TAKUMI: How Japanese Crafts Changed the Game of Art
The House of Takumi (1914), A. J. Russell
“I built for myself an abode that was planned of materials only,
Carefully choosing each hollow bamboo;
But spirit-things also wove themselves into it, twining like tendrils through lattices,
Distilling their atmospheres finer than air, not fashioned for breathing;
Unseen and unguessed by the workmen, they too were the builders and weavers, Endlessly weaving.”
Humans are highly visual creatures and it is with this biological truth that anyone can perceive or even produce art. But this life-affirming notion doesn’t make all humans a descendant of Picasso or Van Gogh. Although, humans are genetically given two hands which we can utilize for crafting, not everyone can create art that elicits emotions from its critical audience and simultaneously withstands years of political conflicts and modernization. There is no better epitome of this concept than the art of Japanese crafts handcrafted by exceptionally skillful individuals who dedicate great amount of devotion to the process. These Japanese artisans or “great masters” are known as 匠 Takumi.
The onslaught of digitization in the modern age has shoved traditional and handmade materials at the pavement forcing handcrafted goods to be overshadowed by mass-produced products. With the convenience offered by machinery, the dying culture of handcrafting seems to have an inevitable fate. If not for these modern day heroes who passionately embody and execute the Japanese philosophy of Takumi, handcrafting would have been just a part of human history. Japanese crafts are celebrated for being intricately designed, piece by piece, every detail is well-thought of and selected which can only be mastered through the passing of time; an art that is passed down from one generation to another.
As the unspoken dispute between mechanical and traditional production intensifies, the art of Japanese craft is forced to walk a tightrope, balancing its survival and relevance in today’s fast-paced and technology induced society. Apart from aesthetics, consumers prefer factory-produced products due to their precise finish and unlikeliness for any human error. Ironically, the very means that manufactures these “faultless” products is also devised by the human mind and is therefore, not exempted from possible slip ups. Our ancestors were able to survive with necessities crafted by their two functioning limbs. Although times are changing and technology is swallowing up the practice of handcrafting, Japanese artisans have kept the spirit of this tradition alive. For these great masters, Japanese crafts do not only serve as decorations but they are an artistic reminder of Japan’s rich culture and identity.
THE METHOD: PERFECTING THE PHILOSOPHY OF TAKUMI 匠
Japanese crafts are embedded on the idea of attention to details, beauty of imperfections and the passage of time. Before a master Sushi chef or Itamae becomes an expert of his profession, he will have to undergo years of morbid training and incidental cuts from his Sashimi knife. This unwavering devotion to their work regardless of the nature of it, white-collar or blue-collar jobs, Japanese seldom work half-heartedly. Takumis strive for nothing but the perfection of Japanese crafts and arts because amidst the tedious work, they carry the image and principles of their country with every brush strokes or surgeries performed.
A great example of this dedication to profession is the Japanese tea ceremony, the Way of Tea or Chado 茶道. Sen no Rikyū, the great tea master, has revolutionized the art of serving teas by teaching it in a manner patterned to the principles of rustic simplicity, directness of approach and honesty of self. Legend says that when a student of Rikyū questioned him on his secret to skillfully serving tea, the great master listed down his basic seven rules, revealing that the recipe of a good Chado is practice and commitment. The Way of Tea is basically concerned with activities that are a part of everyday life, yet to master these requires great cultivation and diligence.
Japanese crafts are not merely pertinent to the master or creator, they place high value on the recipients as well; how they will perceive and react to the art. Such as in the case of Japanese tea ceremony which is centered on creating a relaxed communication between the host and his guests putting the comfort of the latter above anything else. This cultural practice has birthed the ground principle of Japanese hospitality a concept directly linked to Omoiyari (おもいやり) or Altruistic Sensitivity. In layman’s terms, Omoiyari is an individual’s sensitivity to imagine another’s feelings and personal affairs, including his or her circumstances.
Japanese exert their hundred percent effort in whichever task they do because they consider the welfare of others apart from their own comfort. For them, Japanese crafts, arts and even services are merely profitable activities but are means of spreading the culture and character of Japan. Even though mistakes are bound to happen for manmade outputs, Japanese people can always find the beauty and value of things that are imperfect, impermanent and incomplete as professed in the principle of Wabi-Sabi (侘寂).
Takumi, a concept that is anchored based on many exemplary old age Japanese principles, teaches that skills not backed up by wisdom and insights are nothing but just superficial and shallow actions. These highly skilled persons selflessly devote their entire lives in the pursuit of perfecting Japanese crafts in hopes to preserve the dying traditions of their ironically technology-driven country. Anyone who aspire to do well in their own chosen craft can embrace the principle of Takumi, but one must mindfully possess the complexity of their practice and dig deeper beyond what is obvious. Mastering the art of Japanese crafts can only be attained through a range of tacit knowledge coupled with long-term apprenticeship eventually leading to wisdom and proficiency.
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THE ARTISANS: LIVING NATIONAL TREASURE AND THEIR LEGACIES
In various parts of the world, national treasures are typically artifacts excavated from historical sites or landmarks where momentous chapters of human civilization transpired. In Japan, national treasures can be someone who you bump into on your way to the train station. The land of the rising sun deals with crafts as intangible cultural heritage and regards highly skilled craftsmen as national living treasures.
In Japan, Takumi or the Master title can only be bestowed upon the best individual craftsmen by the national and local government. When the Japanese government established the Cultural Properties Protection Law and the moniker Living National Treasure in 1950, a unique way of cultural preservation was born. A “traditional craftsman” is reckoned to be a national living treasure for his mastery in a particular Japanese craft that fosters the declining industry of traditional crafts especially in the old towns of Japan. China and South Korea have also imitated this practice. Although being a part of this prestige list guarantees a higher income, for these gifted workers, attaining Takumi and recognition in their work is worth more than any monetary value.
The practice of Japanese crafts is endowed with intangible values deeply embedded in the culture and identity of Japan. In India, people engaging in crafts rely on a set of values such as traditional wisdom, harmless production, minimal waste, natural material, emotional needs and humanizing consumption. This unspoken rule suggests that Indian craft nourishes and encourages a set of values that are beyond the economic values or income generated from the particular craft; the same can be applied in Japan.
In the documentary about Takumi titled Japan: Fascinating Diversity, pottery enthusiast and host of the show Robert Yellin travelled all the way to Bizen, home of the oldest form of Japanese pottery in a quest to interview and learn from the great pottery master himself, Isezaki Jun. Awarded the Living National Treasure in 2004, Isezaki Jun is an expert of Japanese pottery with styles which date back in the 1960s-1970s. His equally talented son, Koichiro Isezaki is rather a contemporary artist. He crafts unconventional carving-like pieces that are perceived to be unprecedented based in the realm of traditional Bizen ware. The Isezakis have established a kingdom of pottery in the humble town of Bizen; a family tradition that they will continue to pass down from generations to come amidst the changing times.
In the poem above, it reminds us that beyond what the physical and exterior materials our naked eyes can perceive, there is a spiritual element anchored in the rich culture and tradition of Japan. That in every intricate design of Japanese crafts, also bleeds every ounce of hard work exerted by these talented artisans.
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