If there is one thing everybody knows about Japan is its industrial power: automobile manufacturers and colossal electronics’ and optics’ companies, machinery of all kinds coming out every day from sterilized plants assembled by state-of-the-art robots, shiny pipes and thousands of cables, lasers and computers more fit to our images from science fiction films. And it is undoubtedly true: the post-war “Japanese miracle” is indeed a miracle of technological progress. What is not widely understood though is that this “miracle” didn’t happen in a vacuum, nor through the American financial support after the war; it is the continuation of a tradition starting at least ten centuries ago with lines still alive (and running parallel to the big industry) in thousands of small workshops all over the country.
The Japanese word for the craftsman is “shokunin” (職人); although its literal meaning is “professional”, its meaning when used in everyday language conveys the same sense as the English word “master” and its other Western siblings –the Latin “magister”, the French “maître” and the Italian “maestro”. The shokunin is a person who knows their craft so well they are the supreme authority in it, the teacher through whose instruction its secrets will pass to the next generation, the personification of the craft itself –both its tangible part and its essence. Almost always they are people working with their hands, often creating their own tools so they can have complete control over the results. And almost always they work alone or with a couple of helpers-disciples in a small space, usually hidden from the eyes of the passersby.
There is no part of Japan without its own tradition in the creation of some object –be they swords, lustered rice bowls, pottery tea cups, chopsticks or silver jewelry. Countless craftsmen of countless specialties create every day countless objects that are immediately used by young and old, ordinary people or professionals. In fact, some of these objects have become touristic souvenirs which visitors take home with them, oblivious to the fact that behind them there is a centuries-old Edo or Kyoto tradition and that the person who created them is a part of a lineage similar to those in Kabuki or the martial arts and that the society the belong in, reserves for them a respect virtually lost from Western societies: although they are not the distinct class they were in the years of Edo, in the conscience of the Japanese the word “shokunin” is equally important as the word “samurai”.
Photo © Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.