from Japan

For Yumiko Suzuki, Health Is Wealth

Yumiko Suzuki Stencil dyeing artist



Yumiko Suzuki is a stencil dyeing artist. Her family’s business, Suzuhiro, has produced kamaboko (a traditional Japanese food) since the Edo period.  After graduating from Keio University, Suzuki worked in an advertising agency before becoming an apprentice for Shoji Morikawa, a renowned Japanese stencil dyeing artist. She is currently Suzuhiro’s head of packaging and design, and also helps create patterns for production. In addition to working for her family’s business, Suzuki serves as a design and branding consultant for several other commercial companies. Through her work, she hopes to convey the delicacy of Japanese art and design to global audiences.


Instagram:  @yumiko_szk

The Beauty of Intergenerational Knowledge

Yasuo Tell me more about your work. 

Yumiko I’m in charge of Suzuhiro branding, and also assist in the creation of designs. Stencil dyeing is a traditional Japanese technique that consists of drawing a sketch, carving out a pattern, and then using it to dye paper or cloth. Currently, I’m using the stencil dyeing technique to create wrapping paper and calendars for my family’s business “Suzuhiro”. We’re also creating some hand towels for our customers as well. 

Yasuo Suzuhiro Kamaboko’s traditional designs are truly wonderful. How do you strike a balance between creating both contemporary and traditional designs? 

Yumiko Suzuhiro has a specific visual style, one that’s been passed down for generations. Initially, I tried to infuse the work with my own perspectives, but eventually realized that’s not the right approach. My main goals are to promote Suzuhiro’s worldview and maintain my family’s tradition and promote my personality and viewpoints when I’m working on more personal projects.

Yasuo So, you’ve been able to create a distinction between your own work and Suzuhiro’s traditional techniques? 

Yumiko Yes. Suzuhiro has been in business for 155 years, so it’s important to maintain consistency in our products for our customers. When I experiment on my own time, I like playing around with the materials and dyes, or using gold leaf. Sometimes, people really like it, and my father will request that I make it for the company.

Yasuo Finding ways to modernize more traditional forms of art can be challenging, but also so rewarding. Integrating new materials with old techniques is such a fantastic way to do that. 

Yumiko The more ancient and traditional patterns will only reach a certain crowd, so it’s important to adapt them to our contemporary audience by changing certain materials.

Yasuo Do you ever feel like taking a more casual approach to your designs and just seeing where things go? 

Yumiko Stencil dyeing is a very balanced task. The initial design is created, carved out, and meticulously arranged before being deemed complete. But sometimes, I notice that in the process of fine-tuning things, I’ll gloss over some of the accidental roughness that makes the work so powerful and magical. 

Yasuo I feel the same way about working with makeup. I’ll often take the first impression that I have of a model’s face and base my work around that. Mostly, I try to focus on the more unique parts of her complexion, because I don’t want to erase or conceal those.  Sometimes, it is fun to play around and get lost in your creativity.

Yumiko I love the ability to explore and create, but because stencil dyeing has so many various manufacturing steps, it can be hard to identify where the process loses its magic.

Also, because stencil dyeing was originally popularized by folk groups, it was considered to be a rather unsophisticated form of art. 

Yasuo I see, so you wouldn’t traditionally find it in a lord’s home.

Yumiko Exactly. When designing pieces, I’ll leave the edges a little rough, so they won’t seem so refined. I’d like to think that those decisions bring the work closer to its original intent.   

Dress Yourself to Express Yourself

Yasuo You don’t seem like a very “cutesy” person to me. 

Yumiko I actually used to dress that way and experiment with a lot of different styles. But after graduating from college and working for an advertising agency, I eventually got married and came home to work for my family. So naturally, my style shifted along with my environment.

Yasuo How did it change? 

Yumiko I used to love shopping at really trendy stores like Zara. Working in the food industry changed things for me—it made it challenging to wear accessories or have manicured nails. My makeup also became much more neutral. My husband works in the classical music industry. I really love dressing up for those classical concerts and events. They make shopping for clothes really fun again, and definitely help push me towards more modern skirts and dresses.

Yasuo What do you focus on when choosing an outfit for these occasions?

Yumiko Typically, the color, pattern, and fabric of each garment, and whether or not they seem to represent the event that I’m celebrating or supporting. It’s also important to pay attention to the age of the other people attending and what their personal tastes are like. 

Yasuo You like to dress more modestly when older people are in attendance?

Yumiko I do, but I’m a creative person. I don’t want to be conspicuous, but I don’t want to be too subtle either. 

Yasuo You want to show off your individuality and creativity while also supporting your husband. 

Yumiko Yes, and I actually really enjoy balancing the two.

Yasuo How do you coordinate different colors and fabrics in your wardrobe?

Yumiko Lately, I’ve only been wearing clothes that I really like. I’m much more confident in my style these days.

Yasuo Confidence is the key to any great outfit, so you must look pretty fabulous. Not everyone is that self-assured.

Yumiko I think it came with age. As I moved into my 30’s, I began thinking a lot about what makes someone a good colleague or person to work with. I’m constantly meeting people through my work and trying to make an impression on them. Eventually, I realized that confidence and self-respect are the keys.

Yasuo Meeting new people allows you to open your mind to different opinions while also challenging your own. 

Yumiko Absolutely. As a designer, I definitely feel judged for the way I dress, so I always dress to impress. 

Yasuo Wow, I’ve never thought of it that way. Maybe I should start paying more attention to my personal style, given the fact that my industry is entirely based on how you look.  

Yumiko I’m not sure if it’s really working, but it’s always been my approach.  My mother-in-law is a violinist, and at her recitals, she’s always wearing something fabulous from somewhere like Dolce & Gabbana or Givenchy. She’s so fashionable, and it’s honestly inspiring to look at how she does not let her age define her sense of style.

Yasuo So many people consider aging to be a negative thing, when really it’s perfectly natural. It’s great to have people of different generations to talk with.

Yumiko These topics are good to talk about at any age. Whenever I attend parties, I make a point to wear Japanese designers, so that when someone comments on my outfit I can say “Thank you, it’s from a designer my age!” It’s always a good conversation starter that often extends into other topics like food, wine, or my favorite of all: music. 

It’s Not What You Wear, It’s How You Wear It

Yasuo Do you ever find things about yourself that you don’t really admire?

Yumiko Absolutely. I’m pretty short and not super thin, so I definitely went through a phase where I felt like everything looked bad on me.

Yasuo Do you feel like you were comparing yourself to some idealized image? 

Yumiko You could say that.

Yasuo How were you able to overcome those insecurities?  

Yumiko I’m still working on it now. It’s a gradual process that’s all about mentally encouraging yourself and truly believing that you look good. 

Yasuo Personally, I feel like society is really redefining their notions of beauty. I hope that the world will learn to embrace many different looks, because no two people look exactly the same.

Yumiko One of my biggest insecurities is the whites of my eyes. I feel like they’re way too large, and always make me seem scared or mad. 

Yasuo Large black eyes sometimes give off a “cute little animal” vibe, but I think your look is quite sophisticated. It’s all about perspective and embracing yourself as you are.

Yumiko You’re so right. Recently, I’ve realized that I have a rather pronounced jawline, and the kind of clothing I tend to gravitate towards doesn’t really do much to highlight it.

Yasuo I have a strong jawline too, which is great because it gives you a really strong profile. I’ve come to realize that the people I perceive as “beautiful” do not always fit the more mainstream definition of the term. But in many cases, these are the people that redefine our social standards. They’re not trying to look or act like anybody else, and that’s what makes them so unique.  

Yumiko I’ll have to try looking at things from a different angle. My husband always tells me that he thinks my eyes are really cute, like those of a fish!

Yasuo One time on set, a very humorous and cute model told me that she had “shark eyes” and would “bite me.” I found it to be so playful. Japan’s beauty standards are pretty close-minded. I started this blog to combat some of those ideas, and to promote the concept of internal beauty. 

Yumiko You’re right. Life is so much easier when you like yourself. I really enjoy my job, so I try my best to stay physically and mentally well so that I can continue working for years to come. 

Yasuo What do you do in order to stay healthy?

Yumiko I used to have bad nightmares. To combat them, I use an organic essential oil by RUE UN, which really relaxes me. 

Yasuo Are there any experiences that stand out to you from your time working for Suzuhiro? 

Yumiko Actually, yes. I once received a customer’s letter that was thanking me for Suzuhiro’s calendar. She described how happy it made her, and how the imagery reminded her that spring was just around the corner. It made me reflect on my own positive experiences with nature, like the feelings that I get when I’m looking at mountains or the ocean. It can be so spiritually soothing. I tried to keep those emotions in mind when I was creating the calendar, so hearing that a customer experienced that made me really happy. I love making people happy through my work. 

Yasuo It’s always wonderful to know that something you’ve made brings joy to someone else.  Managing stress can be hard, but it’s a necessary part of doing truly life changing work. Personally, I think helping others in these types of ways is what makes life worth living! 

Photos / Interview :  Yasuo Yoshikawa

Text : Mikako Koyama