Why is this interesting? - The Shokunin Edition

On traditions, work, and the lessons of Japanese craftsmen

Gianfranco Chicco (GC) is a conference director, marketing strategist, and writer, creating experiences that bring people together by bridging the gap between the digital and physical layers. He’s also a Japanophile, and curates The Craftsman Newsletter.

Gian here. In March of 2019 I quit my job. I was feeling exhausted after years of traveling. In the span of my work-related conversations with some of the most interesting creatives working in digital, I found that many of us were sharing the same symptoms: We were living from our necks up, heavily identifying with our brains and disconnected from the rest of our bodies, the people around us, and nature itself.

I’ve been fascinated by Japanese craftsmanship since I lived in Japan in 2008. The more I looked into it, the more it seemed that these people had already found a way to counterbalance the weight of the times we are living in. With my newfound free time, I decided to focus on researching what we could learn from Japanese craftsmen to improve how we live and work.

Take for example Takahiro Yagi, a 6th generation master craftsman that makes tea caddies, those airtight metal containers used to keep tea leaves fresh. The first time I came across Taka’s work I was impressed by how these objects were made to become better with time. While a newly minted caddy is beautiful, a forty-year-old one is significantly more attractive, with a gorgeous patina made by oxidation and daily handling. This is not a random occurrence, it was intended by design.

Tea Caddies by Takahiro Yagi

Taka’s work may be rooted in a long-lasting tradition, but he is not living in the past. In late 2019 he launched a new product—a portable speaker—in collaboration with Panasonic, using his expertise in metalworking and a deep understanding of how air flows, combined with Panasonic’s electronics know-how.

Why is this interesting?

Now, when you think about Japanese craftsmen—the shokunin—you probably imagine a person who dedicates their whole life to doing one thing extremely well. While this is often true, the Japanese master craftsmen have more depth than that. The goal of my research has been to bring light to these principles and find ways to make them part of my own way of living and working, and I want to share three of them with you.

1) We Do Not Work Alone

Recognizing that we don’t—and can’t—work alone has a humbling effect. We cannot manifest our gifts in a vacuum, our work depends on the many systems that we belong to. Spiritually, we draw inspiration and ideas from those that came before us. There’s also the material systems that support our effort, in the form of tools and processes developed by others, or raw materials provided by nature. Finally, there’s a social system made by colleagues, clients, and others around us. Without them, we’d be unable to bring our creations into existence.

2) Passing On The Knowledge

Master woodworker Shuji Nakagawa, a third-generation shokunin and son of a Living National Treasure, once told me that it takes more than a lifetime to refine one’s work. For a shokunin, success is defined not just by the level of the craft achieved within their days, but by the ability to pass it onto the next generation. It’s not about you, you’re not the hero.

3) I Only Know Plenty

This third principle has changed the way I see the world. Despite the way they’re sometimes presented, shokunin are people like the rest of us, burdened by the same emotions and obsessions that we all deal with daily. To help curb the particularly modern need for more—things, attention, productivity—they rely on a Zen saying that can be thought of as a kind of mantra. Ware Tada Taru wo Shiru (吾 唯 足 知) translates literally as “I only know plenty”. But non-literally it means “what one has is all one needs”: I am content with what I have because that is all I need. While it’s only natural to feel pangs of jealousy or covetousness, the reminder in the form of a saying can help ground me when my instincts of more take hold.

How we reflect on these things could — maybe — help us to reconnect with the rest of our body from the neck down, with the communities we belong to, with nature and the natural cycles.

So the only thing I want to leave you with is Taru wo Shiru: What is enough? (GC)

Photos of the Day:

An old-school selfie machine in Florence, Italy. (GC)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Gianfranco (GC)


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