Beneath the silent layers of surface, these.
It seems the fascination with Japanese arts is never ending. Perhaps that is
because so many Japanese forms are timeless. Even in a Japan where the metal
filings on the cultural magnet radiate out to all things modern and foreign,
it's useful to remember that the magnet itself is the Japan of always. The
witheringly busy life of the business and entertainment centers is balanced
by careful nurturing of the crafts of old, practiced the way they have been for
centuries without substantial change. Today, the old craftways are enjoying a
renaissance like none before -- "Renaissance" in the true meaning of the word:
"resurgence." In Japan's case, the resurgence looks backwards to a romantic
version of emperors and shoguns, just as the Italians looked back to an idyllized aeolia named Greece.
The meticulous attention to precision and concept that characterized
Japanese product design in the electronics and auto industries in the 1980s
and 90s didn't just suddenly erupt from wily kids fresh from design and
engineering schools. It came from men in their thirties through fifties who
remembered the early years of Postwar Japan, during which the craft shops of
old were as ubiquitous to townscapes as today's franchises and brand logos
to cities. Even given the economic stimulus of the U.S. postwar
reconstruction policy, for many years the local crafts people were the main
purveyors of the necessities of life like metal wares, ceramics, rope,
fabric, writing tools, even cast-iron hibachis to heat homes in the winter
and the charcoal to put into them. Craft wasn't fodder for the middle-class
preoccupation with the cute. Nor was it cultural identity. It was survival.
Now those folks who were twenty to fifty are now retired or close to it.
They still have their respect for the high quality of those old crafts. No
surprise, then, that, much in the same way their counterparts in today's
India are mad about homes decorated with old dhurries and woven saddlebags
and spun copper trays, the Japanese middle class longs for homes dotted with
the miniature masterpieces that comprise much of the land's crafts
"Masterpieces" is the right word for many objects. Nowhere else in the world
is such lavish government support and consumer affection lavished on such
small objects: ceramics, lacquer ware, weaving, bamboo, paper, wood, metal
work, even fans, umbrellas, art dolls, ink, ink stones, ink brushes, on and
on. Often these are produced by "Living National Treasures" (the Japanese
words translate much more elegantly to "Bearers of Intangible Cultural
Assets"), bestowed by a government-appointed committee for each craft
tradition on the truly exceptional practitioner. A sort of MacArthur Genius
Fellowship for tenth-generation experts.
This book can be traced to a 1974 Japanese government law for the "Promotion of
Traditional Craft Industries" as a way of keeping alive traditions in danger
of being lost. It is heartbreaking to see what has happened in locales where
such enlightened policies never happened. The weaving villages of the Sunda
islands in Indonesia, once famed for their dyed-on-the-loom double ikat fabrics,
now sport TV antennas and kids who wear denims and tee shirts
with messages like "I'm the boy your mother warned you about," and in whose
homes those young people are no longer learning the looms but watching soaps
about the high life in Movieland.
The 1974 laws were extraordinarily enlightened for their time. They included
provisions for subsidies for apprentices, conservation of the natural
resources vital to crafts like wood wares and ceramics, and mandates for
healthy working environments. They also provided that, to be officially
recognized and supported, the craft had to be used in everyday life, made
from all-natural materials, followed techniques dating from at least the Edo
period (i.e., before Commodore Perry "opened up" Japan), and was a tradition
practiced by at least thirty other people in the area (i.e., no hobbies or
The results were spectacular. By 1990 over 1060 clearly distinct crafts had
been cataloged, employing nearly a quarter-million people. Since the
practitioners were overwhelmingly men (except in textiles), the word
"people" really meant "families," due to Asia's family- and clan-based way of
organizing livelihood. All this had to be systematized in some meaningful
way, so in 1987 the Japanese government established the Japan Craft Forum.
Members of that Forum are the "authors" of this book.
And, oh my, what they have wrought. The flyleaf sums the book this way: "This
is the first book in English to present Japan's traditional crafts under one
cover . . . a monumental effort seven years in the making." Inside some 99
crafts from all genres are documented in what amounts to a national crafts
catalog raisonée. The depth and accuracy of detail in the descriptions is
astounding. To take one instance, following a detailed description of the
names, materials, and procedures of applying each layer (of eight) of
lacquer in making the dense, rich black boxes of Wajima ware, "the final
burnishing before the top coat is applied is done only by elderly women because
they have little or no oil in their hands."
Japanese Crafts contains detailed descriptions of twelve kinds of ceramics
(as varied a set of appearances from one fundamental technique as a craft
can produce); twenty-four types of textile weaving, braiding, and dyeing;
ten types of lacquer ware (including an extended discussion of lacquer
itself); four kinds of bamboo work (including the birdcage-intricate
Takayama tea whisks most prized for the tea ceremony); five of paper; eleven
forms of woodcraft; seven metalcrafts. Plus a potpourri of more modest
crafts comprising objects often overlooked -- umbrellas, fans, combs. Brightly decorated molded bricks of ink are ground
with water on an inkstone to the exact viscosity needed for any given kind
of brushwork, from swashy calligram on a hanging scroll, to haiku poem
posted to a friend, to a price per kilo sign above the long beans and
plucked chickens in a market.
And so much more. It is hard to imagine a cornucopia of detail being
interesting, but this is. Each craft is described in a mere few hundred
words, according to a formula that commences with milieu and history,
proceeds to raw materials and production methods, and finally lists usages
and religious significance if a ceremonial object. All this is accompanied
by a splendid vocabulary of technical terms that, aside from being fun in
themselves, will in times to come be a trove of terms whose use by linguists
and cultural historians will go far beyond the world of objects. Few books
have come down the road so tightly edited. And so elegantly, for this is not
a written book nearly so much as it is an edited one.
As if all this wasn¹t enough, each object is superbly photographed in such a
way as to reveal its meticulous (yes, again that word) detail. The
quality of the photography matches that of the images in the best books about sculpture or cuisine.
This raises the point of the much fainter line distinguishing craft from art
than Westerners embrace. The fact that there is a line at all is a Western
influence, occasioned by the need to distinguish with the term bijutsu (art)
purely Japanese work from works by Japanese done in a Western mode or using
Western materials such as oil painting. Before that the great names in
Japanese "art" were polymedial, producing one day a scroll painting, another
day the design for a box, then a ceramic bowl, on and on. They were
designers more than artists, and indeed, to this day Japanese design is
among the most eclectic in the world.
Even so, the designs were turned over to skilled craftsmen to produce. Hence
crafts survived because arts survived. Masks for theater. Paper, brushes,
and ink for calligraphy, scrolls, poetry. Ceramics and bamboo for the tea
ceremony (a sequence of actions that are an art equal to choreography).
Textiles were made for kimonos that appeared on stage, in rituals, even
brothels. Combs and paper umbrellas were produced for geishas (their
conversation, too, an art with an exacting apprenticeship, just as a
soliloquy or cantata is the product of years of rehearsals or study).
And so on. This is the kind of book books were meant to be, starting with
the first pen-and-ink scroll or Western illuminated manuscript. Japanese
Crafts is to the breadth and span of craft what Sesshu's Long Scroll was to
geography: the painting of a journey the way it actually was journeyed, as a
long ribbon of pen-and-ink footsteps from Edo to Kyoto. No Japanophile's
library should lack Japanese Crafts.