Traditional craftsmanship and design. The intangible cultural heritage of Japan

Sushi Suzuki, Associate Professor at the Kyoto Institute of Technology and at the Kyoto Design Lab, has written an illuminating essay on design and traditional crafts in Japan for the Whitebook. For him, one thing is clear:

“For designers of the future, being able to understand our ever-changing values and goals will be just as important as being creative. Gone are the days where being successful in the marketplace is the only measure of success.”


As a little teaser, here is an excerpt of the essay:


Sushi Suzuki
Sushi Suzuki

Traditional crafts in Japan and Design


Sushi Suzuki

Kyoto is often referred to as the historical capital of Japan. From around Japan and the world, tourists visit to see the temples, shrines, palaces, markets, and historical districts. What most of them do not know is that many of these tourist attractions are not old or preserved, they are new. (…)

I returned to Japan after 22 years of living in the US and Europe. Through my experience, I have come to the realization that Western societies are more inclined to preserve the »hardware« such as architecture, monuments, and facades, while Japanese culture is more inclined to preserve the »software« such as traditions, customs, and procedures. Festivals in Japan feel the most antiquated, true to their original form. Even with the internet and LinkedIn, the ritual of exchanging business cards does not go away. This preservation of tradition extends to the methods of pro- duction as well. While technology is drastically changing the way we manufacture products, Japan continues to keep the traditional culture of the craftsmen.

All across the countryside of Japan, there are stores and information centers focusing on the traditional craft of the area. Alongside the regional delicacies, it is still possible to purchase traditional crafts produced in nearly the same way for centuries. This is in stark contrast with Europe, where souvenirs sold within magnificently pre- served castles, palaces, and churches are cheap trinkets which are mass manufactured in countries where labor is cheap.


The decline of traditional crafts in Japan


(…) Much of the economic growth since the industrial revolution has been based around improving and optimizing the method of production. Much of our modern-day material wealth comes from being able to make more with fewer resources and less time. Many traditional crafts that have tried to preserve not only the end product but the mode of production are going against the long- term macroeconomic trend. Many industries with traditional processes have abandoned them for efficiencies such as mass manufacturing or automation. While some niche food or beverage companies may still make products using centuries old labor-intensive processes, most have invested in infrastructure to produce more with fewer people. (…)

From a purely functional point-of-view, traditional crafts do not offer any competitive advantage over modern alternatives. A finely lacquered bowl does not hold soup any better than a factory-produced ceramic bowl. With regards to kimono, traditional Japanese garments, the functionality is inferior in terms of comfort and ease of use. Most kimono cannot be machine-washed. Formal- wear, especially for women, is so difficult to put on that there are professional aiders. This is why the kimono has been mostly replaced by Western clothing except in very special circumstances such as weddings, funerals, and graduations, and even then, they are far from ubiquitous on those occasions. As people have become more frugal, rental services for kimonos have emerged, further hurting the industry. Kimonos used to be one of the major industries in Kyoto and growing up, I had several friends and family who worked in the industry. None of those people remain in the industry today.

The stagnation of Japanese household income has coincided with the rise of globalization and China as the world’s factory. This meant that more and more cheaper alternatives to traditional crafts became available. (…)

In preparing to write this article, I have realized that I barely own any traditional crafts, and I believe that the same applies to most young people. Traveling across Japan, I find myself visiting a lot of traditional craft stores. This is not a surprise since regional areas often promote tourism and traditional crafts together, but while I enjoy seeing the products, I rarely buy anything. I would not be surprised if there are a lot of people like me, treating these stores as museums rather than shops. I love experiencing the fine craftsmanship and intricate details, but when it comes to paying for it, I end up buying the cheaper alternative. Now I am realizing that people like me are part of the reason for the decline. (…)


The current state of traditional crafts in Japan


This does not mean that traditional crafts in Japan are extinct. Compared to other developed countries where most traditional crafts have disappeared, the scene in Japan may seem vibrant. However, many forms of traditional crafts can be considered endangered. In addition to a dwindling market, as craftsmen age, the lack of a successor is an increasing problem. Because so much of the tradition is passed down through apprenticeships, once the lineage is stopped, the skill is lost forever. Once upon a time, children continuing the family business was standard practice in Japan, but that is no longer the case. Many children of craftsmen are choosing to pursue other careers, and the social stigma for doing so is no longer strong. As traditional crafts are seen as hard work without good pay, fewer and fewer younger people are willing to become apprentices. (…)

There is an innate human desire to preserve. This is why we have museums and Paris looks the way it does. There is something about the past and the way we remember that gives us some comfort. Culture gives us a sense of identity, that, we belong to a specific group of people who share the same values and history. What makes Japan different from the West is that the culture is not embodied within relics in the form of architecture or objects, but in the crafts and the process of production, which in itself is embodied within people. An object can be preserved forever through careful maintenance and periodic restoration. Culture embodied in people and passed on from generation to generation is not so easy. People need to eat, clothe themselves, and build a place to live. For traditional crafts to be economically successful, there needs to be customers.

Traditional craftsmen whom I have talked to have repeatedly insisted that they are not trying to just preserve the past. While keeping the tradition alive, they want to build on top of it. There is a three-character Japanese concept on mastery called Shu-ha-ri (守破離) which loosely translates to »Protect, Break, Depart.« The idea is that as one learns a skill or a craft, one should first protect and obey the tradition. Once one is able to understand and act on the tradition, one can start to break tradition where necessary, adding his or her own changes. As one then masters the craft, one can depart from the tradition and expand upon it or create his or her own tradition. While traditional craftsmen are very much respectful of the past, they are not conservative. (…)


Editor’s note: Furthermore, later in the essay, Sushi Suzuki talks about the development of three selected companies, which have broadened their traditional approaches and have thus successfully adapted their business to the 21st century. Read about it in “Designing Design Education – Whitebook on the Future of Design Education.”