surprised by your skills.
Fukumori: Fukumori: No, on the contrary, I was so bad that even the fellow disciples were better than me (bitter laugh). Although I thought that I might not be suitable for that job, I decided to continue it, thinking that I’ve quitted the Self-Defense Forces and I would live with this. As a result, I continued that training for about five years.
——When did you become independent?
Fukumori: I thought that as long as I didn’t get enough number of jobs, I would end up working part-time. Then, I thought nothing would start if I continued to live in Gumma. So I suggested my master, “I’ll move to Tokyo to get more jobs. And shall we work together?” The master willingly consented and said “I’m glad you said so. Do your best in Tokyo under my house name.” However, when I made a parting visit to the embroidery union, I was ignored for some reason …
Fukumori: When I asked why, people cursed me saying, “Are you going to take all the work of your master and run away?” In addition, even the master also accused me unfairly behind my back and said, “I was paying him salary, but he stole my job and ran away.” Then I went to the master to ask about it but he pretended not to know anything. I threw everything away and did my best to work on embroidery because I thought it was my last hope. But I was very shocked at this pathetic end.
——So you moved to Tokyo then?
Fukumori: I wanted to but I couldn’t afford a rent of house in Tokyo, so I moved to Toda Park in Saitama and was looking at Tokyo over Arakawa every day. Tokyo was bright at night (laughs).
Ita-shishu embroidery is completely different from tigers and dragons, and much more difficult than them.
——At that point, had you technically reached a level where you could make a living?
Fukumori: No, not at all. However, there was no choice but to do it. So, in order to let someone know who this “nobody” is, I thought I should make use of Twitter and Nico Nico Douga that I started using at that time. I took a video of my daily work process and uploaded them on Nico Nico Douga and tweeted. After one video which became so popular and was inducted into the Hall of Fame, I suddenly became well known.
——I’m wondering what the trigger was.
Fukumori: Noticing idol otaku people wearing Tokkou-fuku, a long, loose coat originally worn by Japanese gang members, with the embroidered names of their favorite group, members or lyrics, I wondered if I would do this with illustrations. So I embroidered illustrations on the back of the trunks and made a video capturing the process of making it and me wearing it, which went viral. So it wasjust a timing issue. The anime “Love Live!” was incredibly popular at the time and people were crazy about the waste of such technics. From that point, I started to receive orders for Ita-Tokkou-fuku.
——So it wasn’t started with the request from the customer, but with your voluntary work, right?
Fukumori: I think the popular YouTuber HIKAKIN is of the same generation, but that was the good time for people like us to gain prominence. In an era when mixi and Ameba blogs were the mainstream in the world and there were many people who did not even know YouTube yet, Twitter and Nico Nico videos appeared. If you did something interesting, it went viral immediately. In my case, I didn’t have any connection with people who are doing embroidery or people who like it, so I thought I had no choice but to use the internet. Then, in the process of uploading a lot of works, I gradually came to be known. I also had the goal of honing my skills and doing costumes for commercials and movies someday, so I moved to Tokyo thinking that Saitama would not be the best place for that purpose.
——From that point on, you started to receive an increasing number of orders for Ita-shishu embroidery (embroidery of 2D characters) depicting the characters from animation, right? What was the dilemma of doing Ita-shishu embroidery despite the fact that you had started embroidery because of your love for so-called Sukajan-kind of designs?
Fukumori: I had initially thought that the patterns of tigers and dragons usually embroidered on Sukajan could only be created with proficient skills of decades, but I became able to do it in a year and a half (laughs). It was surprisingly easy. Compared to that, Ita-shishu embroidery was completely different, and it was much more difficult than them. First of all, you have to express the cuteness of the character well. Therefore, what you should give your attention to the eyes and hair, which are the important factors for creating facial expressions, and the fingers as well. Also, the outfits of characters are usually elaborately designed. You know, they have a lot of ribbons or something. So it was quite difficult to grasp the techniques for expressing it, but I have become able to master it perfectly by working on more than 150 works so far.
——Have you used any character from the other works than “lovelive!” as a motif?
Fukumori: Yes, I have worked on a lot of works from “Imus (” The Idolmaster “) to Garupan (” Girls und Panzer “). In the context of high popularity of Itasha, a car decorated with images of fictional characters, outside of Japan, I was interviewed by overseas media as a guy embroidering an anime character in Japan. This year, I will be included in a book about Japanese craftsmen involved in anime that will be published by a German publisher. Since I was asked to get together the otaku people who own the works I have worked on so far, so I contacted them to gather and took a picture of them.
——You are not currently accepting any orders for Ita-shishu embroidery, right?
Fukumori: Even though I drew drafts, chose the best colors and threads by myself, I created embroideries out of what I traced the pictures protected by the copyrights. So it is in a legal gray area in terms of copyright and I was not legitimately able to claim that these were my work, even if not be sued. I stopped getting order, thinking that I shouldn’t make profit out of someone else’s artworks. Also, the embroidery shops with computer sewing machine started doing on-demand embroidery service. It was when I was just thinking about how I should quit, so I felt like I had done all I could do, and I thought that was the time.
From my hectic days, I suddenly became unable to embroider and became a host.
——What kind of things do you usually have in your personal order?
Fukumori: After all, there are many Sukajans. In a rare case, I even embroidered the owner’s name on a loincloth (laughs). After that, in the context of receiving orders from those in the fashion industry, stylists, or labels, I happened to receive the orders for the costumes that KinKi Kids would wear in NHK Red and White Song Battle (an annual New Year’s Eve Television Special featuring the most popular music artists of the year) and the concert costumes of a Japanese rock band BREAKERZ.
——You’ve done a lot of other big work, haven’t you?
Fukumori: What surprised me most was the order from Cygames. As a uniform for players participating in the world’s largest fighting game tournament called “Evolution Championship Series 2018”, I created Sukajans with embroidered characters each player uses. That was crazy. They kindly said to me, “We are supporting creators, so you can tell us how much you want to be paid.” After all, I did it at a normal rate (laughs). So, I also accompanied the team to Las Vegas, where the tournament was held. At the tremendously huge stadium, the only two players fight on the stage at once built in it. Maybe I’ve done pretty much everything I wanted to do there. After that, I received a long-awaited offer for costume production for the movie “Junpei, Think Again” starring Shuhei Nomura. When I found the name of SHISHUMANIA at the top of the list of costume producers on the end-title credit, I burst into tears.
——And the name of SHISHUMANIA was spreading, right?.
Fukumori: The more opportunities to get people to know about my website, YouTube, Nico Nico Douga, online articles, SNS, introductions from my friends I had, the more and more orders I received. At that time, I was working on embroidery every day. That’s what made me crazy. I also received 150 personal orders in a year. One outfit was shipped every two days. What’s more, instead of dealing with several outfits at the same time, I worked on one by one. Then I took a picture, updated the homepage, made embroideries based on conversations with customers.
——You were having hard days. How long does it take to complete one outfit?
Fukumori: It takes about two days to finish one wear. I concentrate on it and do it continually for about 8 hours.
——The blog written by you at that time tells how your work was driving you into the corner.
Fukumori: That’s right. One day, I suddenly couldn’t embroider. After that, I was just drowsy for about two weeks. After waking up in the morning, the sun went down before I notice while I was sitting on the futon. I couldn’t do anything and people around me told me that I should go to the hospital. As a result, I was diagnosed as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
――How did you spend your time when you were diagnosed as ADHD and away from embroidery?
Fukumori: I cancelled all the orders, apologizing to all the customers. I took medicine and was bedridden for a week. The medicine worked and I felt a little better, so I re-apologized to everyone and gave them refund. Thinking about why this had happened from there, I decided to try something that I didn’t think is suitable for me. I started working for a host club as a male host in Kabukicho, Shinjuku, where I lived nearby at that time.
――What an unexpected turn! That industry is the typical environment of survival-of-the-fittest world, isn’t it?
Fukumori: After all, I realized that it wasn’t suitable for me at all because I had almost no clients there, so I quitted it after three months (laughs). Well that was an escape. I was thinking of resetting everything. Perhaps the power of medicine made me thought unusually. If I forgot to take the medicine, my body would not move at all for a few days. I stopped taking the medicine at the same time I retired the host club. At that time, I was impressed by the movie “JORKER” and thought “I want to embroider for the first time in a long time!”. While embroidering this, I realized again, “Oh, I can do it! I love embroidery after all.”
“Having fun” and “making people happy” is the most important thing now
——Is there any change in your expression when you compare your old works with your recent ones?
Fukumori: Technically, the range of expression has expanded, but I think that the range of ideas has become wider and deeper. In the process of receiving various orders, I became able to do more things, but on the other hand, I also started to feel that repeating the same thing was boring. So, on the occasion of restarting my activities, I started to think about expressing myself more by creating works with original motifs.
——I see. As of now, you would say that everything SHISHUMANIA = Fukumori Takuma wants to express is packed into his work, right? Recently, it seems that you are holding solo exhibitions quite actively.
Fukumori: In my second solo exhibition in April, I gave it the title “ENTER THE LOOP”. “Living” is a loop, isn’t it? You wake up every day, go to work, eat, take a bath and sleep, all in a same way. One of my acquaintances committed suicide around February, which made me realized that fact. This person stopped (was released from) living because the loop of reality was too painful. Then I decided to make it a fun loop. I just decided to make works that make me happy and hold a solo exhibition that makes fun loop of those who see and touch my works continues.
——Please tell us about your recent works.
Fukumori: This is a combination of dried flower and embroidery that expresses “the impermanence of all things.” I made it with a thought that “everything is not the same as it is now, it will change steadily” as the color of flowers gradually disappears and withers over a year. We also produce clothes such as coach jackets and hoodies with my embroideries on them. This is a mashup of Heike-crabs and demons. Crabs can only move sideways, right? I thought it’s cool because they are sticking to themself without breaking their own style. This tiger embroidery is an emblem colored with psychedelic hues that can be attached to a fabric such as leather. These works are also sold at the online store on the official website.
——Zigzag embroidery is said to be a technique that is now being lost due to the decrease in heirs.
Fukumori: That’s right. Therefore, if there is something successful in the work, we are also trying to convert it into data and mass-produce it. Until 50 or 60 years ago, zigzag sewing machines were the norm, but computer sewing machines became widespread. At that time, the zigzag swing embroidery craftsmen converted the zigzag sewing technique into data. I decided to try to do the same thing again after 50 or 60 years from it. As a craftsman, I will reproduce them by hand as products of the same quality as real zigzag embroidery. This will conserve the technique and culture of horizontal embroidery. This is also one of the loops.
——What position do you think you are in the embroidery industry?
Fukumori: I am doing it not because this was a family business, but it’s just what I want to do. So I would like to continue to be someone strange in the industry.
——Do you also want to spread zigzag embroidery to the world?
Fukumori: I used to wish to, but now I feel that having fun is the most important thing. I thought about various things when I was broken. Until then, I was only thinking about becoming famous, but I’ve come to put more weight on “having fun” and “to make people happy”. If I continue to hold solo exhibitions that makes people happy, a kind of fun that I imagine will spread even more. It is my hope now to iterate the fun loop in that way.