Posted by: bemyduende | 02/04/2009

Smell 1: Artisans of Japan – 嗅覚 1:職人

I subscribe to quite a few RSS feeds (both educational and fun), and I would say that about half of them have something to do with the land of the rising sun.  What can I say… I seem to have been struck with what they refer to as “Japan-sickness”…and it’s not because I’m a fan of anime (Japanese animation) or manga (Japanese comics), because I’m not.

Truthfully, I’m not sure what originally drew me to Japan, and during times of homesickness while living in Japan, it sometimes felt like nothing.  But after meeting some wonderful Japanese friends and learning more about the culture, I realize now that the traditional Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi is what keeps me going back for more.  According to Leonard Koren, the aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.  I personally like the description by Richard Powell that says “[wabi-sabi] nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”

So when I was recently updated -via RSS feed- of an article called Artisans of Old Japan I was interested. It began…

“Every language attracts a special kind of student. Spanish speakers are lazy and charming. Those who have mastered French are sometimes chic and always sybaritic. Hebrew attracts the committed; Turkish, the committed and complicated. Adventurers are drawn to Arabic, and Mandarin is for brainiacs who love a challenge—so much so that they often abandon the language altogether once they’ve got it down. And Japanese? Japanese speakers are serious, serious people. Of course, all languages demand tedious, diligent study, but there’s something about Japanese that calls out to those who are quiet, kind, and, often, spiritual.” (to continue…)

I could really relate to the last line so I continued reading.  The author goes on to introduce you to four shokunin (artisans).  These are artists who are continuing their family businesses in traditional arts that seem to be withering away, the kind of art that often exemplifies a wabi-sabi aesthetic.   The article is very well written, and I believe that it captures the essence of why I love Japan.  reserved. quiet. loyal. sincere.  In this day and age we don’t often read through entire articles but I urge you to read through them all (five sections- long, I know).  If anything, don’t miss the videos, here and here. While the videos are not much, it makes me wonder when the last time many of us have made something creative with our hands…

I also have the honor to know one of these shokunin.  Mokuzo Sugihara may not be following in the footsteps of his family business (not that I know of at least) and he’s far from a wise old man (he’s my age) but he is following his dream of creating art.  He has the courage to abandon the societal pressures of becoming a salaryman and instead continues to make Japan a more beautiful place.

Inakano zou (the elephant of countryside)

On a side note, the author gives a sort of chilly review to the Kyoto Handicraft Center. However, like he mentions, many of these traditional shokunin are far from city centers and hard to get to with no Japanese language skills.  So while it may be a tourist center, I got a wonderful antique woodcarving there and I do recommend it.  Just make sure you use your nose to sniff out the “real japan.”




  1. Ah Debon, I like your blog. You are thoughtful.

  2. I have to admit I’ve fallen into the japanese blog tradition of trying to reply personally to every comment! So I just wanted to say Arigatou!

  3. Haha, I say keep it up while you still can! But, if you start to get lots of blog action, have no stress over the comments. Just remember the “nothing is finished” part of wabi-sabi and you’re off the hook.

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