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Shokunin vs Craftsman

During the seven years that I have been living here in Japan and studying woodblock printmaking, I have visited many shokunin and have enjoyed long discusions with them about their life and work. I have been surprised by many of the things they have said, and have come to realize that their thinking is sometimes quite different from my Western conceptions of a craftsman.

Let me tell you about a Westerner's idea of a 'craftsman'. The following images immediately come to mind: an experienced, skilled worker ... someone methodical, who slowly and carefully crafts his products ... patient ... willing to take as much time as necessary to produce quality work ... carefully, carefully! I can imagine English readers of this newsletter nodding their heads in general agreement. But when we stop our Japanese 'man on the street' and ask him about his concept of a 'shokunin', what do we get? 'An experienced, skilled worker ... someone with a deep knowledge of his tools ... able to work with incredible speed ... to turn out quality work ...' Now it is my Japanese readers who are nodding. If I as a Westerner hear a story about say, a guitar maker in Spain who takes a year to carefully build each instrument, I am lost in admiration. To a Japanese shokunin, this is inconceivable, and to him it is a horrible insult to be thought of as a slow worker.

As someone who was raised in Western thinking, and who is now trying to work as a craftsman in Japan, the situation for me is thus somewhat schizophrenic. The question is not really one of simply speed, but rather one of 'intellectual involvement'. We Westerners obviously like to work with our 'brain', analyzing, calculating, and controlling every step of the process. The Japanese perhaps like to bypass this organ, and allow the body and muscles (well-trained) to do the work more 'naturally'. The same thing is apparent in the way we learn things. I want to inspect, study and analyze the process. I want to 'figure it out'. The Japanese seem to learn by osmosis, by rubbing shoulders with a skilled practitioner. I am reminded of the Japanese shakuhachi teacher who stopped accepting any more Western students. "They ask too many questions," he cried!

I have learned most of what I know about printmaking by working alone and trying to 'figure it out'. Of course I have had occasional help from people in the field, but my approach has been by and large 'analytical'. I am now beginning to realize that I will probably not be able to improve much further this way. My carving is now 'correct', the lines all in the right places, the right thickness. My printing is just as 'correct', smooth colours, neatly fitted within those lines. This is not enough. Perhaps my collectors are happy with what they see, but I can see more. Or perhaps it is more correct to say I don't see .. and what I don't see is 'life' ... motion. My carved lines don't dance across the page.

The solution is obvious. Time. Time spent with experienced craftsmen shokunin. Listening to the sounds of their work. Breathing the same air as they, and drinking the same o-sake. Simply sitting in the same room. And not asking questions! And if I can do more of this, then perhaps one day sometime in the future, I too can stop analyzing, and start dancing!

TV Listings

The 'Woodblock Shimbun' has a full selection of TV programs on file. Videos available include some of David's news appearances, complete feature programs, and some short documentaries on his work. The files are in QuickTime format, and can be easily viewed with your browser.
Program listings are on the Index page ...

In the wake of Hokusai

From behind his shaggy beard, affable British-born Canadian woodblock printmaker David Bull ended our interview at his studio in western Tokyo with what sounded like a challenge ... (2008)
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A Traditional Woodblock Printer

Surrounded by carving tools, brushes and bowls of pigment, he spends hours absorbed in the exacting work that has become both a passion and a ten-year project. A Canadian who moved to Tokyo in 1986, David Bull has made an extensive effort to learn and practice woodblock printmaking as it was mastered in Edo-era Japan. He is currently producing a series of woodblock prints using designs by the famous Ukiyo-e artist Katsukawa Shunsho. The theme is the 100 poets of old Japan (Hyakunin Isshu) and in four years he has completed 40 of them. He expects to finish the collection in 1998. (1992)
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13 Another Lucky Number

David Bull is as insistent as he is stubborn. No sooner has he sat me down beside his workbench (the only warm room in the house), with younger daughter Fumi (16) creating a Web page on the computer on top of the "kotatsu," than he is demanding how much I know about "hanga" (woodblock prints). "Hanga were never made to be framed and hung on walls," he states. "Premodern Japan had no such tradition. Prints were objects, not images, to be looked at in natural light. The best way for the art of the craftsman to be appreciated is in your hands, at a window." (2002)
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