The Unknown Craftsman

Men at Work: Artisans of Old Japan

The Unknown Craftsman

Men at Work: Artisans of Old Japan

The Unknown Craftsman
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Jan. 27 2009 10:05 AM

Men at Work: Artisans of Old Japan

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Click here to launch a slide show on day 2.

My first contact with traditional Japanese crafts left me cold. The 55th Japan Traditional Art Crafts Exhibition, housed under fluorescent lights on the seventh floor of the massive Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo, was antiseptic and unengaging: The exhibits—fine pottery, intricate wooden boxes, elaborate kimonos—were exquisitely made, but they were a little too perfect for my taste. I had more fun wandering around the sprawling food hall in the store's basement. A visit to the Japan Traditional Crafts Center in the Ikebukuro neighborhood was another ice bath. All very pretty and informative—accessible, too, with display information provided in English—but far too museumlike.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.

The JTCC has worthy ideals. Founded in 1979 by the ministry of economy, trade, and industry, the exhibition is intended to promote traditional crafts, commonly known as mingei. The Mingeikan—a Tokyo folk-art museum founded by philosopher Soetsu Yanagi—defines mingei objects as "the work of anonymous craftsmen, produced by hand in quantities, inexpensive, to be used by the masses, functional in daily life, and representative of the region in which it was produced." Perhaps it's inevitable that when government agencies—or private enterprises, for that matter—try to champion humble crafts, they suck the life out of them. One of the most dispiriting outings of the entire trip was a trek to the Kyoto Handicraft Center, whose brochures were on display in every outpost where a foreign visitor might venture. It's the kind of depressing place that makes you wonder if the guidebook writers had been bought off: The otherwise excellent Lonely Planet Kyoto City Guide called it "the best one-stop emporium in the whole of Kyoto," but the place filled me with sadness. Commercially, it was a smart enterprise—lots of vendors housed under one roof, English-speaking staff, credit cards accepted (an astonishingly rare practice in Japan, other than at the big department stores), shuttles to and from the downtown hotels. The booths were stuffed with goods, but everything felt like it had come off a conveyor belt. Still, even in the midst of all the schlock, the spirit of the shokunin endured: While package-holiday tourists pounced on cheap yukata and ugly T-shirts, a pair of woodblock printers quietly carved and inked, unmolested by the horrors surrounding them.

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Back in the capital, Masaharu Moriya of Moriya Bamboo exemplified Yanagi's ideal of the unknown craftsman. He was a man of few words. My minutelong questions, followed by two minutes of the interpreter's rendering, would inevitably be answered: "Yes," "No," or "A little, perhaps." Still, I never had the feeling that he was evading my queries. He was shy and apparently unused to gaijin schlepping out to his studio, located an hour from the city center. He provided the facts of his life—he was inspired by his father, who worked with bamboo, though not professionally; he has been in business for 30 years, 15 at the current location; he tried other lines of work, but this was "the most suitable"—but when it came to philosophy, vocation, the soul-harmonizing joy of shaping bamboo, he had nothing to say.

Feeling bad that I was keeping Moriya from his work, I asked him to show me what he does. He virtually skipped to the workshop. Within seconds, he had whipped off his sock so that he could grasp one half of the springy bamboo with his right foot. In less than two minutes of splitting and stripping, he turned three lengths of bamboo into 12 strips, and 30 seconds later, he had woven six of the strips into the base of a basket. Even as he worked swiftly with a tool that must've been sharp enough to take off a toe, he kept an eye on the cars zooming down the highway outside his studio.

My visit to Moriya Bamboo came about halfway through a three-week trip, and by that point I had clear expectations about what I'd find in the store attached to a craftsman's workshop: a few exquisite but expensive objects—the cost easily justified by the time devoted to producing them, the materials used, and the rare opportunity to buy a beautiful object direct from the hands of its creator. Moriya's store was completely different. Visitors could step up to a shoes-off fancy furniture section or find a few delicate items intended for use in Japanese tea ceremony, but the bulk of the haphazardly displayed stock was practical, rustic gear—baskets, brooms, and housewares; traditional winter boots—priced for country folk rather than visiting urbanites. There was even a selection of cheap souvenirs and wooden toys that a child could blow his pocket money on.

These days, according to Moriya, people aren't using traditional bamboo products for their intended purpose, and with Japanese agriculture in decline, a lot of the things he makes end up in galleries and museums as exemplars of traditional products. What looked like a grass-skirt ensemble turned out to be a traditional bamboo raincoat, but it won't be used to keep farmers dry as they toil in the fields—it was made to decorate the walls of a restaurant that is trying to establish a traditional vibe.

Despite the effects of urbanization, the bamboo business seems sound. When 67-year-old Masaharu retires, his son Koichi will take over, and, judging from the quantity of raw materials stacked out back, the order book is healthy. Of course, it's hard work. It was Sports Day, a national holiday, when we took our jaunt out to the workshop in Aobadai. The trains out of Tokyo were packed with liberated office workers heading to the country for a day of hiking, but the Moriyas were at their posts, splitting, shaving, and shaping bamboo.