Book Review: Shoji and Kumiko Design Book 1 The Basics (II)

This is the second part of a review of Des King’s Book on Shoji and Kumiko Design. In Part I of this review I looked at the first portion of the work, where King discusses plane set up and tuning, including a great section on ura-dashi, or tapping out, on a ‘look at the symptoms’ basis which I think will be helpful to a lot of Japanese plane users, a minority as they may be. On that basis alone, the book is worth getting.

The remainder of the book deals with the design and construction of three shōji. Before I get into that, a  comment on the word ‘shōji’, which is spelled on the cover of the book as ‘shoji’ and is written in both variants throughout the text. Which is it, ‘shoji’ or ‘shōji’?

This is one of those classic issues in the transliteration of languages into English, in which vowel sounds in the source language are pronounced differently than in English. This used to present a problem in at least one respect. The problem wasn’t in placing diacritical marks above the vowels in question, but in typesetting. Typesets with accented Latin letters were somewhat of a rarity, and for the first 15 years of so that personal computers were in wide use, a problem there also. Other issues have arisen from oddities present in certain older systems used to Romanize Japanese or Chinese, and these problems persist even if the Romanization method has been largely discarded in favor of another one. A great example is the Daoism/Taoism controversy. In some cases English simply lacks the phoneme to pronounce the sound in the originating language properly, so some sort of approximation must be made.

Back to the typesetting. In the absence of type with accents placed above the vowels, the course taken to represent long vowel sounds, say, was to either ignore those sounds altogether – as seen in a word like ‘judo‘, which is actually ‘jūdō‘, or the strategy was to append a second letter meant to convey that long vowel sound, as in ‘kezuroukai’ (a planing competition) instead of ‘kezurōkai’. The problem with either approach is that a native speaker of English usually ends up glomming onto an erroneous pronunciation of the foreign word in question. That means that should one try to communicate with a native speaker of Japanese, in this case, using the Anglicized pronunciations of Japanese words, what you will get is ‘no-comprende’. Thus these Anglicized words can lose their connection with their originating language and become, effectively, orphan ‘English’. In some cases the word origin may be lost altogether and people will use a word without realizing at all that it is actually a loanword from another language. Case in point would be the phrase ‘sash’, as in the type of window or door with dividing bars and glass panels. The word ‘sash’ sounds like it might have something to do with a fabric belt or something, however it actually comes from the French ‘chassis’ by a process called back formation. The French word became rendered as ‘sashes’ and from there shortened to ‘sash’.

Some words, once mangled into some bastardized English approximation of the original, become fossilized in the language and are unlikely to change. An example would be from the world of mixed martial arts, which has popularized the term ‘jiu-jitsu’ from the Japanese jūjutsu. Probably a lost cause by now. The word ‘shōji’ however is not so widely known in English, so I think there is still a chance, optimist that I am, that we could actually steer things in a direction from ‘shoji’ to ‘shōji’. Consider that if you said the word ‘shoji’ to a Japanese person, without adequate context to help them guess what you might be referring to, the term could be taken to mean:

‘shoji’: 所持 “possess on one’s person, carry”


‘shoji’: 諸事 “various matters, affairs”

Anyhow, please forgive the aside. I note that King uses both terms in his book, and given his background in Japanese translation I suspect it was a tricky matter to decide. He hops from one spelling to the other and back again, and I cannot be sure exactly why. I will stick to ‘shōji’ myself, with the caveat that my grasp of issues involving the Romanization of Japanese is most definitely on the ‘amateur’ level.

Des King covers the making of three types of ‘basic’ shōji — standard, kasumi-gumi type, and kawari-gumi type. Each type is covered in a similar format, moving from tools and jigs needed, to calculating dimensions, cutting the parts, planing and assembly, and final fitment. It is intended as a step-by-step learning program, setting the foundation for further study.

In the section on making a standard shōji there is a detailed description of the various hand tools and jigs required to do the work, and Des is careful to note that in many cases western hand tools can be substituted. Then there is a great section on hand tool exercises – well, sawing exercises for the most part – and these are a great way for the novice to get their feet wet without having to suffer the pain and anguish that comes with blundering the cuts on the actual piece. A great idea.

Curiously, while mortising is mentioned, and mortise layout is described, no further information on how to chop out mortises is offered. There is no heading in the index’ for ‘mortise’ or ‘mortising’. I find that a little odd to have no mention as how a mortise is to be cut (from the middle out, from the outside in, chop the outline first or not, etc., etc.), and how a mortise is shaped inside (tight in the middle or tight are the opening(s), or straight-sided, whether to use paring jigs for chopping or not. Considering the detail about other manual cutting steps found elsewhere in the text I am surprised there is not more on the topic of mortising. A minor nitpick I guess.

Overall, this fine work provide a very detailed overview of shōji construction – certainly in greater depth than any other work in English. I haven’t personally worked through his instructions for making each of the three types of shōji yet, so I cannot say there are not gaps or mistakes somewhere in the process, however it appears very complete.

I like that his description of the standard shōji includes tsukeko,付け子, which are internal frames between the kumiko lattice assembly and the principal frame. Shōji  with incorporated tsukeko are termed tsukeko-zuki shōji, 付け子付き障子. Though a seemingly minor detail, tsukeko add a lot to the look of a shōji in my view, and connote a higher-quality piece. Since the tsukeko are recessed in from the face of the main frame, they protect the paper from injury caused by the rubbing of one  shōji  against another, especially if one or the other is warped. I think they improve repairability and modification as well, since they enable (except where the tsukeko and frame are made as one-piece) the kumiko sub-assembly to be removed as a unit from the main frame members. Also, the boundary of the paper can be attached to the tsukeko frame instead of the main frame. Here’s an example of a shōji with tsukeko:

The kumiko tenons are elongated so as to pierce the tsukeko and enter the inside faces of the frame. It is a more time-consuming method of construction of course, but that is what separates quality construction from the also-rans. This form of construction with separate frame is also required when one portion of the interior assembly is to slide or move, in which case of course the kumiko tenons would be trimmed flush to the tsukeko.

At the end of the volume there is an Appendix containing a glossary, which is helpful, though I wish the Japanese terms written in kanji were included. I think that can be helpful information to the serious student who later looks at source texts in Japanese.

If you are interested in the form and design of shōji, in my view there is no better volume in the English language than Des King’s Shoji and Kumiko Design Book 1 The Basics. He leaves Odate’s book in the dust frankly. I eagerly await future volumes. Highly recommended, 4.5/5 stars.

Thanks for dropping by the Carpentry Way, and comments always welcome.

2 Replies to “Book Review: Shoji and Kumiko Design Book 1 The Basics (II)”

  1. Chris

    I bought the book as soon as you wrote about it and I'm glad I did. The section about planes is most helpful. The exercises look good (haven't done them yet). The jigs and tools call out to be made.

    Somehow it escaped me that there was no mention of how to chop a mortice or how to clear the waste between the double mortices. Maybe that will be in volume two.

    Anyway, my thanks to Des and to you and to djy for his comments on your original post.


  2. Tom,

    good move on your part. I'm sure you'll get a lot out of Des's fine book, and the more copies he sells the more inspired he may become for putting out future volumes.


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