Japanese Attitudes to Tools


In today’s consumerist age, tools are just another commodity, to be admired or despised, and treated as objects of potential acquisition. When we see a great tool and like it, we buy it if we can afford it.

Not so with the Japanese. Before buying a great tool, the Japanese craftsman must ask himself whether he is equal to the tool, whether he has reached the level where he can utilise the tool to its maximum potential. If the answer is no, then he is not supposed to buy the tool no matter how lovely it is and no matter how much money he might have.

I was amazed to learn of the reverential Japanese attitudes towards tools and toolmakers in Toshio Odate’s famous book titled “Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use” (Taunton Press 1984).

Tashio Odate was born in Japan in 1930 but moved to the United States when he was 28. For over four decades, he taught industrial design and sculpture at the university level, exhibited his own sculptures, and demonstrated Japanese woodworking techniques throughout the U.S. and Europe.

In his book, Odate recounts how he learnt to value tools while he was a young apprentice to a famous Japanese sliding door maker:

“One afternoon, I took the train to a store that was well known for its fine tools. There I purchased a plane made by a famous blacksmith. I did not know the reputation of the smith or the fine quality of his tools. I knew only that the plane was expensive…I knew I would have to keep the plane a secret, for people would laugh at the beginner who bought a tool he did not yet know how to use properly…One day it was raining, and everyone was in the shop and fixing tools. I don’t remember why – it wasn’t a day off – but the plane was in my toolbox. Though I was pretending to be working, I had difficulty keeping my mind on the job, so I was continually looking at my plane. Suddenly, my master was standing beside me, he asked me about the plane, and I had to tell him I’d bought it. Immediately he took it from me and showed it to the other shokunin (craftsman) in the shop – they all thought it was a wonderful tool. After they talked about it for a long time, the plane was given back to me master. Holding the plane in his hand, my master came to me and told me simply that it was too good for me. As I expected, I never saw the plane again.”

A Poster Advertising a Workshop with Odate

Tools are meant to be used, writes Odate, “and great tools are meant to be used by great craftsmen. That plane was not for me, and I should not have owned it simply to keep it hidden away. It was a painful and expensive lesson to learn, but I know now that I should have had greater respect for the tool and its creator. Such respect did not mean allowing the tool to be idle.”

It would appear that the Japanese seem to be believe that tools have a spirit of their own. They are created to be used.

The master craftsmen who make great tools are highly respected in Japan. Their craft comes down from the lineage of Samurai sword makers who shifted to making tools once the age of the Samurai warriors ended and the demand for their swords declined dramatically.

Japanese toolmakers still use many of the principles learnt from sword making including the technique of laminating hard and soft steel to produce a hard but easy to sharpen blade.

Many years later when Odate had become a famous shokunin in America he learnt about the famous blacksmith called Chiyozuru-Sadahide of Miki City, Japan, and wished to buy his blades for hand planes.  When initially approached, Chiyozuru-Sadahide refused to make the blades for someone whom he thought was a rich collector in America. Only when he was told of Odate and his reputation as a shokunin, did the old master blacksmith agree to make the blades.

Odate learnt that Chiyozuru-Sadahide was very old and these were probably the last blades he would make. Eventually, Odate received three beautifully crafted blades from Japan.

This time, Odate writes, “I know and respect the true value of the tools, and I am very different from the na├»ve youth I once was. Of course, I still believe that tools are forged to be used fully, but planes like Chiyozuru-Sadahide’s , while not worn physically, will be used to the fullest extent spiritually.“

Reading about Odate’s experience made me realise how cavalier we are with most of our possessions, not just tools. We cram our lives with loads of useless or little used objects and spend more time dusting and cleaning them than using them. There is something to be learnt from the simplicity of Japanese attitudes and approach to the craft of the shokunin.

Indranil Banerjie
19 August 2014

Comments

  1. This was a nice read. Thanks for digging this information out and sharing it with us. There's something always to learn from the Japanese.

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  2. hi Indranil,
    It was interesting read with a different opinion. With a world population of more than 7 billion, we can't get everyone to agree on same idea. Personally, I'm radical to this thinking. So, its only after you start using a tool you master it. It is the craftsmen who are to be respected, not the tool. A wise man once said, given six hours to chop a tree he would rather sharpen the blade for first five hours, meaning he fixes the tools to his needs and then use it.
    We can live in disagreement, for me, I'll then stay away from these tool makers can't see a master in a learner.

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