Book Review: Asian Furniture

I few months back I obtained a copy of the book “Asian Furniture”, edited by Peter Moss, which I had first come upon at the Boston MFA (Museum of Fine Art) bookshop. I was interested initially in this coffee-table book because of its inclusion of large and clear photos of furniture from countries like Tibet, Korea, Phillipines – places where fine furniture has been made and which have heretofore received little print coverage. The photography of pieces is excellent and the range of pieces, especially in the Chinese section, is most impressive. I already have numerous books on Chinese Furniture, so to find yet more stunning examples was enough to push along my decision to buy this book.

My praise stops however when I come to the other sections of the text, and these sections did not become apparent to me until I had the chance to sit down and read the book thoroughly. The section on Japanese furniture is written by a Japanese national, Yokobori Yoichi, who is described as “journalist, writer, and Professor of International Affairs, Politics and culture at Wayo Women’s University”. I’m not sure which of his qualifications leads him to be selected as an expert to comment upon Japanese furniture, however. I would have thought that a ‘qualified expert’ might be someone with academic publications on the topic of furniture, or who ran an antiques shop dealing with such furniture, or who worked as a specialist Asian furniture appraiser for one of the large auction houses, or who, god forbid, actually made such pieces.

My impression is that the English in that section of the work is a translation of the original Japanese, given certain linguistic peculiarities herein. How else to explain such phrases as found on page 273:

About this time two technologies became available that related to cutting timber: the vertical saw operated by two men that could slice through timber of large girth, and the planer device that allowed slivers to be shaved off thin wood. These tools allowed the building of massive structures such as castles and big houses and, before long, moved from forestry to the cabinetmaker’s workshop

Since I actually cut wood once in a while, such descriptions, even allowing for translation errors, strike me as superficial and inaccurate. First of all, the ‘vertical saw’ referred to is likely a pit saw, and in fact that type of two-man saw can be operated in the horizontal direction as well as vertical. Then the term ‘planer device’ – the meaning here is simple: ‘plane’. A lot of English speakers, mind you, confuse the terms plane and planer (along with joiner and jointer, etc., ) often enough. The author must be referring to the adoption of the Chinese plane in Japan. This plane does not “allow slivers to be shaved off of thin wood” – the phrase ought to be: “allowed thin slivers to be sliced off of wood” – the wood need not be ‘thin’ for shavings to occur. In any case, it is a misleading comment, as the precursor to the Chinese plane in Japan, the spear plane (yari-ganna), is also eminently capable to taking quite thin shavings. Further, neither the adoption of the pit saw nor the Chinese plane hardly “allowed the building of massive structures” – castles and tall platforms were erected long before the adoption of the Chinese plane. Finally, these tools are not ‘forestry related’ either. The sawyer is an altogether different specialty than the carpenter or cabinetmaker, as is the forester, or the people that transport the logs from the forest to millsite. Foresters did not use planes in their work, nor did sawyers.

Anyhow, my quibbles with that section are minor to be sure. It is all too common to come across works written by academics in which the descriptions of the work involving tool users is scant and inaccurate – I wonder if there might be a certain tendency of some in the white collar world to look down upon the blue collar worker and assume that there isn’t much to what they are doing, certainly nothing of complexity at least- these are hand tools after all. The white collar person, triumphant generally in a narrow field of analytical knowledge, might conclude that blue collar work doesn’t require much brain-power, and thus can be dismissed from relevance. That assumption, if it is occurring (and I’m convinced that it plays a role) is consistently wrong and serves to show the ignorance of the writer, and I am making a guess of course that such might be part of the inaccuracy of the descriptions found in the Japanese section along with others in “Asian Furniture”.

But the book goes into further territory in which I object to much of what I find.

Page 302~303, Woods, shows tree species, however the range is narrow with only 12 tree species shown, and it shows the bark of the trunks predominantly, rather than say, the foliage, flowers, nuts, cones, etc. Hardly how a tree-identifying specialist would go about it at least. The wood slices below each trunk illustration are not consistent at all- some show face grain, some radial, some end grain, thus they cannot be compared to one another all that well. Further, most of the species described are denoted only by their Chinese terms, except for one: Paulownia, or kiri as it is termed in Japan (and very widely used in furniture). Further, the description of “Cypress” is misleading and doesn’t consider the false cypress widely used in Japan for high-class pieces, hinoki. This section is woefully inadequate and misleading, not to mention largely ethno-centric to China.

Pages 304~305, Tools, stopped me dead in my tracks, and is the worst section by far. It shows tools used, presumably, for furniture-making, but upon a modicum of examination shows many tools which would never be employed by furniture makers, never mind Asian craftsmen specifically. The book titled, “Asian Furniture”, and given that virtually all the pieces are antiques, one would think that the types of tools to be depicted would have been near-exclusively Asian tools. Not so.

Besides mixing in tools which would not likely be part of the furniture-maker’s kit, like the “Japanese splitting knife”, or “cooper’s broad axe”, we have the inclusion of western tools, like ‘Scottish Craftsman Plane’, ‘English Jarvis Plane’ , ‘European Grooving Plane’, ‘French Bevel Gear Drill’, and ‘Cooper’s Croze’, etc. – what do these have to do with Asian furniture? Zero. This is mindless filler at best, and insults the reader’s intelligence.

It gets worse though. Several (well, all) of the Japanese tools are mis-described:

The Japanese inkpot, sumitsubo, did not and does not contain fine black or white powder. It contained cotton wadding (wata) soaked in sumi (ink).

Here’s another gem:

Tsai bench chisel” – there is no such word as ‘tsai’ in the Japanese language. And it is not illustrating a tool made by the noted blacksmith Tasai either, and in any case, chisels are referred to by their type, not the name of the maker. That type of chisel is hardly what might be ‘mainly used by temple carpenters’ – it is a general purpose chisel type that any carpenter or woodworker might have. A chisel more typical of a temple carpenter’s set, given the nature of working with large timbers, would be heavy duty mortising chisels or a long necked paring slicks, etc..

Next, “Japanese hand-forged chisel”:

Whoa! Chisels “from the discipline of Shogun sword makers…“Cool!

This is a bunch of hype. Few sword makers made tools until after the Meiji restoration (ie., after the Shogunate disappeared) for one thing, when they had virtually no other work. More swordmakers quit than stooped to make tools, as far as I know. The chisel illustrated is an unusual one anyhow: two-prong mortising chisel – nimai mukomachi nomi – commonly employed by shōji makers, not carpenters. Further, ALL Japanese chisels, above the very cheapest level are hand-forged, and as far as I know ALL carpentry tools require precision in manufacture and ‘clear-cut edges’ – what else would one use, a chisel or plane with “blurry edges”?

The description for, um, ‘Dozuki Mini’ :

Here, the description indicates an entirely different type of saw, a kugi-hiki nokogiri. A dozuki saw has a back stiffener, unlike the saw illustrated or described, and is not used for flush-cutting pegs tenons, dowels, etc., unless you want to mar the adjacent surface.

Some more – here’s “dovetail chisel”:

Curiously described as “o-ire nomi takei“. The word ‘takei’ is meaningless, for one thing; secondly the chisel illustrated is a push chisel as opposed to a striking chisel (all o-ire nomi are striking chisels however). The correct term for what is illustrated in fact, which is a crankneck chisel with a ‘triangular cross-section would be “shinogi-gata kote nomi“. Yes, it might be used for finishing dovetails and other joinery, but more specifically it is for cleaning out dadoes and housings.

Here’s “Mortise Chisel”:

Not bad, description-wise, but there are many chisels which can be used for mortising, rectangular and otherwise, and Japanese chisel cutting edge steel may be white paper steel, or blue paper steel, or Super Blue steel, or Swedish steel, or English Sheffield steel, etc.. The chisel illustrated, more to the point, is not a mortising chisel and is not “heavy duty” – it is a hira-machi o-ire nomi to be more specific, a type of medium duty striking chisel with a flattened neck.

Another beauty:

“Veneer saw” – this is an ‘oga‘ type of saw, and is not a veneer saw but used for ripping large planks or logs roughly into baulks. Veneering is quite unusual in Japanese and Chinese woodworking. And “the refined skill of sawing diversified into a number of narrow specialities” – more twaddle.

Next, “Chinese Round Mallet” and “Carpenter’s Mallet”:

Both tools illustrated are the same thing, and this type of hammer is used by the Japanese as well. Why would the wood of the ‘Chinese’ mallet be described with the Japanese term ‘akagashi’ (Red Oak)?

“Splitting Maul”:

What does this tool have to do with furniture making? It’s a European tool besides. The tool illustrated does not have a poll – one end of the illustrated item is a blade, and the other a pick, If it did have a poll, it would be used to drive a splitting Wedge perhaps, not an ‘edge’

Next, “European Adze”:

What is illustrated is not an adze, but looks more like a slater’s hammer. Again, why include a European tool that has nothing to do with Asia or furniture?

“Fish Head (Kobiki) Saw”:

Illustrated is an azebiki saw. There is no such thing as a ‘fish-head saw’ as far as I know, and in any case ‘fish-head’ does not translate as ‘kobiki’. The word ‘kobiki’ could mean ‘little saw” depending upon the kanji used, but it is not a standard term in any event. Teeth spacing on these types of saw varies with the size, and can certainly be more than “1mm apart”.

The “Ceremonial Tool Box”, is perhaps the most egregious blunder of all:

Utter hogwash. While the tools illustrated are indeed ceremonial – these sorts of sets were produced for inclusion with a Japanese temple after construction was complete, where they would be given – to the temple – simply as commemorative items, never to be actually used. Sometimes the tool set would be hidden up in the roof. Few Japanese carpenters would be caught dead with a gold-foiled carpenter’s square or inkpot and tool box (sumitsubo) inlaid with mother of pearl.

I could go on, but I’ll stop while I’m ahead. There are inane and un-educated comments throughout the ‘tools’ section. I certainly could have done a lot better job than the editor of that book, not that I aspire to be anybody’s editor. As I have found so many errors in one section of which I do have some detailed knowledge, I now must question the veracity of the rest of the text. Too bad. This book is simply one filled with some pretty pictures, but the text can be largely ignored I’m afraid.

I think like a lot of books these days, the whole point is to produce it fast, with lots of glossy pictures and who cares about accuracy? So long as they sell lots of copies, the publishers would appear to not give a shit about veracity of content. I e-mailed the publisher of “Asian Furniture”, Thames and Hudson, two months back with a detailed commentary of the problem areas in the book, only some of which I have described above, and to this point have not even been graced with a reply, or a simple ‘thanks for the input’. Not that I’m sore about that, but it does indicate a certain lack of regard for the reader and their feedback in general I suppose. Possibly their interest is in selling lots of copies, and not much else?

Thanks for dropping by today.

7 Replies to “Book Review: Asian Furniture”

  1. Besides illustrating a very sad case of extremely superficial research by the writer of this book, it is a amusing post. The mistakes made are so ignorant they become funny.
    I find it pretty disturbing that you have not received an answer from the publisher. As you already mentioned this only illustrates the typical temporary mentality of such publishers, again very sad.

    Luckily you have taken the time to provide the interested readers on the subject with some accurate comments.

  2. Hi Mathieu,

    On the matter of not receiving an answer from the publisher: yes, it IS disturbing. It is not my first experience like that either. I studied to be an SAT tutor a few months back, looking for a little part-time work. As part of that I bought a couple of study guides at the local book shop. In one of those books, Elizabeth King's “Outsmarting the SAT” I found more than a dozen mistakes in the mathematics section. I thought this was a serious matter, and looked up the author on line, then left a phone message with the author's publicist. Then, upon failing the hear back from said publicist, I wrote a detailed letter to the publisher describing the problems I had found. I was simply trying to be helpful. Neither the author nor the publisher has responded thus far, and three months have passed.

    I would have thought that it would have been of utmost importance to both parties that a study guide sold to help young people achieve higher marks on an important determinative test in their lives would be as accurate as possible. Again, apparently not. And with all the mysterious issues with the Mazerolle book I have uncovered in recent months, I now am starting to wonder about the entire publishing industry, past and present. There seems to be little commitment to accuracy.

    I am also trying to publish something, and I am delighted to learn from my readers of errors, typos, illogical sections etc, in the work so that I can improve the product. Feedback is invaluable, and I am puzzled why a publisher would behave any differently.

    I know: money.


  3. i am not at all surprised to hear that the furniture book has inaccuracies .
    i was told by some one who has had stuff published that publishers will some times make up there own text for pictures supplied by the author and some times even supply pictures of their own. plus said publishers will even leave out whole sections of important text relating to other text ,thus making most of what is left unintelligible .

  4. The mortice chisel listed in the post renamed as a hira machi is actually a strike through nomi of sorts for clearing waste from through mortices I believe.
    Also thought the mallet was probably shirogashi as the akagashi is a poor choice for a hammer head due to it's nature of splitting with impacting forces on the ol' end grain. Though if from china they probably did call it ( red oak) something different, though would you think the japanese might call red oak in any other country akagashi?
    funny post

  5. Thanks for the comments.

    Gergore', you confirm my worst fears about the publishing industry.

    Anonymous, I made an exception to my rule about 'anonymous' comments this one time. Please append your name to future comments if you choose to leave them otherwise I will reject them. That's long been my policy here, though you may well have been unaware of that.

    That chisel may well be a strike-through chisel – it's hard to tell as the chisel has no visible maker's mark and could therefore be turned so the bevel is downward and out of view. As strike-through chisels are a bit uncommon, I guessed it was a flat-bodied chisel, but it could be the other as well. In any case, the description given in the text for it is silly.

    Good point about the 'akagashi' being a poor choice for a wooden hammer head. I don't know who wrote the section on tools and don't know if they were a Japanese speaker or not. Whoever they were, they didn't know much about tools!

    The Japanese terms for woods from other countries are a bit of a mixed bag. Generally, foreign woods, regardless of country of origin, brought into Japan might simply get called 'kara-ki' (“Chinese Woods”).

    Some woods from abroad get more specific names in Japan, like 'bei-hiba', that is, 'American Hiba', (for 'Alaskan' Yellow Cedar). Nowadays, I should add, the Japanese are as often as not calling Yellow Cedar by direct transliteration: イエローシーダー (ye-ro–shii-daa).

    American Red Oak imported to Japan does not get the term akagashi – they transliterate the word 'oak' again directly: オーク.

    Western Hemlock, when imported to Japan may get the name 米栂, or in katakana: ベイツガ (bei-tsuga, literally “American Tsuga', tsuga being 'Japanese Hemlock'). It also gets called more directly, ヘムロック (“he mu rokku”).

    In another case, Bombay Blackwood (Cassia siamea Lam), from India, Thailand, and Burma, gets called by an entirely Japanese name: 鉄刀木. in katakana: タガヤサン (ta-ga-ya-san), which translates literally as “iron-sword-wood”. Not that is is used for swords as far as I know….

    Whether the Japanese would call the same species of timber emanating from another country, like 'akagashi' that originates in China, by their own domestic name is something I'm not confident about answering in all cases, and think it is probably is really a case-by-case sort of thing. That was really a good question though!


  6. Hi Chris,
    A few word to say how fantastic is your blog!
    You should do a video padcast, It will be … fantastic too!

    Echarde, a french reader…

    PS: You use a strange paring block, the metalic one with holes! where did it come from?

  7. Bonjour Echarde,

    the metal paring block I am using is actually a '1-2-3' gage block commonly used by machinists. I imagine there is a metric equivalent available in your country (?). It was relatively inexpensive to buy, and is 'perfectly' square/parallel in all relationships and I can use another square to set it up at a 90˚ (or other angle) with ease. It also is useful for setting up machines, tooling heights, and I'm sure machinists use it for a bunch of other tasks besides.

    Glad you are enjoying the blog – not sure I'm ready to leap into podcasts quite yet.


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