Why we connect expertly made products with Japanese craftsmanship
Have you ever wondered why it is that we think of Japan as being the masters of crafts? Maybe it’s just me, but if I’m looking for something practical and well made and I’m presented with two seemingly similar items, the only difference being that one is made by a Japanese company and the other one isn’t, I’ll 99% of the time pick the Japanese made one. Think about how magical a Japanese knife is? As someone who loves to cook, I can’t think of anything more beautiful or anything that comes close to it in form or function.
Japanese chef knife made by Tsukasa Hinoura. Tsukasa Hinoura, a third generation knife maker, is a real gem of the Japanese smithy handicraft; one of his damascene knives, with forged handle in the shape of bamboo, won the first prize of the most famous outdoor knife show in Japan.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while and have been wondering if my assumptions are baseless and presumptive. Maybe I’ve just been lucky so far in finding that everything that I’ve purchased which has an origin in Japan seems to work better, last longer and is more practical.
The History of Japanese craftsmanship
Japan has a long history with craftsmanship, which dates back to settlement on its islands. It makes sense right? There weren’t any easy trade routes or access to products that weren’t indigenous to the area. If you needed something, you had to make it. If you couldn’t make it with what you had you’d have to find another solution (hello to making things as practical and as long-lasting as possible). Europe has always been lucky in the sense that it has access to a much broader spectrum of goods and resources thanks to its larger land mass and overland access to so many other countries and cultures. Europe established trade routes early in its history (silk road anyone?) so people in Europe weren’t forced to make what they needed with their own indigenous materials and resources. They could trade easily with others.
In 1877 the term "Seidenstraße" (literally "Silk Road")was coined by the German geographer, cartographer and explorer Ferdinand von Richthofen. Image via silkroutes.net
Japan’s first contact with the Western world only occurred in 1543 when three Portuguese traders ended up on the Japanese island of Tanegashima due to their Chinese trading ship being blown off course. This opened the trading door (allowing in things like muskets, what a great day for everyone 😳) and commerce flourished.
Portuguese traders arriving on the shores of Tanegashima. Image from the Met Museum
During this period arts also developed significantly, although embellished pottery had been present since the Jōmon period, as early as 12,000BC.
Jōmon period clay vessel thought to be from 6000BC
However, during the Edo period (1600–1868), in an attempt to quell unrest seen to be brought about by Christianity and foreign ideas, Japanese people were banned from traveling overseas, re-entering Japan if they had been abroad, and were stopped from building ocean-going vessels. In spite of this, or maybe exactly because of this, the cultural landscape in Japan flourished during this period.
Development of Japanese craftsmanship during the Edo period
Throughout the Edo period, craftsmen refined their techniques with very little input or influence from European trends (or materials), meaning that their traditional methods of production stayed very similar and were simply refined more and more with hundreds of collective years of practice. Traditionally, objects were made to be used, which meant that the line between craft and art was very blurred. Who doesn’t want what they are using to be beautiful to look at while still being practical? I’m a firm believer that while form can impact function, function should always be the driving force of design. I’ve never understood things like buying fancy plates just to put them in a glass cabinet and only using them once a year for “special occasions” - what a waste!
One of the most famous examples of art produced in the Edo period, Hokusai's "The Wave", a colour woodblock print made during 1829-1833
While Europe also had plenty of craftsmen and even has a long history with guilds (people see them as the forerunners of unions), they seem to have hindered not helped the furthering of techniques and production methods. The guilds created a monopoly and limited membership which helped those on the inside but prevented outsiders from easily practicing their trades. Sheilagh Ogilvie (2008) argues that their long apprenticeships were unnecessary to acquire skills, and their conservatism reduced the rate of innovation and made society poorer. She argues that trades only flourished once the majority of guilds had faded away during the beginning of the 19th century.
The Syndics of the Drapers' Guild by Rembrandt, 1662
Japan, on the other hand, has always seemed to pride itself on its craftsmanship, rather than using it as a means for political gain or money grab a la the guilds. After the second world war, the arts suffered immensely and rather than letting traditional techniques and knowledge die, the government implemented a new program called the “Living National Treasure” to recognise and protect individuals and groups of artists and craftspeople and provide them with the financial means to support themselves and to train a new generation of artisans. Even now the government continues to place huge value on its craftspeople and artists. In 2009 the government placed “yūki-tsumugi” (the Japanese craft of silk cloth) on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
Craftswomen working with silkworm cocoons, silk fibres and a loom to produce Tsumugi silk
What makes a Japanese Craftsperson special?
For me, the absolute love and support of craft, and craftspeople, and art, right to a governmental level, suggests a far deeper understanding of the value of products created by individuals rather than mass produced by machines. I think that this is why I always favour Japanese made products when I have a choice. I love that they still have such wonderful guidelines in place to regulate who can actually call themselves a craftsman (or craftswoman of course):
- The item must be practical enough for regular use
- The item must predominantly be handmade
- The item must be crafted using traditional techniques
- The item must be crafted using traditional materials
- The item must be crafted at its place of origin
A Japanese craftsman making traditional paper umbrellas
Sadly this love for artists and craftspeople is slowly being eroded in the age of machines and globalisation. Who has the money these days to pay for something that took a single person weeks to make? So maybe the question should be: how many people appreciate the time and energy that goes into making something like this and are willing to pay the price? Not many, would be my guess. So grab that vintage kimono tight, its silk might very well come from a UNESCO protected craftsperson, wonder at its hand-embroidered phoenix and marvel at the lushness of its hand-tied shibori because, in all likelihood, you won’t come across something like it again for a very, very long time.
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Modern Archive is an online space for textile lovers. We're especially obsessed with everything to do with Japanese Kimonos, Ai-zome and Shibori. We write about things that we like in our kimono magazine and occasionally host pop-up events. Find us on Instagram, Pinterest or Facebook. Send us an email to hellomodernarchive@gmail (or blow us a kiss)