FROM early childhood in the city of Kanazawa, near the Sea of Japan, Tokio Hata wanted to be a painter. He was 14 when his parents sent him to a neighbor to learn to the art. The young Hata's neighbor practiced the ancient craft of yuzen-dying. Yuzen owes its name to its 17th-century founder, Miyazaki Yuzen. Instead of paper, the yuzen artist paints his pictures on naturally dyed strips of silk cloth. Then the cloth is made into kimono, the traditional Japanese dress.
``My parents thought of our neighbor as a painter, not a dyer,'' Mr. Hata recalls. ``I found it strange that I was told to draw something on kimono cloth.'' For seven years, Hata was a deshi, an apprentice to his sensei, a word that combines the meaning of teacher and master.
Then his teacher sent him to the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto, the center of arts and culture, where he studied the more refined style of Kyoto-yuzen for another eight years before setting off on his own.
Last year, at the age of 77, Hata's mastery of his art earned him the title of ``national living treasure.'' Since 1955, the Japanese government has recognized the importance to the nation of artists in both the crafts and the performing arts. Currently there are 69 such ``living treasures.'' ``The title means the holder is told by the country to convey his or her technique to future generations,'' Hata explains. Each person gets an annual stipend to preserve their skills by training successors.
Today, the lively Hata has 23 deshi of his own, who study under him in an old two-story wooden house on a quiet Kyoto street. He leads visitors upstairs, where his students work copying his technique and producing kimono cloth that is exhibited in galleries and museums. A finished kimono by Hata sells for 10 million yen (about $70,000). He proudly shows a picture of himself presenting one his creations to Diana, the Princess of Wales.
The process of producing the cloth takes 17 separate steps. It begins with drawing a design on paper. Hata's paintings are elaborate, embodying classical Japanese themes of flowers, seasonal plants, and animals. His trademark is the beautifully marked Mandarin Duck, which appears in many of his creations.
Hata compares what he does to his father's design of gardens.
``Gardening and drawing on kimono are similar,'' he explains over a cup of green tea. ``The gardener thinks about where to create a pond, where to put hills, where to plant trees. It starts as a very plain place. At first a kimono, too, is white; there is nothing there. There are only some rules - to draw the design on the parts of the cloth which appear when the kimono is worn.''
Long strips of white cloth are pulled tight between two poles, with curved wooden sticks placed like ribs to pull the cloth taut. The young deshi, men and women in jeans and T-shirts, sit on the straw mat floor drawing the design onto the textile in an indigo dye made from a flower.
The careful lines of the drawing are then coated with starch, and outlines hand-painted in, and the colors fixed with steam. The dye for the cloth is brushed on. Finally the cloth is washed in water to fix the dyes and to remove the starch, leaving a white outline around the painted designs.
If one person alone did the whole process, it would take one month to finish the kimono. But the deshi work as a team, each one carrying out a specific phase of the process.
In the beginning, Hata admits, he would only teach his art to men, as was traditional. The deshi live together in a dorm, and the presence of a woman was considered highly unconventional. But more and more women came to him asking to be taught.
``I allowed a few women to become deshi, and they did pretty well,'' he says with a smile. ``I thought maybe times are changing.'' Today the majority of his deshi are women. Someday, he says with a touch of pride, ``I expect a female treasure may be named.''
Yuzuki Inada was studying traditional Japanese painting at a college in Kyoto when a friend took her to an exhibit of Hata's work. From then on, she recalls, ``I wanted to learn from this person.'' Mr. Hata ``is a very kind man but he is very strict in his teaching,'' says the 29-year-old deshi. After eight years of apprenticeship, the young artist does not readily recommend her course.
``When I look at many other Japanese young people, I find they looked at how much salary they get or how many holidays they can take,'' she says. ``Few of them have the discipline for this type of job.''