PROFILE: Handcrafters' hard work bears fruit

By MARIKO AKAMOTO, The Asahi Shimbun

Hiro and Michi Takahashi overcame sneers and discrimination to become world-class teddy bear artists. A teddy bear once displayed in a Vienna bakery has a lot to answer for. The appeal of the stuffed toy was so great that it changed the lives of Hiro and Michi Takahashi forever. The Takahashis are now teddy bear artists. Their cozy condominium near Tokyo, with its fireplace, fancy furniture and ornaments and view of a well-tended flower garden, looks like a scene from a fairy tale. People tend to assume that a common interest in teddy bear making was what brought the couple together. But in fact, when they married, Hiro worked for a manufacturing company and Michi was a pianist. The teddy bear encounter that would change their lives came during their honeymoon in 1988. They had chosen Vienna as their destination because of Michi's love of classical music. The fateful bear was displayed in a showcase in a bakery they walked past. "It had alluring eyes," says Michi. "It certainly changed our destiny." Upon returning to Japan, Michi quickly took up a needle and thread, spurred on by what she describes as an "irresistible desire" to create a work of art like the bear they had seen. For the pianist, making a teddy bear was a new and exciting means of expression, which, unlike with classical music, allowed her to give her imagination free rein. It is not particularly surprising that the bear artist changed her means of expression, as even though she had no experience of doll-making, she was fond of sewing. But in the case of Hiro, then a worker in a manufacturer's planning section, the transformation to a teddy bear artist was astonishing, particularly for his old friends. "Their comments were pretty much the same," he says. "One would say, Wow, I didn't know that side of you." It's little wonder they were surprised. While Hiro was known as a keen participant in athletics, bicycle races and surfing, he had rarely picked up a needle. Hiro's career as a teddy bear artist began three years later than his wife's, as his first creation was a bear he made for her as a surprise present for their third wedding anniversary. By that time, he had already learned the basics of the craft by watching his wife, he says. But it was not until he'd finished his first bear that Hiro knew for sure he had the ability to come up with the finished product. It wasn't long before Hiro set his heart on becoming one of Japan's first male teddy bear artists. When he quit his job to pursue his dream, Michi had no objections. "We share the same sense of values, so it didn't even come as a surprise to me," she says. "I just said to myself, Ah, he's become another believer in teddy bear art." The couple regard their bears as their children, just as they do their beloved Maltese dog Fairy. "But we have to put a price tag on some of our bears to make a living," says Hiro. "Otherwise, I'd love to keep all my bears to hand," adds Michi. The Takahashis prefer to describe parting with their creations as sending the bears to foster parents, rather than selling them, and make it a rule to talk with prospective owners before deciding whether to go ahead with a transaction. That way, they know where all the "foster families" live and can occasionally visit them. "None of our kids has been abandoned or suffered any other such misfortune," Michi says. But the artists don't think this screening process means they are arbitrarily deciding who can own their creations. "I consider our connection (with future owners) is already destined when they choose us and approach us," says Michi. Among the lucky foster parents are teddy bear collectors in the United States and Britain, whom the couple try to visit whenever they get the chance. The artists say they always receive a warm welcome, especially at the home of one collector in Britain, who always prepares a room for them. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the teddy bear, as it was 100 years ago that stuffed bears were given this special name following an incident involving Theodore Roosevelt. It was in 1902 that the 26th U.S. president famously refused to shoot a leashed cub a host had prepared for him during a hunting trip. Collectors used to be interested only in teddy bears made in the first half of the last century. But since the 1980s, modern bear artists have also attracted attention. In Japan, too, it was around that time that bear artists began to enter the market, according to the Japan Teddy Bear Association. The Takahashis were among the first artists in Japan to make a living from the craft. But the road to success was by no means an easy one for the pioneers, who encountered hardships as a result of both a lack of resources and people's ignorance about the new artistic genre. "People looked at us as if we were immature grownups clinging to mere stuffed animals," says Michi. As a man, Hiro says he took even more flak. But the couple refused to give in, and began visiting overseas events to learn about teddy bears and gather information. Designs and pattern-making did not prove too difficult for the innovative artists, but procuring materials was a headache. When Michi started making bears, she had to use plumbing components for their joints, as special parts for teddy bears were not yet available in Japan. But the problem that troubled them most was the lack of real mohair-the essential fabric for decent bears. Although the couple sent dozens of letters to suppliers in Europe, they ran up against a brick wall. "We sent around 100 letters, but we got only two replies," says Hiro. And that was not all: The two letters they did receive were letters of rejection. Hiro says the suppliers were apparently concerned that the couple intended to duplicate their products and start mass-producing teddy bears for profit. The Takahashis flew to Europe to negotiate face to face. There they patiently visited one company several times before finally making their true intentions understood. "I felt there was prejudice against the Japanese culture and people, which stemmed from sheer ignorance," Hiro says. "So I believed we just needed to discuss matters many times." Things started going more smoothly after the Takahashis participated in events in Europe and the United States and began to build a reputation. Hiro says one company that used to be reluctant to sell mohair to them is now willing to make original materials for them on request, and even turns to them for advice. The Takahashis attribute their success in Western countries not only to the unique elements they add to an essentially Western tradition, such as the kimono worn by some of Michi's bears, but also to their innovative ideas and quest for quality. Ideas pioneered by the Takahashis, such as dyeing mohair, making bears stand without external support and using special wire to make them pose, were quickly copied by other artists, Hiro says. Both of the bear-makers devote a considerable amount of time to each piece. Their determination to go nowhere near a sewing machine adds many hours to the time needed for each creation. Michi says she makes about 35 bears a year and Hiro around 20. The prices of their works vary, depending mainly on their size. A 30-centimeter bear without clothing, for example, fetches between 200,000 and 300,000 yen. One of Michi's works was auctioned for 700,000 yen in 1996. The couple are planning to open a museum in Hakodate in April. The northern location was chosen partly because of its proximity to the habitat of the wild bears the Takahashis have come to love by frequently observing them to improve their work. "We're really into them now," says Hiro. "And that enthusiasm has made us think about issues concerning environmental conservation." Hiro's new concern is even reflected in his work. His most recent creations include lifelike bears displayed together with dioramas of their surroundings.

(IHT/Asahi: March 10,2002) (03/10)