THE HISTORY OF JAPANESE CRAFT AND CULTURE
Japan’s craftsmanship is based on process and precision. Japanese crafts, or Kogei, have a long history – dating as far back as the stone age – and exports of Japan’s crafts started in the 13th century. But for a craft to survive in modern societies, it needs to speak to modern needs. And Japan, as a country, respects the ancient techniques and traditions that built this cultural heritage. So much so that they are willing to subsidize their evolution.
Japan’s Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties designates “Living National Treasures”. These are people who they provide with a generous annual grant to preserve – and develop – Japan’s unique and diverse craft industries. The recipients of this grant are defined as individuals or groups who have attained high levels of mastery in certain skills associated with dramatic, musical, or artistic properties. The broad definition also includes other intangible cultural properties. In other words, “intangible cultural properties” are the skills of master artisans.
In the world of Japanese craftsmanship, everything is about generations of families passing knowledge from the Sensei, or teacher, to the disciple. Japanese apprentices will spend years in the masters’ homes observing before they begin to work in the craft.
And just what qualifies as a “craft” in Japan?
- It must be practical and durable enough for regular use in the home.
- It must be crafted by hand.
- It must be crafted using traditional techniques and methods. No machines, no chemicals.
- It must be crafted using natural materials.
- It must be crafted in one geographic location in Japan.
And there are many such crafts in Japan that are of the highest quality, thanks to these strict qualifications. And the crafts are wide in range.
JAPANESE CRAFT AND CULTURE
The Japanese are one of the oldest pottery cultures in the world and their contribution to ceramic arts is heralded worldwide. Known for its simple design and natural colours, much of today’s Japanese ceramics work remains simplistic and that’s what makes it so popular. It’s mind boggling to think they began producing pottery as early as 14,000 BCE.
In the textile field, Japanese mud dyeing (dorozome) is a technique that emerged 1,300 years ago on Amarmi Oshima, the largest of Japan’s Satsunan islands. The mud can be used as a dye, to dull bright colours or produce a dark colour. Alternatively, it can be used as a mordant, to seal in strong colour. This area is famous for its vibrant kimono material as well as its blacks and grays.
Early Japanese metalworking techniques date back to the 3rd to 2nd century BCE. As it evolved, it featured a variety of products from different metals – from early sabers to brass Buddhist religious statues and ceremonial tools to home goods. The craft has evolved to include many items used in daily life such as ironwork candle stands and iron pots and pans and vases made of brass and bronze. Remember, for it to be a craft in Japan, it must be practical.
BUDDHIST MONKS ARRIVE IN THE 7TH CENTURY
In 610 AD, a Buddhist monk from Korea introduced the art of papermaking to Japan. Today, Japanese handmade paper is coveted around the world, commanding premium prices. Known as washi, is both flexible and strong. And durable – lasting up to 1,000 years (Japanese money is printed on washi). It plays an important role in craftsmanship in Japan – and it is used for everything from dustpans to waxed umbrellas.
In the 8th century, a Buddhist priest from China introduced medical and cultural incense to Japan (as well as Buddhism). However, it wasn’t until the 14th century that it became a treasured cultural tool amongst the upper classes. Skilled artisans provided rare and exquisite aromas to the Emperor of Japan and his Court, and the samurai warriors began perfuming their helmets and armour with incense. Today in Japan, incense is crafted using techniques – and scents – that have been passed down from generation to generation.
Beginning in 800 AD, Japanese craftsmen turned their attention to candles – understanding immediately that the unique light of their candles could not be replicated and offered superior illumination for Buddhist statues and altars. They used the wax from the fruit of the Haze tree and for the wick, they utilized Japanese paper and fibres from rushes. These were the only materials available to them 1200 years ago, but this is how master craftsmen still create the same candles in Japan in the 21st century. It is the form and function of the wicks that give them such an ethereal and delicate glow.
A YOUNGER CRAFT WITH A GREAT FUTURE
Japanese handblown glass has possibly the youngest history of its varied craft industries, however Japanese glassblowers are quickly gaining a reputation for being at the cutting edge of the medium. The Portuguese introduced glassblowing to Japan in the late 1700s, during of the Edo period. However, glassware remained a luxury item until the early 19th century when it began to feature in everyday life. And today, Japanese glassblowers are featured in high end galleries around the world.
By the end of the Edo period in 1867, Japanese craftsmanship had thrived for thousands of years. But the late 19th century ushered in rapid industrialization and threatened both craft and culture. By the 20th century, Japanese cultural heritage was in danger of disappearing. It was after World War II that the Japanese government created their Living National Treasure program to help restore the rich history of craftsmanship in Japan. And today, Japan enjoys a thriving artisanal craft industry.
Every country should be so lucky.
SHOP THE JAPAN COLLECTION
At Obakki, we always want to know more about the people behind our products. These five questions do just that. Today, we talk to Jack, one of our artisans from the Kibera neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya.
At Obakki, we work with our artisan partners to help them reach their goals, which often emphasize better access to international markets. And as it happens, access to a global market is part of what we are readily able to provide.
Japan’s craftsmanship is based on process and precision. But for a craft to survive in modern societies, it needs to speak to modern needs. And Japan, as a country, respects the ancient techniques and traditions that built this cultural heritage.