Without a doubt, says Ai Iijima Ito, setting up and running her forge in Chiba Prefecture would not have been possible without her command of English. Though the 33-year-old metalsmith is firmly established in her native Japan, even becoming the first female member of the Chiba Traditional Blacksmith Association in 2019, Iijima attributes her thriving business, Metalsmith Iiji, to her ability to communicate in the global language.
She studied metalwork with some of the finest in the field in Britain, attracts international clientele, and says her mentors include blacksmiths across the world. In short, “being bilingual has had a huge impact” on her career and life, she says.
The seeds for Ito’s interest in English were sown early. When she was 3, her parents encouraged her to sing her ABCs and introduce herself in English. As university graduates of English language and literature themselves, they raised her and her brother in “an English-friendly environment,” Ito recalls.
On starting English classes at junior high school, she decided she wanted to become “a capable English speaker” to give herself more career opportunities. Outside class, she honed her skills by listening to music from the likes of Lauryn Hill, the Spice Girls and the Beatles.
“I thought being able to speak English would give me more chances to meet people, not just in Japan but also worldwide, and it seemed to offer more fun for life,” she says.
While training to become a jewelry designer at Tokyo Gakkan Technical High School (now Tokyo Gakkan Funabashi) she decided to study in the U.K. after graduation and departed for London’s Camberwell College of Arts.
But the course was not as focused on practical skills as she had hoped, so she transferred to a Bachelor of Arts specializing in metal and wood at the University of Brighton. The move was not without its challenges, including extra tuition fees, an interview in English with each of her prospective tutors and a new environment that had many fewer Japanese students than at Camberwell.
Ito was undeterred: “I was able to brush up my English skills in the English-only environment and I won a scholarship. My life changed when I decided to change it,” she says.
During one workshop, a tutor introduced forging and Ito was hooked.
“I was fascinated with forging – at how flexible and unique it is,” she said. “I didn’t know the words associated with forging, so I asked the tutor to repeat every word he used until I vaguely understood and then wrote them down as sounds.”
Afterward, she looked up the words in a dictionary but refrained from translating them into Japanese so she would be able “to input and output in English straight away.”
Her endeavors paid off and she excelled in both the physically and academically demanding aspects of her course, including a dissertation about gender in blacksmithing around the world, which was featured in the magazine of the British Artist Blacksmiths Association. On graduation, she won a three-year apprenticeship at Glynde Forge in East Sussex, a renowned blacksmithing center that has been home to a smithy since 1801. Her master, Terry Tyhurst, had 20 years’ experience in the industry before retiring in 2016.
In her first year, says Ito, her work involved “learning words, the names of tools and processes and the way master likes his tea” but she stuck with it, learning all the skills of a blacksmith. Soon, she was shipping her anvil, drill and hearth to Japan to set up her own forge, where she makes practical objects such as scissors and chairs as well as decorative items, from jewelry to decorations.
Today, Ito markets and sells her products to Japanese and international clientele and offers forging workshops where she sometimes even has to explain metalworking terms in English to English native speakers.
She advises English learners not to be intimidated by the language of the industry in which they work. “Your ability depends on how many words you know and, if you know as many as possible, you can make strong relationships and gain confidence,” she said. She suggests trying to speak and listen again and again “in the language” without trying to translate words or sentences in your head.
That determination and a positive attitude can help with language learning, she says, reflecting on her forward-thinking, favorite English phrase: “You never know what’s around the corner.” (Kathryn Wortley)
Words to live by
伊藤 愛（いとう あい）