It is easy to make the mistake of imagining Japan as an island – perhaps thinking only of the largest island, Honshu, where Tokyo is located – when in fact it is an archipelago of 6,852 islands which, as a string, extends over 1,800 miles, and over many more years of complex cultural history. Each of the archipelago’s regions has proud craft traditions that have developed during the huge span of Japan’s continuous civilisation.
Japan is known worldwide for the quality of its handiwork in wood and bamboo as well as in metal – the poetic steel of Japanese knives is much prized, as are its cast-iron vessels. Then there are the country’s ceramics – Japanese pottery is sought after and much imitated for its transcendent simplicity on the one hand, and its intricacy on the other. And, of course, it is also known for its intricate paper crafts – think of the ubiquitous washi paper lanterns that Western mid-century moderns did much to popularise. And although they are rooted in the past, Japanese crafts are always evolving. They appeal to sustainability-minded consumers who are attracted by the intimacy of a beautiful, handmade object. They powerfully exemplify the human drive to be and do better. They look backward to the glories of Japan’s past, but they may also point the way forward to a less industrial, more human-scaled 21st Century.
The book Handmade in Japan, charts these crafts, from the Kyushu region in the south to the Hokkaido region in the north. Despite flourishing for many centuries, some crafts have died out, while others persist or have been brought back from the dead. Because of the fragility of the craft knowledge being handed down, Japan has created a system of nationally recognised master artisans, and designated some of the best people working in each category “living national treasures”, to encourage esteem for – and the continuation of – work in these areas.
Kengo Kuma suggests that the power of his country’s crafts derives from their gentleness and inherent peacefulness
Some of Japan’s living crafts harken back to its martial past. For instance, Satoshi Tachibana, an octogenarian in Fukushima, is one of the last surviving samurai armour smiths in the country. While he has in his career made suits of armour from scratch, he mostly confines his work these days to repairing existing suits of armour, some of which are worn in historical festivals. Samurai armour is designed to be as lightweight and flexible as possible, and is constructed with many small plates of iron or leather intricately bound together with cord over a leather backing. Brightly coloured silk cord is used to designate noble families.
Likewise the elegant longbows (yumi, whose striking size and asymmetry produce great power and accuracy) created by master craftsmen in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki Prefecture, following a design that is centuries old, are today used in archery competitions. In a similar vein, the katana, or samurai swords, which are one of the best-known symbols of Japan, are created by smiths using techniques that have been handed down through many generations. Such swords, which are really works of art, are now used for ceremonial purposes, but the kitchen knives which these smiths also produce are in common use worldwide (if you can afford them; Japanese knives are among the most expensive on the market, though with their textured steel they are certainly the most gorgeous).
The making of ceramics and pottery is very much a vibrant craft in contemporary Japan. There are major traditions dotted around the islands, but of note are the Aritayaki (Arita-ware) of Saga Prefecture in Kyushu, the Kutani yakimono (Kutani-ware) of Ishikawa Prefecture in central Japan, and the Bizen yakimono (Bizen-ware) to the south in Okayama Prefecture.
Arita-ware porcelain historically involves a vibrant blue underglaze with intricate patterns painted on top. In this period Holland was one of the few countries permitted to trade with Japan, and they became major exporters of Arita-ware to Europe, where it became favoured by the elite. The kiln and workshop structures are themselves beautiful and generations old.
The most recognisable varieties of modern Kutani-ware porcelain, in contrast, utilise red paint with gold accents; although there are many distinctive variations associated with the various workshops. The designs again are intricate – the hand painting is an impressive art in itself. A new generation of Kutani artists are using their painting skills to expand into new products such as earrings, nail art, and sneaker collaborations.
Finally, whereas work in porcelain in Japan is considered to be recent (dating back only a few centuries), the Bizen-ware of Okayama is thought to have its roots in the 6th Century, and over a long period the brownish and reddish tones for which it is known began to emerge. Bizen embodies the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, or a reverence for imperfection. Bizen vessels are shaped from crude local clay which fires in interesting ways. The firing itself is a complicated ritual that involves different wood fuels and a careful rise of temperature over days; the results are always somewhat unpredictable, and even the best Bizen craftspeople end up sacrificing many more pieces than they keep.
On the more purely decorative side, crafts include the making of paper parasols and kites. Both of these products, usually boldly and gracefully painted, must surely be famous. The making of wagasa, or washi paper umbrellas, was once a huge industry in Japan, but was threatened by the influx of cheap foreign mass-manufactured umbrellas. However, this age-old art is finding a new lease of life with the renewed fashionability of wagasa in a luxury market that sells to young people. The umbrellas are engineering marvels constructed of wood, bamboo, paper and thread. And they are priced accordingly.
There was a time when kites were only flown for Buddhist rites in Japan, but now they are flown for recreation too. Traditional Japanese kites consist of delicate frames of bamboo covered in washi paper and decorated in brightly coloured inks. Their construction and decoration both involve a very high degree of technical skill; the result is flying works of art.
Japanese crafts are a sort of philosophical gift for humankind
In the far north of Japan, in Hidaka Prefecture on Hokkaido island, attoushi, a bark cloth is woven according to Ainu tradition – the Ainu are an ethnic group indigenous to the region. Bark is harvested from elm trees, dried, shredded, rolled into thread, and dyed with colours extracted from local flowers such as marigolds, shiso, and bellflower. After that it is ready to be woven into rustic and extremely durable cloth.
Finally, on a more utilitarian note, Japanese craftspeople have a talent for making tools and everyday domestic objects of such precision and beauty that they also are elevated to the level of art. An example is Tango Tanimura, of Nara Prefecture, direct descendant of a line of master tea-whisk makers going back more than 500 years. The implements used in sado, the Japanese tea ceremony, are an important element of the ritual. The whisks are carved from a single piece of bamboo and used for mixing matcha; the tines are shaved by hand with the utmost delicacy. When whisks become worn out, they are discarded.
The talented brush makers of the town of Kumano, in Hiroshima Prefecture, are responsible for 80% of Japan’s brushes, of all shapes and sizes. Once they made a lot of calligraphy brushes, but with the decline of that style of writing they have branched out into makeup brushes. Note that their brushes are not cut: the hairs in the brush are selected and arranged by hand, and after an elaborate series of steps, gathered together and fitted to brush handles.
The town of Miki in Hyogo Prefecture is home to a concentration of smiths who specialise in creating implements, such as wood planes, chisels, handsaws, and trowels, used by other crafts, such as woodworking and plastering. The town traces its smithing techniques to the 6th Century. The tools its craftsmen produce are famed for their balance, durability – and, of course, beauty.
In his introduction to Handmade in Japan, the distinguished Japanese architect Kengo Kuma suggests that the power of his country’s crafts derives from their gentleness and inherent peacefulness. It is certainly the case that even the swords and knives have an unexpected calm about them, which is suggestive of all the time and care that has gone into them. They are a sort of philosophical gift for humankind, Kuma suggests. Peace goes into them and peace ripples outward from them.