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