Book Review: Japanese Cabinetmaking

A few years ago a reader brought to my attention a clipping from an old Fine Woodworking magazine (Issue #57, March/April 1986, p. 106), featuring a review of a book on Japanese Cabinetmaking by John Willey in Maine. The author of the book in question is Carol A.B. Link, and the full title of her work is: Japanese Cabinetmaking: a Dynamic System of Decisions and Interactions in a Technical Context. Don’t let the title put you off – it’s an interesting and highly readable work. And a very hard bit of paperwork to obtain. You see, this ‘book’ is actually Link’s PhD dissertation in cultural anthropology, undertaken at the University of Illinois in 1975. While the material is available on microfilm at the university, and I’m sure there is at least one bound copy in the stacks, in general, paper versions are somewhat hard to come by. I managed to make contact with Link’s academic adviser, Dr. Keller,  who remembered Link and her thesis and said he would help out if my inquiries in other directions did not prove fruitful. In the end, I got nowhere with my attempts to pry a copy of the dissertation out of the University, and contacted Dr. Keller again. Then a stroke of good luck – his wife was clearing off some bookshelves and came across a single copy of the dissertation, which he then sent to me for free! So, that was lucky.

Link studied cultural anthropology and the method she employed in tackling the subject matter was to go to Japan and live/work in a cabinetmaker’s household (that of the Tsuzuki family), and write about her experience. That is to say, she chose to write about a lived experience rather than simply collate information from other written sources, a problem which, in my view, plagues many scholarly analyses of material culture and technology. If you don’t use tools yourself, then the difference between an axe and an adze maybe obscured or considered irrelevant, however to a craftsperson who uses such tools, the differences are obvious and important.

Link spends the first two chapters of her work discussing the history of anthropological examinations of material culture and technology and finds them coming up short for the most part:

Most people admit that technology is vital to man’s survival. Some say that technology has made man what he it. It is currently fashionable to berate technology as the despoiler of all that is good, true and beautiful in human life. These admissions, concerns and criticisms indicate the importance of technology to man.

Despite this importance, one wonders why anthropologists are notable for a lack of interest in or cursory treatment of the subject.

I have found that to be true, and many academic treatises involving crafts and trades and their products make humorous errors at times in their descriptions of tools and their uses. Refer back to my review of Asian Furniture for but one example out of many.

Chapters 3 and 4 of Link’s work take up the thorny issues of coming to satisfactory definition of what ‘material culture’ and technology’ mean, and the establishment of a philosophical foundation for the study of technology as a system of behavior. Chapter 5 delves into the performance of technical behavior, a ‘dynamic system of decisions and interactions’:

Technology, as a system of behavior, has features which allow it to be analyzed and understood almost as if it were communication. It is not precisely analogous to communication since it is an asymmetrical system. The difference hinges on who is communicating with whom or what. In everyday life people communicate with each other via language to convey information but in technical behavior, an actor communicates with materials via the body and implements (if any are used) in order to produce something. The actor does not receive a message encoded in language but he does receive feedback information (such as temperature) from the materials that he responds to in the same way one responds to sentences in a conversation. 

This is a dynamic process in that, at every moment in time, every feature of this system has been changed by, and is changing, every other feature in the system. In this way, technique is the knowledge that informs the activity of workmanship and vice-versa.

Link’s discussion of workmanship is particularly interesting, given the ground-breaking done on this topic by David Pye, in his seminal 1968 work The Nature and Art of Workmanship. Link quotes Pye quite often, though not always in agreement with him. These are questions I continually mull over myself, puzzling the connections between culture and the material objects it produces, and the approach to workmanship bound up in the choices made. Why, for instance, is North American culture so preoccupied with producing mountains of crap, and almost nothing of lasting value for future generations to appreciate? Don’t we care about our kids, and their kids? Why, despite the fabulous quantities and qualities of materials and products available here, is the quality of work done upon them often so abysmal, and how is it that cheap prices have come to trump almost every other concern in consumer’s minds? Those questions are for another post, another time, but it is good that Link spends some effort in addressing ideas about workmanship and crafting of objects early on in her thesis. Her conclusion in regards to technique and knowledge in the crafting of material object is much as follows:

…one can see that knowledge of techniques is much more than what can simply be written down. In view of this, it is time to radically alter our ideas about the nature of techniques. Pye came close to the mark when he stated that, “Technique is the knowledge which informs the activity of workmanship.”(1968:22) and, as amended (p.28), the activity of workmanship informs the knowledge too. When approached this way, technique is not simply how-to or even the knowledge of how-to. It becomes a communications system wherein knowledge of techniques is expressed in physical activity and the results of the activity along with the activity itself inform the actor of what he is doing, how well he is doing it, and, most important of all, when to stop doing it. Thus, the exercise of a technique stimulates, indeed forces, the actor to decide what his next act will be. The next act, of course, is based on knowledge of techniques and so this becomes a continuous, dynamic process of technical behavior.” (p.46)

Hence the sub-title of the work, Japanese Cabinetmaking: a Dynamic System of Decisions and Interactions in a Technical Context. While much of what she mentions above is fairly obvious to a craftsperson, though perhaps rarely stated so clearly, I think for those outside the work of those who make objects with their hands this is helpful clarification. Knowing where to stop – where the line of ‘perfection’ (or, as is more commonly expressed, ‘good enough’ – I term I personally detest) is and where it is crossed, often thereby producing a negative outcome in certain respects. That goes for both design and making of course. It’s not simply a paint-by-numbers affair as some might assume who have not been engaged in a crafting process. Particularly with solid woodworking, where the medium can be almost capricious at times in moving with every saw cut or cracking, or splitting in unpredictable ways, or absorbing finished unevenly, or defying attempts to employ glue, etc. Like I’ve said before, this is a process akin to corralling sheep, where the best outcome is to get them all into the pen – you can pretty much forget about having them stand in precise rows. You have to shift on the fly and make continual course corrections and adjustments, being aware of your material and the end result and problem solving to an extent as you follow your plan. Baking bread can be like that too. Blacksmithing and many other crafts are likewise – an iterative process.

Later on in the fifth chapter, Link delves into the issue of standards of workmanship, taking cues again from Pye’s work, where he mentions that what a craftsman wants to do is, “not to express the properties of materials [which are objective and measurable], but to express their qualities [which are subjective].” While I don’t totally agree with this contention myself, it is a good starting point for discussion. Link notes,

Standards of workmanship are embedded in a culture. Accordingly, they are part of the cultural context and personal knowledge of the actor since they are standards that he has assimilated into himself. Since they are culturally defined, they are shared to a greater or less degree by all members of that culture. For instance, everyone knows that plastered walls should be flat, smooth and perfectly square. But the plasterer’s personal knowledge of standards is more elaborate than that of the layman. The plasterer’s standards of ‘flatness’ may cause him to feel intensely irritated about a slight ripple in the surface of the plaster that would go unnoticed by the average person. Furthermore, the question arises as to whether or not any two plasterers would agree on the flatness of any given wall. It is unlikely, but why is this so?

…each person has their own set of standards that they have acquired by experiencing each performance. These have become their personal knowledge. since each person’s experiences are intrinsically different, ultimately their knowledge is different. Consequently, discrepancies in judgment that occur between laymen, dilletantes (sic), and connoisseurs are a result of the amount and refinement of their own personal knowledge of a set of standards. The more refined these standards are, the more critical and demanding of the object and ultimately its maker the appraisals will be.” (p. 53~4)

Ah, the good old days, the 1970’s, when there were still standards of excellence to be observed and understood in the building arts. I do jest, but only a little I’m afraid.  A lot of what I’ve observed, especially in recent years, is that not only do clients have little to no idea of what constitutes good workmanship, but the people doing the work, whether it be framing walls, applying sheetrock, plaster, casing stairwells, hanging acoustical ceiling etc., seem to have little or no internalized standard of what is good work and what is not. Or if they do have such a standard, many would appear to not give a damn about such things, that they know even if the work is poor they still get paid and the client doesn’t notice so…. The problem here is that many workers in the trades do not seem to have assimilated into themselves, as Link put it, high standards of work. Possibly because, in North America at least, examples of high standards of workmanship are seldom encountered in daily life except in certain mass-produced items, like Apple Computers, or BMW sedans, say, or food in certain restaurants where the chef is highly trained and passionate about what they do.

The last job I was working on for another contractor was a place to hear the usual comments of, ‘oh, from 20′ away nobody will notice that’, etc.. The last time, upon hearing it in a conversation with a co-worker, I turned to him and said, “I don’t care what someone else may or may not notice. How would you do the work if this was your own house? Would it matter to you then?” My coworker had nothing further to say, curiously enough, but I am left wondering where/how the internal guidance system, the morality, dare I say it, of doing the right thing, doing a solid careful job, even though no one else may notice or care, became disconnected for many who who pick up a hammer and tool apron -or other tools for that matter.

Link sums up her look at standards of workmanship with the following contention:

In regard to technical behavior, there is always a difference in excellence judged to be skilled or unskilled workmanship. As far as the connoisseur goes, skill is judged on the basis of the output of the project. As far as judgment of artisans by their peers goes, each is judged as a member of a class. As far as the judgment of artisans by themselves goes, each is skillful to the degree which they achieve their self-imposed standards. Here the actor, the artisan, is his own critic. Consequently, actors who have very refined standards have become connoisseurs, and as long as they are physically able to carry on their behavior in conformance with these standards, they are good, skilled artisans; experts and masters of their trade.

In the end, the only really qualified judge of an artisan’s work is the artisan himself, or one with equivalent technical mastery and understanding of the medium. Others may like or dislike the work for various reasons, aesthetic or philosophical, but ultimately the buck stops with the maker. If that person does not hold out high standards for themselves or becomes content with where they are in terms of the quality of what they make, then their continued ascension in skill and workmanship is stopped. To progress, the idea must always be, not yet, not yet.

In the next part of this review, I will turn to Link’s experiences and observations during her time living and working with the Tsuzuki family of sashimono-shi, in Kusakabe City. I hope you’ll stay tuned and thanks for dropping by today.

10 Replies to “Book Review: Japanese Cabinetmaking”

  1. Hi Chris
    Is Link still alive? Have you attempted to contact her? It would be nice if this were more widely available and I am sure she would appreciate the recognition of her work.

  2. Tico, thanks for the comment and look for the next installment in a matter of days.

    Will, I believe she has passed on, but I'm not 100% certain. I'll double-check on that. I tried to locate her by way of internet search, in vain. Her academic adviser from the time did not mention anything in regards to contacting Ms. Link, so my presumption is that she is no longer alive.


    you are a fortunate man! When/how did you obtain a copy?


  3. Will,

    Copyright for works created after 1923 (IIRC) are protected for the life of the author, plus 90 years. We can thank Disney for that… Which is why Betty Boop is available, but Mickey Mouse/Steamboat Willie is not.

    Orphan works are still protected, even if no rightsholders or heirs can be located or identified. Google is running into issues with that topic in their quest to digitize all the books on the planet.

  4. Chris

    That is one of my favorite books and usually sits on the dashboard of my car for lunchtime perusal. I got my copy from the University of Michigan library. Its readable, but the photos are abysmal. I'm glad you are bringing it to people's attention.


  5. Chris

    I got my copy from UMI Dissertation Services, 300 Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48106. 1-800-521-0600 or 1-313-761-4700. I can't guarantee that this information is current, but its worth a try.


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