Before I went to Japan, I thought I was a bit of a perfectionist. But during my first summer in Kyoto, when my conversation partner pulled out her agenda to pencil in our next session in minuscule handwriting that only a mouse could read, I realized I had a long way to go.
Fast forward to 2017. I'm in Japan in the final year of my master's degree, building wooden furniture inspired by Japanese joinery. "Ugh, these drill holes are all over the place. I'll never graduate with this shoddy craftsmanship," I thought to myself. The source of my frustration: I had marked my drill hole 0.4mm off from the accurate position, throwing off the entire join to an unacceptable degree. Pro tip - if you want to become a perfectionist, measuring in millimeters is a good place to start. None of this "1/32 of an inch" nonsense.
What could have prompted this sort of transformation, you may ask? Well, living in Japan for four years certainly didn't hurt. While classmates in the U.S. called me a perfectionist and classmates in Spain told me I needed to be more laid back ("tranquila!"), classmates in Japan were amused by how "teki-tō" (適当, haphazard） I was. I soon learned that in my formative years I had been completely blind to the real extent of the possibilities of perfection. Being constantly surrounded by the Japanese standard of perfection made me realize the importance of precision and meticulousness when crafting beautiful and functional objects. Now I know what makes the difference between mediocre objects and those of superior quality.
So all that stuff you hear about Japan quality? Yeah, it's true. And not surprising, coming from a country whose culture values teinei-sa (丁寧さ, carefulness, thoroughness) so much. No kidding, it was the theme of a design project I did in collaboration with MUJI. Although I still have a long way to go, as evidenced by the work of Japan's master craftsmen such as those at Ishitani Furniture, I'm committed to a path of continuous improvement (改善, kaizen). In the meantime, I'll always be grateful for the Japanese education I received on perfection, and I'll do my best! (頑張ります！ganbarimasu!)