Japan's traditional crafts are struggling to survive the country's population decline

NPR -- Jul 30
In a cramped room, Shinichi Netsuno sits cross-legged on a thin mat and guides a stack of specialized paper as it's pounded by a mechanical hammer. In between each sheet is a small square of gold leaf.

The stack will be beaten over the course of several days until the gold leaf is whisper-thin. It can then be applied to jewelry, shrines, even food.

Everything about gold leaf requires a great deal of skill and time. Most of the process is done by hand, even making the paper, says Yoshikazu Netsuno, the owner of this small, family-run company.

"We soak the paper in a mixture of lye, egg whites and ashes made from rice," he says. "It's repeatedly soaked and dried for one year, which helps make it durable. The paper is then hammered out for about three months to make it smooth." Then they use it to help press the gold leaf flat.

Netsuno says the smoother the paper, the better the gold leaf. The 75-year-old has been working with gold leaf for six decades, following in his father's and grandfather's footsteps. His tiny factory is really nothing more than a small hut behind his home in Kanazawa.

The western Japanese city produces nearly all of the country's gold leaf. But now the industry is threatened because there aren't enough young people seeking to take over the businesses.

The same situation is being played out across Japan, where decades of declining birth rates are resulting in a crisis for tens of thousands of family-owned small businesses. ...continue reading

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