Hi everyone! Long time no see!
As I near the end of the “Traditional Japanese Woodworking” phase of my research project, I thought I would summarize my findings so far in case anyone is interested! This first post will be centered on where exactly the Japanese design mindset came from, while future posts will go on to talk about outside influences on Japanese design and characteristics of Japanese furniture design today.
Origins of Japanese Style
Shinto: Japan’s native religion
Japan’s native religion, Shinto, has had a tremendous influence on the country’s design style. Shinto is a polytheistic religion in which people revere and worship nature and all things that proceed from nature. In Shinto, it is said that there exist eight million gods. This number is less literal and more conceptual; basically, there are so many gods that a god must exist in every person, place, or thing. In contrast to other world religions, however, Shinto’s “gods” are not actually thought of as sentient beings. Instead, they are more like shapeless forces or energies that exist in all things, even people.
With the religion of Shinto comes a profound focus on the divinity of nature. As a result, the Japanese people have always had an extraordinary respect for natural materials and, by extension, material things. In Shinto, trees are considered especially sacred, and Shinto shrine sites are almost always chosen for their proximity to a very old and large tree.
Since trees are considered sacred, it is only natural that Japanese craftsmen would take particular care when fashioning objects out of wood, a material that is invariably acquired from trees many centuries old. In Japan, a particular focus is placed on preserving the natural beauty of wood in any wooden product.
Mottainai: the shame of wastefulness
Partly tied to Shinto comes the pervasive Japanese concept of mottainai. Its closest English translations would be “what a waste” or “waste not, want not.” To a country with such a deep reverence for natural materials, the thought of wasting anything seems unthinkable. Although strong influences from the Western world (particularly the United States during its occupation of Japan after the Second World War) have rendered modern-day Japan less-than-ideal in terms of reducing material waste, this is a relatively recent change. Historically, wastefulness was seen as shameful and even as grounds for ostracism. Even now people say that each grain of rice contains seven gods, and as such one should never waste even a single grain of rice.
One can easily imagine the effect of the mottainai attitude on sustainability practices in product design. Although Japanese craftsmen might be stumped if you asked them how they practice sustainability, a short tour around their factory or showroom quickly reveals the remarkable extent of their eco-conscious mindset. From using leftover wood from furniture manufacturing to make smaller products, to using sawdust to make all-natural multicolored air-dry clay, the sustainable innovations in today’s Japanese furniture manufacturers is manifold.
Nagamochi: durability and longevity
Many cultures value longevity in products, and Japan is no exception. As with many other concepts that have influenced Japanese design and particularly woodworking, the Japanese concept of nagamochi (literally “keeping for a long time”) is clearly tied to the country’s spiritual roots in Shintoism. It makes sense that if throwing things away is considered mottainai, or a waste, one would want to make one’s possessions last as long as possible through careful maintenance.
Although influence from the Western world and the impact of industrialization has reduced the prevalence of this attitude of nagamochi in modern Japan, the recent focus on sustainability worldwide can also be observed in Japanese product design today. Japan-made products are praised for their outstanding quality, and with quality usually comes durability. When visiting local furniture manufacturers in Japan, the desire to create long-lasting products is a common concern. From the standpoint of an artisan who sees the entire process of furniture creation, from tree to table, so to speak, using centuries-old trees to make something that will last only a few years is close to sacrilege. Japanese craftsmen take their responsibility in dealing with wood seriously, and their hope is that consumers too will recognize the value of their long-lasting products.
Japan: island country
A quick survey of Japanese history will reveal that Japan’s “island country” status has had a considerable effect on its development over time. Not only has the country’s relative isolation from the outside world until recent centuries led to a unique and singular culture; the scarcity of natural resources on this island has led to unusual innovations and a remarkable resourcefulness and emphasis on efficiency. This is evident both in Japanese craftsmen’s attitude towards sustainability in manufacturing and in their tendency to design highly versatile, multi-function, and compact furniture.
I hope you enjoyed this very brief introduction to the origins of Japanese attitudes towards design and sustainability. There is much more to come! Look forward to future posts about outside influences on Japanese design, Japanese design's influence on the Western world (Japonisme), and the typical characteristics of Japanese furniture design.