Anyone with even the slightest eye for crafts is certain to find absolutely no lack of material to eye among the multitudinous traditional crafts of Japan. From stoneware, porcelain and tiles in ceramics and pongee, weaves and stencil dyeing in fabrics to lacquerware, metalwork, bamboo craft, paper, candles, brushes, inkstones, fans, battledores, umbrellas and dolls, Japanese craftspeople possess an astounding knack for producing work of quite breathtaking excellence to — apparently — whatever they turn their hand to. But of all the materials and media with which they work, those artisans seem to show particularly remarkable adroitness when crafting things out of wood.
Thanks to its largely mountainous character, Japan still manages to be a densely forested country, and right up to the premodern age wood was its most important building material. This ample abundance meant that wood naturally found use in producing a great variety of implements, utensils and tools, and over the centuries specialist areas of woodcraft emerged. In all areas of crafting with wood, however, a common feature is that the grain, color and texture have long been regarded as important aesthetic elements. And many of the individuals who work with that material regard it as their task to display the native beauty and warmth of the wood to best advantage in a natural, unaffected fashion.
One way of ensuring that the woody stuff is best able to lend itself to inspired working occurs at the sawing stage. The commonest and cheapest form of cutting wood down to size is plain sawing (itame). This is the simple process of slicing a log into parallel strips, and it involves practically no waste. By contrast, the method of quarter sawing (masame) involves, as the name suggests, first cutting the log into quarters lengthwise — each having a right angle at what was the original center of the log. The quarters are then successively cut along each axis. A good deal of wood is inevitably wasted in the process, but it produces wood that expands and contracts equally in all directions and so is less likely to warp. The result is also wood with a lovely parallel grain, which is a typical feature of some of the finest examples of woodcraft in Japan.
The working of wood underwent a major development with the introduction to Japan of iron implements from the Asian continent in the latter part of the Yayoi period (around 300 BCE to about 300 CE). Those iron tools replaced the stone implements that had hitherto been used. Gradually, these primary iron hand tools underwent refinement in Japan to meet indigenous demands. Many tools dating back to the fourth and fifth century, such as handled planes, chisels, saws and adzes, have been unearthed and found to display a high level of workmanship. The continental origins of Japan’s tools are still very much in evidence: as with other parts of Asia, the effective stroke in Japan in planing and sawing is on the pull stroke—toward the body—not the push stroke as in the West.
Just as with the tools themselves, it is probable that the techniques used to carve statues and patterns in wood developed in Japan based on Korean models. By the early Heian period (794–1185), however, carving had reached the point where, some would maintain, the wooden statues in Japan are among the finest ever created. Over the centuries that followed, the techniques of woodcarving in the country evolved, expanded and became refined to meet its own cultural requirements, such as in producing masks for noh and netsuke toggles as well as architectural decorations.
But perhaps the finest example of the Japanese woodworker’s craft is evident in joinery. Japanese joints are self-sustaining, and traditional wooden objects from small chests up to mighty temples manage to hold themselves together without any need of such metal reinforcements as nails and bolts. The sheer complexity of the precisely interlocking systems gives the joints the appearance of particularly fiendish geometric puzzles. But they all come together beautifully in a satisfying fitting process that really is a joy to observe. And the result may be a wooden building that is able to keep on standing for well over a millennium.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.
Editor’s note: See also “Treasures of the Toolbox,” our review of the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum