April 25, 2022
Below is a lesson from Daily Good on the spirit of Shokunin and devotion to master one's craft, as well as our key learnings.
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The Japanese word ‘
shokunin’ is often translated as ‘artisan’ in English. Although it isn’t incorrect by definition, the translation seems to lose the spirit of what a shokunin does. I’m reminded of this every time I explain the works and lives of shokunin to an overseas audience, which happens to be what I do for a living. The word shokunin in colloquial Japanese has a broad definition, but who really qualifies as a shokunin is often debated—even among shokunin themselves.
Of course, there is wide variety among shokunin. In rural Japan, anonymous shokunin’s lives revolve around the changing seasons and what nature provides at different times. Sōetsu Yanagi would have called this kind of utilitarian folk craft
mingei. Many shokunin collect materials from their surrounding environment while working as farmers in the summer. During winter when snow covers their fields, they do their work as shokunin.
In contrast to Yanagi’s vision of anonymous folk crafts, some shokunin’s names are known and associated with prized works. These shokunin often make a one-of-a-kind product that is highly appreciated for its sophisticated aesthetics. The Raku family, creators of hand-moulded tea bowls, are an early example known since the 16th century, followed by many modern shokunin who are recognized today.
Some highly specialized shokunin work only on a single stage of the production process. Top-coat shokunin for
urushi lacquerware or template shokunin who design complex kimono weaving patterns devote their entire life to fulfilling their responsibilities as team members. Some work together with others, such as joinery carpenters, devoted to traditional shrine architecture.
With the profession of shokunin manifested in so many diverse ways, what are the commonalities between them? What makes their work fundamentally different from simply artisanal work?
Boundless, infinitely defined ways the shokunin spirit manifested in this world
Endless pursuit of mastery in a craft
Unique and limitless
In service of others
Altruistic attitude/non-individualistic attitude — beyond individual radiance with a devotion to the larger whole - transcends individual existence
Exudes unique humility
Elements of a shokunin’s life and mentality that are manifested in their work:
Nature — Selfless surrender after earnest effort. Obedient to nature = blessings of nature. Positive energy towards nature. Spend a lifetime getting familiar with their chosen natural materials — “listen to” the materials to understand their unique conditions — cannot control nature, and each engagement is unique. When nature insists = Shouganai (it is what it is — beyond our control.) POSITIVITY/READINESS/FLEXIBILITY
Time — devotion over a lifetime, and over a millennium. Not just one’s own practice, but experiences handed down in a perpetual line of accumulated wisdom. The work of shokunin continues to evolve with each generation’s contributions to the tradition. MASTERY/LEGACY
Community — Beyond the notion of individualism. One exists because others exist in the community with them. “We” vs “I”. The result of a collaborative process. INTERDEPENDENCE/INTERCONNECTEDNESS
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