It was your everyday Wednesday morning in Tokyo, rainy and overcast. Yet a quiet gallery on the seventh floor of a famous department store was crowded with people. Why? The visitors had a simple goal: to touch and feel the work of Japanese artisans. And, amazingly, this was only a small part of a much larger phenomenon. The store hosts exhibitions 360 days a year, only shuttering for five days after the new year. In Japan, whether it’s department stores, coffee shops, or galleries, big or small, rain or sun, people love to see the handmade works of artisans. Search hard enough and you can find almost anything – accessories, tablewares, knives, even scissors.
It may be hard to imagine, but this kind of exhibition sells out very quickly. It’s almost like a popular concert! Time-limited reservations are common; so are lotteries to get tickets at all. Sometimes, organizers will limit purchases to only a handful of items per person. One reason it’s so hard to get into these exhibitions is that artisans limit where and when their works are sold, resulting in exclusive and limited sales. This creates the feeling of a “once in a lifetime opportunity” – visitors cherish the time they get with artisans and their work, knowing that there may not be a next time. Even if the same artisan attends a different exhibition, they’ll likely choose to showcase completely different items.
This type of feeling is part of a deeper undercurrent in Japanese culture. Traditionally, Japanese people host and attend tea ceremonies. Each tea ceremony is unique; even if the people and the setting are the same, everything from the mood to the climate will differ from ceremony to ceremony. Thus, it is important for both the host and the guests to cherish the moment and bring forth their full honesty, sincerity, and genuineness. This culture of seeing the specialness and oneness of these sorts of moments has entered Japanese culture as the phrase ichigo ichie (much like the English proverb, “you cannot step in the same river twice”). When visitors see artisans at exhibitions, the idea is the same: even when the same people are involved, each moment is still unique.
Craftsperson in Japanese translates to shokunin. The term is reserved for those who push their skills to the absolute limit. But the word has a deeper meaning, too, an almost spiritual connotation, referring to the amount of time the shokunin spends on a work. There’s a long history of shokunin in Japanese history, and Japanese people have great respect for it. Shokunin will dedicate their lives to one craft and push their skills as far as they can go.
In today’s world, it’s possible for machines in factories to replicate the high-quality production processes we associate with handmade crafts. But, shokunin are nonetheless a significant part of Japanese culture, and it’s reflected in every aspect of daily life. Only shokunin products have a true assurance of quality, so people are willing to pay large sums to buy them.
To become a shokunin in a craft, aspiring learners need to study to develop their fundamental skills and then perform an apprenticeship for at least three years. More complex crafts like pottery or glass may require even more time.
In general, a good shokunin is confident in their own products, eager to learn new skills, and invests lots of time in their craft. When they receive a new order, they think carefully about whether it’s finishable within the provided budget or timeline. If it’s not, they don’t accept it (and – as is often the case – they may decline a job even if the budget is very large, if they lack interest or don’t think they can do it). But, once a job is accepted, they don’t feel limited by money or time - they get the job done no matter what. A good shokunin has to be a little bit stubborn!
For example, take a shokunin potter. They spend years studying different types of clay. Because each type is different, they spend lots of time working with different clays to understand them and figure out what they’re best suited for – how easy they are to pinch, how smooth they are, and so forth. They’ll often dig their own clay just to experience what that’s like! The most important goal for a shokunin is to create the best possible moment for a person to use their product. Whether it’s clay or wood or something else, the use of natural materials is combined with a lifetime of skill to produce a work. Everything they’ve learned up until that point, from their skills to their attitude to their values, goes into delivering their latest work.
Each work takes anywhere from one month to twelve months. But is a work really done when it comes out of the oven? After interviewing many artisans, we realized that’s often not the case. Even when a work is finished or polished, artisans don’t consider it completed. For many artisans, a work is not complete until it’s being enjoyed by a person. Artisans want to see a work move from their hands to another’s. When an artisan, their work, and a customer meet up, they finally achieve ichigo ichie, that once in a lifetime moment – the moment a work is finally done.