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Made in (old) Japan: the joy of Japanese antiques

With the Olympics taking place in Japan this year, along with a big push to attract tourists, interest in this country and its unique culture is the highest it’s been for a long time.

David Thatcher is the brains behind Raimu Japanese Antiques , one of the finest UK-based online stores for buying old artefacts from Japan. He’s also an expert restorer of samurai armour, a passion he has turned into a global business. I caught up with David to find out more about his unique Japanese antique store, and get some buying advice for anyone interested in this fascinating genre.

When did you decide to set up the Japanese antique business – and why?

I decided to open Raimu Japanese Antiques in 2018 to complement my samurai armour-restoration service. Many of my customers collect other types of Japanese antiques, so it seemed reasonable to expand my product range and reach out to a broader customer base.

For years I would hunt down items of samurai armour. While searching for these, I would come across all other types of antiques. They’d include large and bulky items such as tansu chests that I would love to have been able to buy, but were impossible to move without any form of logistics support. So I decided to jump into the deep end and import a container-full.

My aim is provide my customers with quality Japanese antiques at a reasonable price. Thanks to my experience as a restorer, I can buy items that require some level of attention and repair them in-house. I have a slight advantage over my competition, as I have removed the middleman and have no restoration costs as such.

My pricing is somewhat under current market rates, which prompted some scepticism. I have sold so much furniture and display items over social media platforms, however, that this has died down

Had you always had a strong interest in Japanese, and more specifically, samurai culture?

I've been fascinated by the samurai since I was a child. Over the years, I studied martial arts, which included ju-jitsu and iaido (a solo art of sword drawing and cutting – Ed). This took me to Japan in my early twenties to study in more depth under Japanese teachers.

From this my passion for budo – ‘the way of the warrior’ – introduced me to many associated paths, so it was inevitable I would learn more about the samurai, their culture and lifestyle. I picked up some armour which was in dire need of repair and by luck I was introduced to an urushi lacquer teacher. I was able to use this as a base, and I am I now recognised as a katchushi master craftsman.

There is a strong demand for Chinese antiques at the moment, but what is the market like for antiquities from Japan?

The boom days are over for sure. However, Japanese antiques are still very desirable and more affordable than 10 years ago. As I said, my customer base is very much associated with the samurai, which could distort my view, but for my business, there is very much a significant and growing demand.

What are the most popular items with your customers - is it smaller items, or larger, such as furniture?

Japanese armour in excellent condition, followed by tansu furniture and then okimono ornaments.

Do you go over to Japan to deal with the local antiques trade or do you have middlemen?

I travel to Japan every six months, where I attend trade-only auctions in Kyoto and Tokyo. I also have a network of dealers that will procure items on my behalf. In Japan, I have set up a small warehouse to store items between container shipments.

I also have a modest warehouse facility in Chiba, south east of Tokyo, which serves as my Japan HQ. I prefer to hand-pick everything that I buy; often the middleman has not got the eye for what you or I want.

Are there any particularly good buys, or less well-known types of antiques, on your books at the moment?

I do sometimes venture into the obscure, or items that are fun. For example, I managed to procure many religious items from a temple destroyed during the Tsunami. This included several beautifully carved ranma decorations and even the original altar table.

Tell us about your armour restoration business. Can people buy old suits of samurai armour directly from you, or even swords?

Currently, I have a five-year waiting list for armour – see here (HYPERLINK www.yoroi.uk). I only accept a small number of commissions a year to work on. Most of my clients are either collectors or museums and I don't tend to work for the trade.

My restorations are made using traditional methods and materials which requires a long time; dealers want a quicker turn-around, something I cannot deliver. As to selling directly, I do sometimes have armour and weapons for sale, but they tend to sell within a few hours of being advertised, so I don't hold stock as such.

How do our blog readers avoid getting ripped off when buying old swords and armour?

Caveat emptor, as with anything. I have seen many fakes and reproduction items incorporated with armours for sale. My only advice is to buy from a trusted source or seek the opinion of an expert before parting with that hard-earned cash.

Check out David’s online Japanese antiques store at www.raimu.co.uk and his armour-restoration business at www.yoroi.uk

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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