JapanCraft21 – Reviving Traditional Japanese Craftsmanship

By Steve Beimel
April 22, 2022
From my first days in Japan in 1971 — decades before I even dreamt of starting JapanCraft21 — I have marveled at the breadth and depth of Japanese craftsmanship. From domestic ceramics, carpentry, and lacquerware to weaving, dyeing, metal work, and bamboo basket-making, these rarefied master crafts are among the world’s most outstanding physical expressions of the human spirit. When Japan entered the world stage in 1868 after centuries of self-imposed isolation, it surprised the west with stunningly beautiful master crafts of exceptional quality, creativity, skill level, and variety and became recognized as a new center of inspiration for craftspeople around the world. Japan entered the industrial revolution much later than its western counterparts and has remained (until recently) one of the world’s last great bastions of craft culture.

Today, however, master weavers, dyers and embroiderers struggle to survive while machine-printed kimono overrun the market; lacquerware sales have dropped about 80% in past 20 years; few young people are joining the ranks of now retiring legendary basket makers; electric nail gun-wielding young carpenters are no longer taught wood joinery. The list goes on. Also disappearing are crucial craft support specialists such as unique tool makers, dye blenders, brush makers, and stencil cutters. The 300,000 master craft artisans functioning here in 1980 have dwindled to a mostly aging group of about 50,000.
A woodcarver using a chisel
The number of master craftspeople in traditional woodworking and other skills is shrinking
Ironically, many post-war Japanese are surprisingly uneducated about the glories of their own culture and do not perceive the urgent threat facing crafts today as much as the foreigners who have long admired, studied, and collected them. For example, lack of interest by domestic buyers has made contemporary Japanese ceramics one of the biggest bargains in the international collecting world. As Japan’s craft-supporting cultural institutions have declined, so too have works of master craftsmanship. Buddhism has been losing support as the public turns to the corporate funeral industry. Traditional paths such as tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and calligraphy cannot compete with the high-speed culture of online games and entertainment. Japanese company presidents no longer function as tea ceremony patrons, turning instead to pastimes such as golf. Master carpenters who build custom wooden houses face crushing competition from large, factory-style construction companies. Traditional weavers and dyers are pushed out by the trend-creating advertising budgets of huge clothing brands.

Amidst this decline, JapanCraft21 is taking action. Created in 2018, our organization works to reverse the rapid deterioration of traditional Japanese master crafts.
We have recently launched a series of Japan Traditional Craft Revitalization Contests, each designed to revive a traditional Master Craft so that it flourishes in the 21st century. We identify exceptional individuals with the talent, track record, and passion to revitalize a craft in the contemporary world, and then we help fund their vision. We raised the necessary funds by significantly increasing our Japanese and international cultural membership base and by joining with the Asia Society (Japan Center), a highly respected international cultural institution, as co-sponsors of the contest series. Each first place Ronnie Prize winner is awarded ¥5 million in targeted funding to be applied toward achieving their vision as well as the active support of a mentor group of experts in fields such as business, design, product development, IT, and marketing. Additionally, we provide all 10 finalists with a broad and significant support package.

When we formed JapanCraft 21, we chose to focus first on high-level wood joinery. We teamed up with Tomohiro Naito (president Naito Komuten), a 5th generation Kyoto master carpenter, to create an NPO called Shishokai, made up of traditional building masters. Together, we started a school which specializes in teaching nearly extinct building skills and provides intensive, free-of-charge, weekend joinery classes to young working carpenters in Kyoto. Our first graduating class of 6 are now some of the only young carpenters in Japan who can build a wooden house entirely without nails. At present, we are training 6 more young carpenters in wood joinery, and we have expanded our offerings: we are currently teaching the nearly lost art of Japanese bamboo mud wall construction to 5 young plasterers and advanced Japanese garden techniques to 5 young gardeners.

The crafts of Japan are an international treasure that have enriched and inspired people around the world for over 150 years. This heritage belongs to all of us, and this may be our last chance to ensure its future. We at JapanCraft 21 are hoping to show that even a small, private organization can leverage its resources and truly make a difference.
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