The ‘magic mirror’ craftsman works to keep delicate craftsmanship alive

KYOTO – At first glance, this mirror looks like any other, but shining it reflects an image of Amitabha Buddha on the wall.

Another reveals an image of Jesus Christ on the cross.

These kinds of “magic mirrors” were widely made during the Edo period (1603-1867), when underground Christians used them to worship their faith in secret. Some have suggested that bronze mirrors from ancient times may also have had similar functions.

The centuries-old skills for making these magic mirrors are preserved today at Yamamoto Gokin Seisakusho, a workshop in Kyoto’s Shimogyo district founded in the late Edo period – the only magic mirror maker in Japan, according to its representatives.

The late Shinji Yamamoto, a third-generation owner of the studio, revived the technology to make them in 1974, after it had been lost for about half a century. He did this after a Western scholar showed interest in making it.

The skills needed to make them are currently nurtured by 72-year-old Fujio, a fourth-generation master, and his 46-year-old son Akihisa. The father-son couple made a magic mirror in the style of the Hidden Christians of Japan which was presented to Pope Francis in 2014.

Magic mirrors have also appeared in works of fiction, including cartoons and video games, and Akihisa said his studio gets special commissions for them from overseas artists.

“I want this technology to be preserved,” he said. “What is unnecessary, however, will not survive. I therefore hope to continue working to spread the knowledge of this technology as much as possible.

A DELICATE PROCESS

Akihisa explained that irregularities form on a mirror surface in relief patterns on the back side when ground to a certain fineness.

The unevenness is too small to be seen with the naked eye, but exposing it to light causes a diffuse reflection that picks up the patterns, according to the fifth-generation craftsman.

The manufacturing process requires a succession of delicate tasks.

Molten copper and tin are poured into a patterned mold to make a casting. The cast metal object is then ground using four types of files and three types of tools called “sen”.

It only takes half a day to grind an ordinary mirror, but the process takes a full month to make a magic mirror.

The more the surface is ground, the clearer the projected image. But the work requires the utmost care because the mirror surface will break if over-grinded.

“It means that all your efforts over the past month are in vain and you have to start all over again,” Akihisa said. “Your mind goes completely blank. Pretty much the only thing you can do on a day that happens is grab a drink and get changed. So, too much ambition, and you’ll end up going the extra mile.

After a mirror has been ground to a satisfactory level of fineness, its surface must still be carefully polished with a whetstone and two kinds of charcoal. The whole process is finished with nickel plating.

Akihisa said he sets aside between two and six months to complete a magic mirror that measures 20 centimeters in diameter, with time included in case of errors.

The magic mirrors captured the hearts of many, including Takahiro Onishi, a 45-year-old singer who lives in Kyoto. He fell in love with mirrors at first sight when he saw Akihisa showing off one at an event about three years ago.

He asks to visit Yamamoto’s workshop and buys a magic mirror that projects the image of a Sanskrit character. He said he put the mirror on a Shinto shrine in his home and shined his smartphone light into it every once in a while to project the design.

“Light up a mirror that only shows your own face, and you suddenly see something quite different,” Onishi said. “It makes me feel like I’m seeing the joy and pain of a human being. It allows me to face who I really am.

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