Book Review: Japanese Cabinetmaking (II)

In last week’s post I described some of the background to Carol A.B. Link’s work from 1975, a doctoral thesis entitled Japanese Cabinetmaking: a Dynamic System of Decisions and Interactions in a Technical Context.  In this post I’d like to take a look the material which comprised the next portion of the text. This is a distillation of Link’s experience living in the home of the Tsuzuki family, where a father and son carried on the family tradition of high class cabinetmaking.

‘Cabinetmaking’, as an English word, while it used to refer mostly to the work performed at the bench by joiners, now is applied it would seem to just about any woodworking activity in which storage boxes are made. If you asked most English speakers what a ‘joiner’ was, I’d wager 90% would not know, and of those who ventured a guess most would think it has something to do with someone who likes to join clubs or groups.  Or think it had something to do with a certain tool for slotting wood for the insertion of fiberboard/compressed wood ‘biscuits’…

‘Cabinetmaking’ has, in these modern times, become almost as meaningless an expression as ‘high quality’ or ‘craftsmanship’ – just another piece of advertising hyperbole. Speaking of which, the latest word which seems to have lost all meaning must be ‘artisan’, now plastered on some 800 different industrially-produced products according to a data research group called Datamonitor. Someone’s even started blogging about it. And further speaking of which, USA Today recently had an article on that very topic.

‘Cabinetmaking’, in the context of Link’s work, is at best a rather loose translation of a certain class of woodwork done in Japan and may be entirely misleading unless the term is more closely defined. Link explains some of the nuances:

In Japan joiners are placed in separate categories depending upon their specialty. The tansuya-san specializes in producing large tansu. The smaller and more varied products are made by a different specialist, the sashimono-shi. Although both tansuya-san and sashimono-shi are joiners, the sashimono-shi is regarded with deference by connoisseurs in general and the tansuya-san in particular. This is because sashimono-shi exercise their skills over an enormous range of products, have a very high degree of versatility and display great mastery of their craft. Sashimono-shi are now rare in Japan. One of the best, Mr. Yasuku Tsuzuki, lives in Kusakabe. He is a bijutsu-sashimono-shi. Bijutsu means “fine arts”. The whole term can be translated as a joiner, whose level of skill is so perfected, that the cabinets produced are considered to be works of fine art just like paintings or sculpture. At the present time, there are only four or five bijutsu-sashimono-shi in the whole Kanto plain and they are all older men ranging in age from 68 to 96.

Link was fortunate to have an opportunity to spend a full year living with and observing the behavior and work patterns of a master craftsman, as they are rather thin on the ground, even more so today.

Link spends some time describing the Tsuzuki family structure and their members, along with their family tree. Yusuku, the master, began his apprenticeship at age 12, finishing that phase at age 21. She mentions that of his sons only Yukio, now 48, is carrying on the family’s woodworking tradition. Yukio’s daughter commutes to a job in Tōkyō for the Sumitomo company, son Tomoyuki is 19 and a college student specializing in electronics. Younger son Hideyuki is 13 and seems mostly interested in baseball.

The Tsuzuki shop is small and appended to the house, and shop business is the family’s bread and butter supply – I mean rice and beans I guess! I felt some kinship with the Tsuzuki family, when Link notes that although they have plenty of orders and are always busy,

Unfortunately  they do not really receive adequate compensation for their labors although their prices for their products seem very high to a purchaser. The simple fact of the matter is that ojiisan [Yususku] and Yukio work almost continuously in order to support themselves and their family. It is a sad situation but in present day Japan, there is no immediate solution for it.

All too familiar. When you hear that familiar refrain of, ‘do what you love and the money will follow‘ – take it with a grain of salt. Sometimes money doesn’t follow, or even appear with any regularity, but at least one can, hopefully, derive some satisfaction from the work itself. As Link notes later,

Other major benefits are work satisfaction and ultimate justification for one’s own life. As ojiisan and Yukio say, “you have a really good feeling (kimochi ga yoi) when you can and do make things yourself”, and “there is nothing like the satisfaction you get when everything fits perfectly and is beautiful.

As Link subsequently remarks, and this has been amplified by many other writers, and in pretty much any account of the traditional crafts in Japan you might read in the past 30 years,

Evidently the Japanese youth do not seem to appreciate these sorts of benefits and, since the post war period, ojiisan has not had any live-in apprentices save for his son. They ultimately abandoned the hope of having new apprentices and razed half of their building seven years ago.

I’m not sure if it is entirely the case across Japan that such glamorous work as that of shashimono-shi suffers from a lack of apprentices, but certainly many of the other trades, especially what might be called the ancillary trades (makers of tools, sawyers, etc.) are experiencing a decline in numbers, a trend that has continued since the post war period. I dare say the same thing is occurring in the West – few young people choose a career in the trades, it is more likely that getting into a trade is as much a default or happenstance occurrence for those who couldn’t get into college (or didn’t want to go to college for whatever reason) and can afford to take out student loans to obtain a trade ticket. And given the nature of many trades jobs here, who can blame them? The work is generally dull, repetitive, occasionally hazardous, not esteemed by the society as a whole, and not tending to encourage artistry or virtuosity.

An interesting section of Link’s work relates to the concept of the shoku-nin (職人), a term generally translated variously as workman, mechanic, or craftsman. Yusuku and his son Yukio see themselves as part of a select group of craftspeople, an ‘in-group’ which comprises only those who are joiners, lacquerers, fan makers and so forth. In their eyes, carpenters, mechanics and other tradespeople are not true shoku-nin. I find that interesting, and it reminds me of similar attitudes in certain trades in the West – those who would call themselves, say, a shipwright, or ‘stair-builder’ might have a very specific idea of what that work comprises and who qualifies. Like many who have spent years acquiring manual skills and a deep knowledge of their craft, the Tsuzukis are proud of what they do:

By the Tsuzukis’ standards, drawers must be perfectly flush with each other, must slide easily with no strain and they must not, under any circumstances, rattle. A rattling, loose drawer is anathema to ojiisan and Yukio. The first drawers were slipped into the chest with some trepidation, but their ultimate perfect fit brought an absolutely beatific smile of satisfaction to ojiisan’s face.
    Those unacquainted with this work do not really appreciate this feature of drawers. The average person presumes only that a drawer should slide and the degree of perfection of sliding elicits a ‘so what’ reaction. Connoisseurs, cabinetmakers, their shokunin colleagues and dealers seek out this feature and have a regard for the care and dexterity that goes into perfect drawers that surpasses mere admiration. It is a sensitive awareness and esteem for the skill of the maker and the devotion that he has shown to his work to produce a superb product. This is based on the knowledge that one cut of the plane too many will ruin the job beyond repair.

That ‘so what’ reaction when demonstrating a nuance of a piece to a client or friend is, I’m sure, familiar to any artisan or detail freak. I think one of the weakest aspects, in terms of the business of being an artisan in this modern world, is clearly communicating the subtleties of the craft to the buying public. Most of us suck at that aspect of our work frankly. Take a look at the car or stereo industry, where they have managed somehow to make many of their customers acutely aware of the various technical and performance details which separate one brand from another. You’ll hear people, product salespeople included, spouting such phrases as ‘twin piston, vented rotors’, ‘multi-point injection’, ‘Corinthian leather’, or ‘5 watt RMS power’ without having the slightest idea in many cases what those terms really mean. If it sounds cool and is described in breathless excitement, or with the aid of T & A, then it generally seems to sell.

The Tsuzukis have a bit of an easier time with their marketing, partly on account of a buying public in Japan some ways more attuned to the virtues of handmade wooden products, and partly due to the way their products are distributed:

One other way that the Tsuzukis receive a great deal of satisfaction and pride from their work is grounded in their marketing system. Their products are sold at two shops in Kusakabe, Saikiri and the Taikei Furniture shop, which carry only top quality merchandise. The other main retail outlet is the Mitsukoshi Department Store (a few other major department stores also sell their products sporadically). Mitsukoshi celebrated its 300th anniversary in 1973. Throughout these 300 years, Mitsukoshi has developed and maintained a reputation for carrying only the best products, especially folk art and craft items. In addition to commissioning works from the finest craftsmen, the people at Mitsukoshi usually inspect the merchandise they receive before accepting it. Ojiisan and Yukio are deservedly proud that their products are not inspected. They are assumed to be flawless and are taken from the loading dock to the sales floor without further ado.
     These features of self-evaluation by constant comparison of current efforts with past; critical appraisal of the work of others; unquestioning acceptance of products by all dealers serve to reinforce ojiisan’s and Yukio’s standards of workmanship. They also provide justification for their pride in status as shokinin.

I actually find it hard to imagine such a store here in the US, where Walmart rules the strip. Now, there are galleries dotted about here and there which showcase high end furniture, among other things, but in my experience and estimation those doing the selling often have little knowledge of the details and nuances which make for great furniture, and are left, like many salespeople, mouthing inaccuracies and generalities about the pieces. Fine furniture has always seemed to be considered on the fringe of the ‘fine arts’ in the West, for whatever reason, and thus it is more poorly understood, and less avidly promoted. Galleries selling antiques are sometimes an exception to this phenomenon. And maybe those generalities are enough sometimes, at least in terms of selling the odd piece, given that most of what a customer reacts to – by conditioning – are the surface and form qualities of a thing, but it is a definite shortcoming. The Tsuzukis are lucky to have the infrastructure, culturally and otherwise, in place which supports what they do to some extent. I gather though, that this is changing for the worse in Japan in recent years.

Interestingly, bound up in the Tsuzuki’s self-identification as shokinin is a sense of superiority:

They have a slightly disdainful attitude towards carpenters and the like, whom they consider to be engaged in relatively unskilled labor.
   Moreover they are rather contemptuous of salary men [‘suits’]. They feel the salary man is tightly bound to a corporate structure where he has no ability to enjoy any personal freedom and, more unfortunately, can obtain no gratification from his labors.

While their contempt and disdain for others is unfortunate in some ways, I wonder what they would think of the typical carpenter here, with, if I might paint a picture, his Ford F150, tool racks, boom box, travel mug, chop saw, Fat Max and nailer? I think I’ll refrain from speculation.

I thought that Link’s mention of the career path of the Tusuzuki’s being more than just a day job, but a Way of life, a michi:

Michi is a simple Japanese word for a very complex concept. This term has many translations, the most mundane of which is a road. It also means journey, a way of making a living, a means, a duty, a moral doctrine, and art, a specialty, a course, etc. In compound terms the range of meaning is even wider. The negative form michinaranu means illicit, immoral, improper, in other words directionless and without a goal.
    On a broad level michi means the path that a person takes through life. Each person has their own michi. some choose their own. Ojiisan had his chosen for him. The life and work of a sashimono-shi has become his michi. He not only works as a sashimono-shi, but he IS a sashimono-shi. He has gained knowledge of himself and harmony with the world in the same way a Zen monk gains knowledge and enlightenment by the Zen michi. He is a happy man. His son, Yukio, who had the sashimono-shi michi chosen for him by ojiisan, is also content in his michi. To understand this is to understand their way of life and work.

And that description of the Way, my friends, is the reason behind the name of this blog.

Link concludes the section with a quote from Carlos Casteneda’s work A Separate Reality, a work I have fond memories of reading in my twenties:

You should know by now that a man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting, nor by thinking about what he will think about when he has finished acting. A man of knowledge chooses a path with heart and follows it; and then he looks and rejoices and laughs…

If he’s not starving to death that is. It’s hard not to feel inspired though by those who have such clarity about their direction in life. I spent many years not knowing what my own direction was and certainly don’t look back at those times with delight. I feel empathy for those who struggle to find purpose in their work, to find their ‘calling’, and can tell you that when one finds the right path for oneself, it is truly a blessing.

I guess I’ll have more to say in the next part of this review. Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Japanese Cabinetmaking (II)

  1. Chris,

    Thanks for this splendid post. There now exists a source to which I can refer back to anytime I need to explain the inchoate promptings that have brought me to where I am. It is certain that my skills will never arrive at the level of these master craftsmen, and there has never been, along the dusty way, much clarity about what has urged me on to be involved so deeply in woodworking.My michi has been a bit murky.
    “Gratification from (my) labors..” – big!
    “Most of us suck at that aspect of our work, frankly.” ROTFLMAO- never truer words spoken.

  2. Tico,

    glad you found part two of the review worthwhile and nice choice of vocabulary there with 'inchoate'.

    Everyone's 'michi' is probably a bit murky at times, so I would say it's best to forge on all the same.


  3. Chris,

    Thanks for another thoughtful and thought-provoking post. The large department stores here in Japan are wonderful. They have a real commitment culture. I saw an exhibition about three years ago in Matsuyama at a Mitsukoshi featuring inlay work. They actually had a couple of guys working and doing demonstrations. Knocked my socks off.

  4. Davey,

    I guess you're in japan, huh? Thanks for your comment. One of the things I fondly remember about Japanese department stores were the massage chairs provided on at least one floor, especially those foot roller massage units! a nice thing to find after several hours of trudging around on the streets.

    As you note, department stores in Japan support local artisans in many respects, especially potters, and its a fine thing that they do so.


  5. I love the last paragraph Chris. I was meandering from job to job making a living until I found woodworking. I'm grateful everyday for any time spent in the shop.

    Still figuring out how to do it full time.

    Thanks for the inspiring blog.

Anything to add?