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Made To: Tell Stories

The Teruo Hirokawa Files: Part 1

The Beginnings of a Master Tailor

I have no idea where a person should begin when telling the life story of another.  

As I am human, and inherently self-centered, I will begin with my own perceptions and observations of Teruo, from the time I've known him:   

I admire this man very much.   

He works hard.  

I’ve never heard him say a bad word about another person.

He’s modest.   

He is curious, and continually studying.  

He’s highly skilled.

He does what he says, and never breaks a promise.   

Last, but most important in my estimation, he’s one of the most generous people I know.   

I met him in September of 2019, while I was desperately searching for someone to usher me further down the road of professional hand craft. Teaching is such difficult work, but he seems to shoulder it with ease, and a little bit of joy.   

Over the 4 years we’ve known each other, bits and pieces of his story have made their way into my awareness, but I sat down with him a few weeks ago and asked him to lay it out for me so I could connect all of the chronological dots and paint a picture about not only his life, but also how he’s helped shape modern tailoring in Tokyo.   

Begin at the beginning:

He was born in Sasebo, Nagasaki on May 5th, 1944. His father was a communications officer in the army, and his mother was a traditional housewife who did odd jobs and ran small businesses when the family needed money. He didn’t have many photographs to provide me with, but he did have this photo from his first year of life that was taken during a family wedding. He expressed with a bit of surprise when he showed me this, that even during the darkest part of the war, family celebrations still took place.     

Hirokawa is the baby in the bottom left of the family group on his mother's lap.

During the first year of his life, a few “miracles” happened that allowed Hirokawa to be here with us today, the first of which being the day he was born. As the war made medical care difficult to obtain, many women had to face the perils of childbirth alone, or with family members as their only aid. The circumstances of Hirokawa’s birth were particularly difficult as he was born with his umbilical cord wrapped snugly around his neck. His uncle was present at the home birth and swiftly saved Hirokawa’s young life by untangling him and freeing his tiny air way just in the nick of time. The first 10 months of his life passed quietly, but as we all know, in March 1945, the Americans began using incendiary bombs on Japanese cities, burning them to the ground, in an effort to induce surrender.

Photo courtesy of the city of Sasebo city.


Hirokawa’s family dug in and stayed put until a few months later, when the second miracle occurred. An incendiary bomb fell directly on the Hirokawa family home. As the bomb was delicately cradled by the second floor of the house, it did not explode and the family escaped unharmed. They were quickly moved to Fukuoka where they lived in a relative safety until the end of the war.   

The family stayed in Fukuoka as they had settled down there and had what they needed. Hirokawa’s father went to work for the railroad, while his mother stayed at home and raised the children. As he grew, he became interested in watching her work. "She was a prolific hand knitter. She worked mostly in low gauge, heavy weight wool and thick needles" he remembers fondly. He would take her spare bits of yarn and some glue and make drawings on card paper. As he became a more capable young lad, he developed an interest in fabric, buttons and other hand craft implements he could manipulate.   

When he started middle school he moved in with his grandfather, as the realities of post war economics in Japan made it too difficult for Hirokawa’s family to feed all four of the children. His grandfather was a school principal, therefore had a wardrobe that was a little more sophisticated than regular working folk. Hirokawa was inspired by his grandfather’s suits and began trying to copy what he saw.   

In the meantime, Hirokawa’s grandfather also took notice of his penchant for detail and love of hand craft, and through connections he'd made before the war, arranged for young Teruo to apprentice in the Japanese capitol city of Tokyo.   

When Hirokawa’s parents were informed his grandfather had arranged for his move, they were immediately against it. They saw Tokyo as "elitist" and couldn't understand why he couldn't get an apprenticeship nearby. Hirokawa was excited about his new career in tailoring, but he didn’t have any special attachment to the idea of a big city. He was a mere 16 years old, and according to modern standards, still very much a child. He left Fukuoka on March 23, 1960, and remembers his mother crying as the steam train pulled away. The trip took 25 hours. He arrived at Tokyo station on the evening of the 24th after he changed trains and headed to Okachi-machi, where his new family and workmates would greet him, ushering him into a new life in Bunkyo-Ku at "Hayano Tailoring".

Unfortunately, this is another period of Teruo's life that is without many available photographs. Perhaps we can "fire up the way-back machine" and see the bright lights of Tokyo through the eyes of of a young Australian photographer called "Robert Donaldson" who visited Tokyo in January, just after the new year in 1960. Thankfully Mr. Donaldson took wonderful black and white photos of Tokyo at night, so we can imagine and get a feel for the city exactly as Hirokawa probably saw it when he arrived only two months later.

Post war Tokyo held so many delightful pieces of architecture. Behold: the Marunouchi Toshiba Theatre.


Construction in Ginza: Aside from the make and model of cars, I really can't tell any difference between 1960 and modern day.

And would you look at all of those wonderful old Toyotas:

For the rest of these photographs, please see Robert Donaldson's book Here.

As Hirokawa settled into his apprenticeship, he did his best to soak up all of the things he was being taught, even from the very first morning. One of the most important parts of being an apprentice in Showa era Japan was learning how to be a general help and adding value for the people taking the time to teach you, and providing you with a livelihood. Teruo began sewing right away, but he also did jobs like babysitting, meal preparation, cleaning the store front and fetching things from suppliers when needed. Learning this about him made me smile, as even now, at nearly 80 years old, he always seems to be willing to pick something up at the supply shop when I need it and he's "passing through anyway", and often times when we're working together, he'll have prepared a snack or extra bit of lunch for me.

One of his first tasks at Hayano was taking an old jacket (made of thick saxony cloth) completely apart, piece by piece, turning the cloth to the opposite side, and re-assembling. In his 7 years of apprenticeship, he recounted that sewing the last stitch in that jacket was his proudest moment.

As a student of his, I am often critically tearing my own work to shreds, so I asked him: "What are you least proud of in your earliest work?" He commented that fitting in those days just wasn't as important as it is now, and he often struggled with welt pockets and front plackets of trousers. He wishes he'd saved a few pieces of work from his apprenticeship, alas, he only has the memories of his struggles to draw from.

A 1960's Tokyo had very low salaries for it's apprentices, but also a very low cost of living. Every month he received ¥1500 allowance with his two days off. He would often go and see a western film (where he could see tailoring styles he wanted to copy). The cost of a cinema ticket in Ginza was ¥150 yen. He would enjoy his films, spend another ¥100 on dining out, and then squirrel away the rest of his tiny allowance in savings.

He worked at Hayano Tailoring for a total of seven years where a typical day included a 6:30 am wake up, a breakfast of rice, natto (fermented slimy soybeans), and miso soup, after which he cleaned the store front from top to bottom. After a full day of sewing and construction, he finished around 9:00 pm and then had to clean up the tailoring bench, roll out his futon and sleep in the same space he had worked in all day.

Knowing him now, I was curious about the things he took away from the relationship he had with his first master "Yasuo". Aside from the skills of making, and fitting, Hirokawa said he learned the skill of teaching without frustration toward one's student. He remembered very clearly many times he made mistakes more than worthy of his Master's anger, but instead was met with understanding and patience. As a long time student of Master Hirokawa, I feel exceedingly grateful for both the tailoring skills and attitude toward teaching that Mr. Hayano gave him.

During the last two years of his apprenticeship, Hirokawa attended a special school for pattern cutting, and by the time he was ready to move on to the next part of his career, he was a fully fledged tailor who could cut, fit and sew all by himself.

This is the end of part one. Part two of this wonderful tale, including Hirokawa's time at Eikokuya, and all his subsequent adventures will be coming very soon.

*all photographs in this post are reproduced with permission





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