The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

The Great Handicraft Extinction (3)

June 23, 2011

In my previous article, I examined the impact of the great handicraft extinction on Japanese culture from the maker's perspective. Here I will approach the topic from the standpoint of the user and the relationship between user and maker.

The changes that have swept Japanese society since the great handicraft extinction began can best be illustrated by exploring a single craft or trade. Here I will focus on blacksmiths and their relationship to farmers.

The Blacksmith and the Farmer

At one time almost all the metal tools people used were fashioned by local smiths, who would heat raw metal at a forge and pound it into shape with a hammer. A smith's customers were typically farmers and artisans, but if asked, they might fashion anything from a harpoon to a kitchen kettle.

A blacksmith and his wife forge a blade, ca. 1904-05. Hand-tinted glass lantern slide printed from a half-stereoview negative. (Courtesy of Okinawa Soba)
A blacksmith and his wife forge a blade, ca. 1904-05. Hand-tinted glass lantern slide printed from a half-stereoview negative. (Courtesy of Okinawa Soba)

Farmers relied on the smith for the spades and ploughs they used to till the soil, the hoes they used to cut through roots and clear the fields, and the sickles needed to harvest rice or mow hay. The smith made each implement to order, tailoring it to the farmer's individual needs. The form of the implement and even the quality of the metal used depended on the crop for which it was intended and the quality of the soil (how rocky, the clay, sand, or ash content, and so forth). The implement's angle, size, and weight were adapted to the individual user's height, hand size, strength, and age. Each of these tools had a hand-wrought, functional beauty of its own.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of customizing when it comes to hand tools. Tools are extensions of the human body. Tools that are clumsy or awkward to use make every task a chore. The user tires quickly and may even be unable to complete the job to his or her satisfaction. This is no less true in agriculture than in any labor-intensive industry. Nonetheless, at some point farmers stopped buying tools from blacksmiths, and smithing ceased to exist as a viable trade.

The immediate cause of this change was the mechanization of agriculture, which rendered hand implements like spades, hoes, and sickles obsolete. With the influx of cheaper farm produce from other countries, the scale of farming in Japan expanded to reduce costs, and farmers grew increasingly reliant on labor-saving equipment that was beyond the capacity of any blacksmith.

That said, hand implements are still necessary in some situations, even today. Small-scale farms and elderly farmers unable or unwilling to keep pace with the new technology still rely on them. But, of course, the smiths have long since vanished, together with their forges, bellows, and hammers. Hand-crafted tools tailored to the individual farm and farmer are nowhere to be found.

Nowadays, if one has need of a farming or gardening implement, one drives out to the hardware superstore, where one will find a large stock of factory-made items. Needless to say, they have none of the functional beauty of their hand-made counterparts, nor have they been adapted, through a laborious process of trial and error, to a specific task or agricultural environment, let alone an individual farmer. They are manufactured to uniform specifications in order to minimize costs through mass production and mass distribution. Their appeal lies exclusively in their low price. But that appeal is so universal that today one can buy almost nothing but these cheap, standardized farm implements.

Faced with this reality, farmers have no choice but to adapt their bodies, movements, and methods of work to the implements, instead of the other way around. It is the price they pay for cheaper merchandise.

Rise of Throwaway Culture

When cheap implements like these become bent or broken, they are discarded and replaced. But this was not the way farmers treated their tools in the era of the blacksmith. A custom-made implement was far too precious to throw out. If the tool wore down or was damaged, it was taken back to the blacksmith, who replaced the functional metal blade or tip. Referred to as sakigake , this service was an important aspect of a blacksmith's work.

Repair is only worthwhile if one intends to use an object for a long period of time, and that is exactly what people did with their high-quality, custom-made tools. Farmers, artisans, and tradespeople were deeply attached to their customized tools, which allowed them to perform their own work at a high level. Such attachment to and attention to the tools of the trade was the mark of a good worker. It was an integral part of the handwork ethos.

In the case of carpenters' tools, sakigake was generally impossible. As a consequence, a carpenter typically used a tool until there was nothing left to use, and this is why very few of the tools used by master carpenters have survived. The same was true of chefs and others who used special knives or scissors in their work. I have spoken to quite a few of Japan's remaining artisans, and most tell me that when the tools they are using now wear out, it will be time for them to retire. Even if they have work, they cannot continue working without the traditional tools of their trade.

Of course, not all mass-produced goods are awkward and difficult to use. But the basic principles and objectives of production have changed. As a result, users' attitudes toward the tools have changed as well. Because the tools are not tailor-made, and because they are easily replaceable, they are treated as disposable items.

The demise of the blacksmith's trade, in other words, has changed the character of farming, obliging farmers to lower their expectations and make do with substitutes. But this phenomenon is by no means limited to farming; it has occurred in every area of life. Wherever we go, we are surrounded by substitutes, even in the foods we eat. In the wake of the great handicraft extinction, we have come to take such ersatz items for granted.

The Faces behind the Products

A critical difference between our contemporary world and the era of handwork is the frequency with which producers and consumers of goods meet face to face. In earlier times, someone in need of a tool would meet directly with the maker and play a part in the tool's design. The maker would keep the user's physique and mannerisms in mind when fashioning the tool and would meet the consumer again when delivering the final product. In fact, the makers and users of tools and other goods were members of a small, close-knit community in which ongoing dialogue was not only possible but natural.

A user who was dissatisfied with the product would take it back and ask for changes. The maker, in listening to the user's comments and responding to them, would inevitably learn lessons that were applicable to future work. In such a society, one was bound to acknowledge and respect the viewpoint of others. And the more conscious one became of others, the more conscious one became of oneself.

In a situation where the maker and user meet face to face, business could not be conducted unless the two came to an understanding. It would have been unthinkable for makers to dictate their terms unilaterally. Dissatisfied users would take their patronage elsewhere, and the maker would lose business. In other words, in an environment where maker and user interacted face to face as the principles in a transaction, the competitive mechanism functioned effectively. Artisans were forced to perfect their craft and produce strong, durable, beautiful, and easy-to-use goods if they wished to survive. This in itself provided strong motivation for constant effort and continuous self-improvement.

In addition, as long as makers and users dealt with one another face to face, ethical standards naturally came into play, and such standards were further developed and codified in the context of the master-apprentice system and the distribution network. This was a society that shunned deception or trickery.

In our era of factories and mass consumption, the connection between makers and consumers is a vague one in which personal relationships play no role. Our awareness of others is diminished, and as a result so is our awareness of self. Individual character and regional character both dissolve into sameness. The flexible but sturdy ethical and moral standards that functioned in an environment of personal relationships have been replaced by laws that regulate rigidly and uniformly. Not only our goods but also our culture and traditions have been replaced by substitutes that lack the depth or subtlety of the originals.

Reclaiming Our Values

We have examined some of the tangible assets that have been lost as a consequence of the great handicraft extinction. When handwork was the norm, the Japanese people lived in small, more or less self-contained communities, where people trained long and hard to acquire the complex skills and know-how of their trade, including proper care and preservation of the resources on which their work depended. The environment and the process contributed to the cultivation of character and a sense of business ethics. These were communities in which everyone, including minors, the elderly, and the disabled, had a role to play.

In a society in which no one could rise high in his or her profession except through years of hard work, those who managed to rise also came to enjoy the respect of the community. The anticipation of such respect served as an additional incentive to work hard.

Today the skills and knowledge formerly acquired through direct experience have been replaced by masses of digital data stored in computers and other electronic equipment. Today we can take electronic surrogates, load them with digital information approximating human skills and knowledge, and crank out an endless supply of goods. Anyone with the minimal skills needed to operate computer-controlled machinery can instantly produce the perfectly fitting joints that a Japanese carpenter needed years to master. The more subtle skills and knowledge that can be gained only through physical labor and long experience are considered dispensable.

Electronic equipment has all but replaced the know-how of traditional Japanese fishing, which previously relied on knowledge of ocean floor topography, wind currents, ocean currents, landmark navigation, home-made proprietary bait, and complex techniques for luring fish. On today's fishing vessels, one has access to digital maps, satellite images, and electronic equipment that reports weather and water conditions and even the precise location of the fish.

On such a fishing vessel, an inexperienced youngster with a flare for video games would be able to master the requisite skills in no time, while an elderly Japanese fisherman with a vast store of experience-based wisdom would only be in the way.

This signifies a complete reversal from the values of traditional Japanese society, with its respect for accumulated experience.

What we have lost along with our traditional handicrafts is nothing less than our value system?including our sense of beauty, concept of nature, concern for others, and implicit belief in human dignity.

Many Japanese people find the new reality incompatible with their tastes, ideals, and preferred way of life. There are still traces of traditional Japanese culture, with its close-knit communities and its hard-working professionals, people who consider the needs of others without compromising themselves or their own high standards. But a society with antithetical values is spreading throughout the world at an alarming pace.

As human beings, we have the capacity for self-correction and the ability to build the kind of society that meets our real needs; without that ability, we could not survive. Now is the time to ask ourselves how we can lead a life of beauty and integrity in this new society. And where can we look for guidance if not to the past?

The past is where the guideposts to the future are to be found. I believe that one of the most important guideposts to which we can look is the ethic of handwork, which has shaped Japanese culture through the ages, and which continues to serve as a beacon even today.

    • Writer
    • Yonematsu Shiono
    • Yonematsu Shiono

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