Shin-ichi Izutsu, a Master Violinmaker

Windows Facing North

Patches of blue sky are visible through the workshop windows facing north. Through the windows facing west, the sun shines gently on the potted plants with beautiful leaves. The workshop is probably as large as an elementary school classroom, and spacious enough for one person to work in it though there are worktables and office desks.

The north windows are there to alleviate the effects of the sunshine, and the fluorescent lights are brightly on even during the day in the workshop. Those are the conditions created for the benefit of its master whose work is to cut and plane wood.

Shoo, shoo, shoo, shoo

The workshop master is sharpening a piece of wood at astonishing speed with a plane, which is as small as a miniature toy car. Seven or eight of them are scattered on the table, and he occasionally stops using one of them and changes it with another. Only for that fleeting moment, the sound of the plane stops and a dead silence falls over the workshop. The master quite intensively concentrates on his work as if he breathes only when he changes tools.

As he almost vertically looks down at the wood while he is planing and sharpening it, it is next to impossible to read expressions on his face.

Despite his concentration on a piece of wood, there is no tense atmosphere felt in the workshop, strange as it may sound. The master industriously turns around the piece and subtly changes the precise spot to sharpen. This part of his work seems to require great tact and sensitivity. However, he hardly feels this part difficult, and that’s the reason why there is no tense atmosphere there. Well, it’s not the question of whether or not the work is difficult for him, but because he gives the impression that he moves swiftly but with naturalness just like leaves swaying and trembling to a strong wind.

He seems to be simply pouring his energy into wood gently and quietly. “It certainly is an artisan’s work,” I said to myself. The master is Shin-ichi Izutsu, a violinmaker who was born in 1936.

Becoming a Wood Turner, after Working as Apprentice for and besides His Father

After a three-hour-ride from Shinjuku Station by Limited Express Azusa, I arrived at Matsumoto before noon where Izutsu’s workshop was located. It was a sunny winter day. The sky was clear and shiny and the air crisp and cool.

Izutsu’s wife, Hideko, was waiting for me at the station gate. Izutsu parked his car outside of the station and was waiting for me there. He looked cool in his red checkered shirt, leather jumper with boa, and leather pants. He looked as if he was a sophisticated rock musician. I saw some scratches and sawdust on his pants. I realized they were Izutsu’s work clothes.

It’s about lunch time. Let’s eat soba or something before we go to my workshop,” Izutsu said. Soba is a kind of noodles made of buckwheat. He drove a silver-colored minivan and took us to one of the most famous soba restaurants in Matsumoto.

We passed through a neat and clean shopping street. Then, there we found the soba restaurant. It was in a quiet neighborhood very close to Matsumoto Castle. We ordered soba noodles topped with tempura.

While I ate some of the noodles thinking that they tasted rather nice, Izutsu already ate up two trays of them.

Craftsmen eat quick,” he said.

My father often scolded me when I was eating slow. ‘How long is it gonna take you to finish the dish?’ he would say.”

Izutsu’s father was also a woodcrafter.

Izutsu is the first son. He has five brothers and sisters. When he graduated from junior high school, he started helping his father with his job.

At the beginning, my father wouldn’t let me work. All he said was to watch how he worked. He would get so mad at me if I dared to touch his tools,” said Izutsu.

He took his first step to become a violinmaker when he helped his father with a weak constitution and went into the world of craftsmen.

Church as an Entrée to the World

When we went outside the soba noodle restaurant, we saw Matsumoto Castle. There was a beautiful church, Catholic Matsumoto Church, right beside the castle. Izutsu is a Christian succeeding from his grandfather and father, but he doesn’t know why his grandfather was converted to Christianity.

The church was always a part of his life since he was born. Although it was not as fancy as it now is, the church, together with the castle, was a playground for Izutsu and his friends.

It was also the door to the world for him. Priests came to the Catholic Matsumoto Church by turns from around the world: Germany, Hungary, Italy and Spain. They often talked about their hometowns to local people. A boy who was born in a small town came to hold a dream to go abroad someday.

A priest from France was different from any other adult Izutsu had ever known. He was proud and filled with confidence, and talked to anyone without any sign of hesitation. Naturally he, as a Catholic priest, lived in a modest way, but Izutsu felt some dignity in his manner and outfits.

That priest surely was a Parisian,” Izutsu said in reminiscence.

He taught me French, but he left for another church right after I started learning from him. I might have been able to speak French a little if he had taught me three more months.”

Shin-ichi Izutsu has been called “Shin-chan” since he was a child, just like Thomas is called “Tom.” The Catholic priests called him “Shin-chan” too, and treated him with affection. He went to church every Sunday with his family. As time went by, he came to help read mass as an altar boy. He learned Latin for prayer and came to understand it.

There were three kids of Shin-chan’s age among those who went to church. They were all good friends.

One day, the priest of the church called him over but not other kids.

How about going to Germany, Shin-chan? Why don’t you go there and study to become a Catholic priest?

He was so thrilled as if he was about to dash off to Germany at any time. Nobody but he, Shin-chan, was selected!

Now, I can go to the country that I have been dreaming of!”

His mind was already looking forward to being in his dream land.

Becoming a Violinmaker

The more Shin-chan acquired skill in woodwork, the more he earned money. But his family was still needy. He couldn’t go on to high school but wanted his sister to go on in his stead.

Every day, he worked as a newsboy before he started working with his father. Early in the morning, he put on a pair of kanjiki, or Japanese snowshoes, and walked from door to door delivering newspapers. Winter in Matsumoto is frigid, but he didn’t think it too hard or too cold. As soon as he came back home from the morning round, he sat in front of the wheel in the workshop.

With the money he made from the jobs, he bought a pair of dark blue shoes for his sister so that she wouldn’t look shabby at high school. She was delighted to wear them at her entrance ceremony and said, “Thank you, Shin-chan.” He felt glad that he had not left his family.

Izutsu was twenty years old when he found himself at the turning point in his life.

At that time, Shin-ichi Suzuki, a prominent figure in the field of musical education and pedagogic theory, ran a violin factory in Matsumoto. His brother, the factory’s operation manager, asked Izutsu if he was interested in working at the factory.

Izutsu was eager to further cultivate his artisanal ability in the new environment, the youthful curiosity getting the better of him. He was confident that he was skilled enough to satisfy the hopes entertained of him. “But, what would my father say?” Izutsu worried.

Just like he abandoned his plan to go abroad, he was determined to give up the idea of working at the Suzuki factory if he could not win his father’s approval.

You may go and work there if that’s what you want to do. But, once you decided to do it, you just have to devote your whole life to the work,” said his father unexpectedly.

Since then, Shin-chan has kept his promise with his father. He loved his father very much.

The Third Chance to a New Life

After making a round of his factory where work was on, Izutsu took me upstairs. There are a concert hall that can seat eighty people and three rooms in which to practice playing instruments. Although he does not give lessons, teachers and students adore him and come all the way to his factory. Many of them commute from Tokyo.

The teachers hold concerts in a trio several times a year, and all the seats are taken in the hall. Izutsu is very happy when he is among the full audience.

Attracted by his personality, musicians have come to visit the Izutsu Hall from all over the world. They gather there when a music festival takes place in Matsumoto. Among them was Seiji Ozawa, the world-famous conductor.

Among the visiting musicians was a black-haired young man with a remarkably shining aura. It was Alan Gilbert, chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. As he visited Izutsu several times, he has become a close family friend. In spring 2006, he invited Izutsu to Stockholm. He said he wanted to try Izutsu’s violins.

My violins might be played overseas,” said Izutsu leaning forward enthusiastically. Apparently he could hardly wait for the day to come to go to Stockholm again. It doesn’t matter who made the violins or where they were made. There was a chance that the quality of his violins would be judged on the spot by their quality.

In his boyhood, he gave up going to study abroad because of his family to support. In the prime of his life, he gave up leaving Matsumoto because of his friends. Now that he is over seventy years of age, he has got a chance to attempt to embark on a new career for the third time. Izutsu’s eyes are still as shiny as they were when he was called “Shin-chan” in his childhood. This term of endearment is still now used by some of his family members and childhood friends.