On the topic of the Japanese Craftsman

I’ve been wanting to mention for some time the film Jiro dreams of Sushi. I saw it last year when it had its run at the local art cinema, and found it a very truthful and clear depiction of the mindset of the Japanese shokunin.  That’s a word which might be best translated into ‘craftsman’, however that fall a bit short, as in the Japanese sense it has a meaning which goes far beyond the performance of a craft, but relates to an all-encompassing way of life. I believe this film is available to watch on one of the many streaming film suppliers online, so if you get a chance, please do check it out.

If you’re a foodie like me, you might also be interested in the series narrated by Anthony Bourdain entitled The Mind of a Chef. This series follows around Korean-American chef David Chang, who runs the famous Momofuku restaurant in New York. Several of the episodes travel with him to Japan, where he spent several years studying as a chef, and there is some great commentary to be found in there where Japanese master chefs talk about the nature of tradition and how it is only kept alive by innovation and people continually pushing the envelope, continually driving themselves to learn new things, to explore new possibilities. True mastery, after all, is never attained by way of remaining complacent about the skill level you have, but through the striving to develop oneself further, to find new challenges and overcome them, to continually seek to deepen your knowledge.

In that vein, I’ve been spending time of late translating some 75 pages of material written by a certain Mr. Kunimoto, who has spent the last 25 years of his life pursuing plane blade sharpening to the ultimate level. All of this started with an encounter he had with the renowned blacksmith Usui Kengo in 1989, four years after having set out on the journey of craftsmanship in wood. Usui-san, since deceased, completely re-set his thinking on what it means to be a blacksmith, to be a craftsperson, a cluster of skills and expertise going far beyond the simplistic picture Kunimoto-san had previously formed in his head that a all blacksmith equaled was ‘clang! bang! clang!‘ and little more.

What impresses me a lot about Kunimoto’s writings, where he details the continual stumbling blocks and problems he overcame as he tried over and over again, through countless tests and experiments, successes and failures – a continuous drive to make his plane edges sharper and more durable – was his contention that only by making a plane function at its highest level do we really get a chance to glimpse the true genius of the blacksmith. That is the highest honor we can pay the maker of the tool – to make their tool ‘sing’. It’s a parable of sorts about human potential I guess, and the glory, the exhilaration, that can result when it is manifested at a high level.

Kunimoto always asks himself, “what can I do today to draw out even more performance from this plane?”. “Is there more to be found here?”

I figure he knows what he’s doing, not only from the tremendous detail in his writing, which can be a bear to translate, and not only by the results he has achieved, but by the fact that one of the top blacksmiths in Japan today, Funatsu-san, sends him planes for testing and evaluation.

It’s inspiring for me to follow this artisan’s journey, and I’m certainly learning a lot of new things about the bizarre world of edged tool performance at the micron-level. I admire Kunimoto’s dedication, fortitude, and mindset very much. To work away at a problem, to create thought experiments to explain a certain behavior and then to thoroughly test them. To be in the pit of despair and darkenss and suddenly have the light bulb come on – ‘aha! Now I get it!’. For me, that’s a great thing.

I happen have an Usui Kengo blade plane called Kenkon, the ‘Spirit of the Sword’ hanging on the wall. I acquired it a couple of months ago as a nearly-new tool, and am looking forward to putting it through its paces someday soon, to see how much of the blacksmith’s spirit I can draw out of the plane. Hopefully, in time at least, I will be able tune this plane to a degree to do justice to Usui’s work and maybe obtain a glimpse his mastery over metal. For the moment the plane sits, acclimatizing to my shop, along with 3 other planes I have picked up in recent weeks.

12 thoughts on “On the topic of the Japanese Craftsman

  1. Chris,
    I didn't know you were also interested in the world of cooking and food!

    Jiro and Mind were both great. I wish Jiro had a bit more bite for the cooks amongst us, but there were bits of useful information if you were willing to look carefully.

    As for the translation, will this also become available for sale? And, since we're on that topic, have you tried (and are you even interested in) having your written work published by a publishing house?


  2. Hey Pat,

    making the translation available to the study group is a distinct possibility, however it would follow on from receiving permission for Kunimoto and being sure I have the translation entirely correct throughout. That will take some time.

    Thanks for your comment!


  3. John,

    I think Americans are among the hardest working people, and take among the fewest holidays of the developed nations, so I would tend to say that for the most part the work ethic is alive and well, but maybe what drives that more often than no is simple economic survival. Jiro adds to his devotion to work a passion for what he does – he says he 'fell in love' with making sushi. That passion, and that drive to endlessly work to perfect what one does, are largely the missing attributes here among those who work, I would say.


  4. Tassos,

    long time no hear – thanks for your comment!

    I am interested in cooking, though i would say my range of specialties is a bit narrow. I don't devote the time to it needed to get decent at it. I love quality food though.

    The translation availabiliy was discussed in a comment reply above.

    The publication of my written work – yes, I've looked into it from a few different angles, and it is likely, as things stand now, that some sort of print-on-demand option could work at some point, if I could find a printer with larger format books. Because of the limited market for the material, and the technical nature of the material, most publishers aren't very interested in the proposition from a dollars and cents perspective. In general, if the book won't sell 10,000 copies, it isn't of interest to most publishers.


  5. Tom,

    thanks for the comment. The format size limitation has already been mentioned as one issue with print-on-demand. The other point is that once you have the .pdf file, you can print any number of pages if you wish. I'm also not sure about the typical binding used with print-on-demand books. Maybe something with a spiral bound back?

    Ultimately, I will probably do a run of hardcovers, though I may have to finance that myself. More immediately, I need to get Volume 5 moved along…


  6. Three months to come up to speed on your blog and sooo worth it! Truly a remarkable and generous gift, thank you! Not only have I learned of new ways of working wood, you have challenged me to actually THINK about way that I go about a task and to question whether there may be another reason to do things a particular way. I must say that I have periodically stumbled upon your site in the past, but as they say, when you are ready, the teacher will appear 😉

    To point….I have reached the point where English language resources regarding kanna tuning are a bit thin on the ground. I have read all of the old HMS forum and the posts by Jim_Blauvelt and daiku05353 are very helpful as was your series “smile and wave”. It is in my “help” file. You also referenced the mandara-ya site on your post regarding fitting the osae-bo to the osae-gane. That site is VERY helpful, particularly regarding dai cutting and toishi tuning and shaping. Google translate makes it painfully obvious that I am only getting about 20% or the real “meaning” though….Damn my poor language skills! I am currently reading Tanaka Kiyoto's blog. Great stuff for sharpening nerds like myself.

    You are perfectly situated to provide a doctoral thesis-level text on kanna tune and sharpening, given your command of the Japanese language. More importantly, you have the strength of intellect and the curiosity AND physical skill AND experience AND teaching ability!! You are of the extreme (western) few who understand that one needs to cultivate a love of sharpening to get the most from their tools. It is also obvious from the condition of the ura's that you love and respect your tools as well. Serious tool envy. Many say that the tool just needs to get the job done and that all of this type of thing just wastes time, but I have NEVER seen a craftsman who does good work that I respect, AND who has tools that look disregarded and abused. Dull tools and crappy work, seen LOTS of that. Lots of expensive jewelry that sits on a shelf and never gets used because it is too precious, seen lots of that too.

    I am somewhat dreading your foray into J'nats……I'm there too, but while my wife is SOMEWHAT tolerant of my tool buying (Ebay bargain basement stuff), it is harder to justify the cost of almost any of the naturals. “But honey, our kitchen knives have never been THIS sharp, before!” I had to laugh at the thought of you building the garden boxes to justify the cost of the Martin….

    I miss my fj-40….(kinda).

    Jason Thomas

  7. Jason,

    I appreciate the time and thought that went into your comment.

    Yes, the J-Nat's equation is a tough one. So costly, but they have advantages. If it is any consolation, Kunimoto figured out how to milk the same performance out of synthetic stones….


  8. Whoops! Didn't meen YOUR shelf! I hope that didn't come out wrong. You USE your tools, the opposite of what I was trying to convey about shop jewelry…..

Anything to add?