YuYu interview Kazuo Kuwabara

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Were you interested in antiques since you were young?

No, actually I majored in chemistry in college. During my third year the left-wing protests at Nihon University were taking place and the campus was barricaded, so for about one year it was impossible to attend classes. After that I lost interest in studying and became more interested again in art. But I already attended college for three years and I didn’t want to waste that time and my parents had expectations of me graduating, so I thought first I just want to gradate and then I’m going to look for a job in the art field. After I graduated from college my direction changed and I studied interior design for two years and then took a job in that field. I was doing commercial design work for about three years, doing design work for restaurants, bars, boutiques, etc. After that I quit and became an assistant instructor at a design school. To make ends meet I was also working for myself part-time doing private design work. I continued doing that for two years, but then I realized teaching didn’t suit me... I really wanted to have my own business. With that thought I quit teaching and became totally independent. Back then my favorite things to design were bars. I think some of the bars I designed still exist in Tokyo. My style was to take the materials from houses that had been torn down in the Hida-Takayama area and use the materials; pillars, beams and such to create a new design that had the feeling of an old residence. Once for a final touch I had to go to a tool store to find a chisel and hand saw and by chance while I was in that old shop I took notice of some antiques for the very first time. At that moment I wouldn’t say that I fell in love with antiques, but that’s when my interest started. As I continued to do this kind of work and visited the same kind of shops I began to acquire more and more knowledge and appreciation of antiques.


—— What was the reason you made up your mind to come to the United States?

After I had been running my business for several years I felt I had done enough work in Japan. I had long admired the United States and back in 1974, when I traveled by myself from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I thought America was a great place. Don’t you think? Even in the movies it seems the lifestyle here is very enjoyable. So one day I was thinking that if I wanted to live in the United Sates I’d have to improve my English. Around then, I saw an ad for a study abroad program from a travel agency, so I made up my mind, closed my business, and moved to Hawaii to study. I thought one way or the other in a year I was going to return to Japan and my old line of work, but after only 3 months I returned because I didn’t want to waste my time. Most students in that school were Japanese and I thought that even if I had stayed there a full year it wasn’t going to work. I ended up going back to Japan and starting my preparations all over again and later went back to Hawaii. This time I went to a private school that I found myself and studied there for about a year. After I went back to Japan my feelings for the U.S. had grown even stronger, so I started thinking about how to make a living there, because I didn’t think anybody would pay me for my talents as an interior designer. After consulting many people, I came to the conclusion that there was no other way except to start my own business. On the other hand there were so many interior designers in the U.S., so I wanted to start a unique business based on my experience that not just anyone could do. I thought about what kind of business would be best and I was looking into all kinds of possibilities and finally came up with the idea for an antique shop. It took me about a year to prepare everything for the opening, I had to make sure I had vendors and merchants in Japan that I could work with and build a business around.


—— So after that, did you open an antique shop in San Diego right away?

15.jpgWell at first I was thinking about opening this business in Hawaii. As you know the weather is great there and I love Hawaii, so having a shop there would’ve been perfect. The rents there, however, are unbelievably expensive... opening a shop would’ve been just like opening a shop in Ginza. Plus there was one Japanese man who had already successfully opened an antique shop in Hawaii the year before. I knew him from before and if I opened my shop there we would have been competitors, competing for the same vendors. Hawaii had other antique shops too, so of course the competition would have been fierce in a very small market. I don’t have a very competitive nature and like to go with the flow, so this would have been contrary to my goals. It wasn’t an easy decision but after all this I decided not to open in Hawaii.
 
When I was a student I had come to San Diego for a vacation. It was only three or four days, but I thought it was a beautiful city. About the time I gave up on the idea of having a shop in Hawaii and was looking for another location, I saw a newspaper article talking about how, among cities in U.S., SD had great weather and was an easy place to live. So I choose SD and started looking for a location. At first I considered La Jolla, but while the rent was cheaper than Hawaii’s, I thought it was still pretty high. That’s when I found the building that I’m still in today, in downtown SD. Back then I was on the second floor and the only thing available was a 250 square foot space, so in 1984 I rented that space and started my business. Two-years later I moved to a larger 3,000 square foot space on the first floor and I’ve been there ever since.


—— I’ve heard there is an “Asian boom” taking place in the U.S. lately. Has this influenced you in any way?

Right now 99% of my customers are Americans. Some of them are interested in Asian pieces, but most are especially interested in Japanese items. Many people are particularly interested in choosing Japanese pieces to decorate their homes with and when they come to my shop I’m always sure they will find something among my collection that will make them very happy. Additionally, when it comes to advice for home decorating my experience in interior design comes in very, very handy. Of course if you don’t have enough experience you won’t have enough confidence to give advice. There are not that many, but I do have some “regulars” who come to visit me often. Linda, for example, is one the regulars who has been with me since I started this business. She shops around at the various antique shops in San Diego and tells me what items I’m missing from my shop. If her friends are interested in Japanese antiques she most definitely recommends my shop. Before she knew me, she had been to Japan many times and one day told me, “It’s okay to buy things in Japan when I’m there, but if I trust you to choose something for me I’ll get something even better.” I really appreciate her faith in me. Those kinds of customers are really important to me.


—— What has been your most memorable event since you opened your shop?

In the shop we carry a special type of bamboo flower-basket and it so happens that the ex-president of Neutrogena, Mr. Cotsen, is a serious collector of these. He has had his personal collection on exhibit at UCLA... that shows you how serious he is. So one day while he was visiting San Diego he suddenly appeared in my shop, but at that time I didn’t personally know him. So I was showing him the highest quality and most expensive bamboo basket that I carry. To help explain, I was using the program he had put together for his UCLA exhibit, and I was using it to explain to him that the basket I carry is of equal quality to those in the exhibit. As I went on he started to smile and after little longer I felt something was strange and I thought, “Maybe he’s the person.” So I asked him and bingo! Here I was trying very hard to explain his own work and collection to him... I was completely embarrassed (smiling).


—— What’s the most important part of your business?

15_2.jpg In this business the relationship of trust with your customers is most important. For example, this morning there was a woman that came to my shop and showed me a “netsuke”, (the braided wrapping of an item such as a Japanese cigarette case) from the 19th century that she bought from the internet. She was showing me and asking me, “How old are they?” She had purchased three of them for $200 a piece, but just by looking at them I could tell they were fakes. So I told her that she should return them. I’m sure she won’t buy from that shop again. Once awhile back I sold a koi relief vase made of copper to a woman... I was told that the vase was from the Meiji period, and I thought so too, but one day I was in a garden shop and saw the same thing selling for less than half the price. I was shocked! If only I had known the woman’s address or phone number I could’ve bought it back from her but... Sincerity is the most basic rule in this business.


—— Would you tell us what your goals are for the future?

From now on I’d like to establish a theme for my shop. Right now “anything goes” and we carry all kinds of antiques, but originally American antique shops specialized in one area such as china or furniture. My shop is not there yet. When I see something I’ll buy it at random and I think that’s interesting. If you only carry pottery you will only have the chance to look for pottery. So in my business I have the opportunity to encounter a wide variety of things. For example, a vase made in the Meiji era is filled with history. While your looking at it you might wonder who used it or who made it... your mind can roam endlessly. On the other hand looking around at shops that have signs saying, “We specialize in the Meiji era” has made me realize my shop doesn’t have a specialty. I’d also like to be able to spend more time with my customers. Of course because I’m always going to Japan and shopping at various auctions around the U.S., the time I can spend in the shop is somewhat limited, but I want to continue taking care of my customers and doing the best I can to serve and fulfill their needs.

* Antiques according to United States customs law are generally considered to be those items 100 years of age or more. On the other hand in Japan there is no specific definition. Generally, the term refers to items that are rare or those having some unique artistic value, such as old tools or art.


Kazuo Kuwabara ・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・・

Mr. Kazuo Kuwabara was born January 20, 1948 in Tokyo. After graduating from Nihon University in 1971, he studied interior design for two years at the Interior Center School. He worked as an interior designer and assistant design instructor before starting his own interior design studio in 1978. He opened the only Japanese Antique Shop “Oriental Treasure Box” in 1984 in downtown San Diego. His pieces are currently part of the “Exhibiting Arts of Pacific Asia Show” exhibit that was held in Santa Monica in October of 2002, San Francisco in February, and currently in New York through March of 2003.


(04-01-2003 issue)