By Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

By: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University in collaboration with Kyoto Women's University

“Suiko-Setten” (Water & Light Connecting to the Heaven), Maple-Wiped Lacquered Small Chest by Suda Kenji (1954-)Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Japanese people’s lives have long been closely connected to wood—communing with wood, living in wooden houses and making tools out of wood. Woodworking is literally the craft of working with wood. And thanks to the many types of trees in Japan extending north and south and the four distinct seasons of the country, techniques seen almost nowhere else in the world advanced in areas of architecture, furniture, and utensils, and unique beauty came about.

“Wooden Bowl” (奈良時代)Original Source: Tokyo National Museum

Woodwork from
ancient times to the middle ages: Kurimono (hollowed out objects), Hikimono
(lathework), Sashimono (wood crafts
using no metal nails) 

Plate-shaped artifacts 60 to 50,000 years old from the Nishiyagi excavation in Akashi, Hyogo, are known as the oldest examples of woodworks used by Japanese. The “Wooden Bowl” Nara Era wooden lacquerware pot housed at the Tokyo National Museum is kurimono with almost no distortion, exhibiting a well-defined shape. 

Paulownia Sleeve Shoji Screen with Hemp Leaf Pattern (江戸時代(18世紀後半~19世紀初頭)) by Kobayashi Jodei (1753-1813)Original Source: Tokyo National Museum

Modern woodworking:
From plain wood to precious wood 

Progress was seen in woodworking techniques in the Edo Era. With the advance of lumbering techniques, the types of wood used in chests and furnishings increased and distinctive features came about in individual production areas. The concept of precious wood thus came about and the value of woodworks increased.

Jodei Kobayashi (1753-1813) is a famous figure as an artisan of this era. He was a master craftsman fostered by Fumai Matsudaira, head of the Matsue Domain and a famous tea ceremony master. Jodei’s “Paulownia Sleeve Shoji Screen” stands out by the beauty of its openwork engraving. The techniques used to make such a work in an era without jigsaws remain veiled in mystery. 

Hibachi charcoal brazier with lucky charm relief (1901/1902) by Kihachi Kiuchi (1827-1902)Original Source: Tokyo National Museum

Meiji to Showa Era
woodworking: Era of famous master craftsmen 

Many craftsmen such as metalwork craftsmen and lacquer painters lost work with the abolition of feudal domains and prohibition of wearing swords following the Meiji Restoration, and they were forced to change occupations or to go out of business. However, the types of wood carried out of forests with the advances in large sawing machines increased, and new architectural structures were constructed one after another, creating the experts who would lead to modern woodcraft artists. 

Painting Box with Flowering Plant Pattern by Soichiro Nishimura (1846-1914)Original Source: Tokyo National Museum

Kihachi Kiuchi (1827-1902) and Soichiro Nishimura (1846-1914) were active in the Meiji and Taishio eras. Kihachi Kiuchi was proficient at joined block construction and inlaying, making mokuga (marquetry) wood decorations the family business. Hanko Kiuchi (1855-1933) learned sashimono and ivory work from his grandfather, Kihachi, and Hanko’s son Shoko (1882-1961) inherited their techniques and earned praise at exhibitions in various countries. Soichiro Nishimura learned wood inlay craft from Jizaemon Hasegawa and exhibited many works in Japan and abroad, earning various awards. 

Shukindo Kansho-Yokyo (Cover) (明治14年) by Editor: Nobuo Yamataka and Publisher: Mankichi OtaArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

cabinetmakers to woodworking artist 

One cause of the change in the standing of cabinetmakers to their becoming known as artists was the introduction of modern craft design. Mankichi Ota, who was involved in design patterns of various crafts including woodworking, played a role more as a producer than as a woodworking artist, and Japan’s cabinetmakers are said to have made a transition to woodworking artists in this era. The book entitled “Shukindo Kansho-Yokyo (Shukindo’s Appreciation of Entertainments)” and published by Mankichi Ota in 1881 collected many patterns of designs of the time. 

Shukindo Kansho-Yokyo (Colophon), Editor: Nobuo Yamataka, Publisher: Mankichi Ota, 明治14年, From the collection of: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University
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Shukindo Kansho-Yokyo, Editor: Yamataka Nobuo, Publisher: Ota Mankichi, 明治14年, From the collection of: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University
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Mulberry Tray (1915) by Maeda Somei (1871-1942)Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Mulbury and Somei Maeda 

Somei Maeda (1871-1942) could be called the father of modern Japanese woodworking. The mulberry double-sided bookshelf that Somei exhibited at the Fourth Domestic Industrial Exposition (1895) held in Kyoto was provided to the Imperial Household Agency. He set out on his own and set up a workshop in Minami-Kabayacho of Tokyo’s Nihombashi.

Maeda Somei and his apprentices producing gifts presented by the Tokyo Government for the coronation of the emperor (大正3年)Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Somei and his apprentices  

Government for the coronation of the emperor”

Somei had many skilled apprentices at his workshop, and they produced gifts for the coronation of the Taisho and Showa emperors.

Mulberry Hexagonal Cabinet (昭和初期 (1927-30)) by Suda Sogetsu (1877-1940)Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Three generations of Mikurajima mulberry cabinets: Sogetsu, Sosui, and Kenji Suda

Shosoin imperial treasures such as “Red-Lacquered Keyaki Cabinet with Fine-Grain Pattern” and “Coromandel Double-Dided Cabinet” are all tucked away safely in chests. It was Sogetsu Maeda who used Mikurajima mulberry to make those cabinets and increased their value. That spirit was inherited by his apprentices Suda Sogetsu, Sogetu’s son Sosui (1910-79), and Kenji Suda (1954-) who became a living national treasure for woodworking in 2014.

Mulberry Yumedono (Hall of Dreams) Type Cabinet (1970) by Suda Sosui (1910-1979)Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Compared to the works of Sosui Suda’s father Sogetsu, his work embraces the Buddha and there is elegance like cherishing life. 

Mulberry Hexagonal Cabinet (2005) by Suda Kenji (1954-)Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Sosui Suda was present at the production of this cabinet by son Kenji, despite illness in his final years. The diverse metalwork of fittings comes together in the amazing craft of Kenji, who struck out on his own after studying under Katsuzo Mori and Kokichi Takanashi.

Small planes by Suda Sogetsu (1877-1950)Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

to the modern era 

The small planes in the hand of Kenji Suda were used by his grandfather Sogetsu, and the blades are said to be the works of famous bladesmith Nobuyoshi. Kenji wrote that, “There is nothing more to say except that they cut well.” The well-used tools have a particular beauty. 

木工芸 《木工工具》, From the collection of: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University
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木工芸 《木工道具》, From the collection of: Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University
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Workshop of Kenji SudaArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Workshop of Suda Kenji bladesmith Nobuyoshi. Kenji

The lumber industry that supported Edo sashimono started with tradesmen employed in the construction of Edo Castle coming to have shops in Zaimoku-cho of Tokyo’s Nihomboshi. The skyrocketing of land prices in modern Tokyo did not allow room for lumber merchants to have property there to dry and store lumber for a long time after procuring. For such reasons, Kenji Suda’s workshop is located in Kanra Town of Gunma Prefecture. Lumber is slowly dried naturally in a warehouse and reborn as works of art by his hands when matured. 

Interior of Kenji Suda’s workshopArt Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

Suiko-Setten” (Water & Light Connecting to the Heaven) Maple Wiped Lacquered Small Chest by Suda Kenji (1954-)Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University

culmination of Japan’s crafts: Woodworking 

This masterpiece of sashimono can be called the culmination of Japan’s crafts. Each process and technique came into being over a long history. Japan’s woodworking takes various forms according to its use, becoming a part of people’s lives. Woodworking has a power from using trees, a symbol of productiveness. And by feeling that, new power held by life can be gained. 

Credits: Story

Information provided by Suda Kenji, Tokyo National Museum

Text written by Itani Yoshie, Tokyo University of the Arts

English Translation by Itani Yoshie & Kawakubo Translation Office

Exhibition created by Kobayashi Yuka and Sakashita Riho Kyoto Women's University Lifestyle Design Laboratory

Directed by Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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