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The meticulousness that drives the craftsman’s spirit, or shokunin kishitsu, has made the arts and crafts of Japan famous worldwide. In this blog, I would like to focus on a few examples of Japanese craftsmanship techniques that epitomise this spirit, along with a few of my favourite Japanese artists whose techniques are also informed by these ideals. I also want to look at how this traditional spirit of perfectionism, or kodawari, may also have wide-ranging influences on everyday life in contemporary Japan than might be expected.
Lacquerware, gold leaf production and application, silk dying, sword making, and woodblock printing. What unites all of these crafts and their associated techniques? For me, it’s the meticulousness of the artist or craftsman, the shokunin. All of these crafts are associated with techniques that require a large degree of repetition, but that’s not to say that these production methods are simple or easy to master. Although the lacquerware master may spend hours each day performing the same brushstroke to apply wet lacquer to a wooden surface, it will have taken years of practice for that one gesture to become automatic and perfect every time.
I was able to witness first-hand the mastery of technique and the process by which these methods are transmitted through the generations when I visited the workshop of Yoshihara Yoshindo, one of a handful of swordsmiths in Japan who still makes swords using traditional methods, without the use of modern machinery. Yoshihara-san has a number of young apprentices, who work for him without pay in the hope that they can learn the secrets of his techniques. Over the decades, Yoshihara-san has had many apprentices, but most have left, not having the patience required to master the process, which takes many years. He said he still has yet to find an apprentice worthy enough to name as his successor!
I observed Yoshihara-san polishing and engraving the swords in their final stages before completion. The sheer number of tools scattered across his workbench, each with a different application, required to complete a sword was staggering. Forget every film you’ve seen that shows one hammer and one chisel job!
Another example of the mastery of painstaking processes is the production of gold leaf, which I became familiar with during my five years living in the city of Kanazawa (on Japan’s west coast). Kanazawa produces 99% of Japan’s gold leaf, with many studios that produce this product exclusively. Before the production of gold leaf can even begin, a special oil absorbent paper called aburatorigami is required – this step alone is a long and intricate process that takes several months of work. The gold alloy which has been pre-rolled (these days by machine) is cut into small squares and placed between layers of aburatorigami paper. The stack of alternating paper and metal is then hammered until the gold has become thinner and expanded to cover the whole sheet.
The gold is then further divided into sections and re-inserted between new sheets of paper and the process repeated again. This takes place a number of times, with each stage requiring more and more precision and care as the gold gets thinner and more delicate. At the final stage, the leaf is cut into a standard square size using tweezers and a cutting implement made of bamboo to minimize static electricity. Depending on the intended use, the finished gold leaf can be anywhere from 1mm to 0.0002mm thick!
Of course, the care and attention to detail doesn’t end here, with the finished product being utilised by artists and artisans in their own painstaking processes to create works incorporating the finished gold leaf into lacquerware, glass-works, folding screens and paintings. The quiet, focused and meticulous spirit runs from pre-production to a finished piece of art or craftwork.
A common application for the gold leaf is the large scale painted works on folding screen room dividers. Being a committed Kyoto-ite, one of my favourite genres of these works is rakuchu rakugai zu, which means ‘scenes from in and around the capital’ – usually composed as a pair, with one screen showing scenes taking place within Kyoto’s city limits and the second showing scenes from the immediate surrounding areas. This genre of painting enjoyed a particular vogue during the 16th century and into the succeeding Edo period. Gold leaf is used to create both the background and the stylised clouds which divide the scene into the fore, middle and background. The scenes are a wonder to behold, you can spend hours with a magnifying glass examining each of the hundreds of individuals depicted, akin to an Edo period ‘Where’s Wally?’ (or ‘Where’s Waldo?’ for our American readers).
Another of my favourite works in Japanese art is also from the Edo period (1603 – 1868). Nagasawa Rosetsu was an eccentric artist who produced many works imbued with playfulness and fun. One, named Five Hundred Arhats, depicts the 500 chief disciples of the Buddha in a work that measures just 3cm square, roughly the size of a postage stamp. You’ll need to whip out the magnifying glass again for this one!
Back to modern-day Japan and perhaps the most well-known contemporary Japanese artist is Kusama Yayoi. One of her most iconic works are her large scale spotted pumpkin sculptures.
Kusama has also produced many hand-painted works with a level of detail that must have taken weeks, if not months, to complete. In the case of Kusama, her work also functions as a kind of catharsis. Having suffered from debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder for many decades, Kusama applies herself to painting her intricate detailed patterns as a kind of therapy; the repetition involved in creating the work allowing her to keep control of her mind.
When did kodawari, this Japanese pursuit of perfection and dedication to detail begin? In the final analysis, I suppose it’s impossible to say, but even as far back as the Heian period, which began over one thousand years ago, in her ‘Pillow Book’, the court lady Sei Shonagon took it upon herself to write lists of objects and situations that she found to be exquisite and beautiful due to their perfection; an aesthetic ideal that came to be known as miyabi. She singled out subject matter like spring light from the emerging sun at dawn and the fresh layer of untouched frost on a winter morning. However, Sei Shonagon wasn’t exactly egalitarian in her aesthetic sensibilities; she found it incredibly distasteful that fresh, beautiful snow should be allowed to fall on and adorn the houses of the peasantry!
It would be a precarious exercise in cultural reductionism to claim that the manifestation of meticulousness in everyday Japanese life is linked to these pre-modern examples of the pursuit of perfection in the arts. That said, there are still plenty of examples of this same single-minded dedication to one’s work today.
Every time I make a purchase at a department store in Japan, I’m left with a deep inferiority complex regarding my gift-wrapping skills. The simplest item will be wrapped (for free) with a flair that makes the famous scene by Rowan Atkinson in the film ‘Love Actually’ look like a haphazard mess!
Akin to gold leaf studios that focus solely on the production of a single product, it’s still very common in Japan to find shops that only produce a single product. You can find these across Kyoto, whether it be pickled vegetables, tofu, or mochi sweets. Similarly, although there are plenty of izakaya pub-style restaurants in Japan with broad menus, everyone in Japan knows that if you really want the best sushi or tempura, you should go to restaurants that serve exclusively that style of cuisine. It’s often said that at the best sushi restaurants, apprentice chefs will often be tasked for many years with washing and cooking the rice and perfecting this skill before they are even allowed to pick up a knife to begin slicing fish.
This single-minded devotion to one’s craft, whether it be in the realm of fine art and handicrafts, or at a local sushi restaurant, is surely one of the defining characteristics of Japanese culture today, and finding examples of this loving focus and care is one of the true joys of spending time in Japan.
InsideJapan Tours arranges visits with some of Japan’s consummate shokunin to learn more about their dedication to their craft, and sometimes even participate in hands-on experiences. Learn about Japan’s craft capital of Kyoto or explore the country’s art centre in the rural islands of the Seto Inland Sea.