Traditional Craft, Crisis or ... ?
As a worker in the field of traditional Japanese crafts, one of the most common things I hear from visitors to my workshop is, "Isn't it a pity that wonderful crafts like this are dying out nowadays." We sometimes tend to view traditional crafts as being superior to modern ways of doing things, but I have to wonder about this. I am sure that the craftsmen of old did not view their work in special terms. I think that they were simply people 'doing a job'. Whether they were potters, straw sandal makers, temple carpenters, or even woodblock printmakers like me, they simply got up each morning, had their breakfast, and started work, just like we do today. They made products needed by their society. But over the course of the years, as times changed, demand for various commodities fell, and that for others rose. The wheel turns - it never stops turning. Various ways of doing things arise, flourish for a time, and then fade away - naturally.
If this is indeed the normal course of events, then we should not really be so concerned with the passing of traditional crafts. We should not cry, "It's such a shame!" when we hear of a master craftsman with no apprentices by his side learning the trade. The young people who could have been his apprentices are all off busy creating new ways of doing things, as young people should. Edo-era crafts cannot possibly have much relevance in a Heisei-era world.
Even as we accept this though, another point of view remains. Think of our musician friends, busy creating modern forms of music: rock, jazz and pop, but also still making room for listening to Mozart. In this case, the modern has not displaced the old, but simply stands beside it. It seems that our society is quite capable of sparing some of its resources for the purpose of preserving these traditions.
But this can only be true for as long as there is an audience for them. If people continue to buy recordings of Mozart's music, traditional musicians will continue to play it, thus preserving the tradition. As long as people choose hand-made dishes for their table, potters will be happy to continue to create them. It comes down to a simple equation: if you value such things, then you must make use of them in your daily life. If you do not, then the wheel will indeed turn full circle, and they will disappear as a matter of course.
The choice is yours to make. It is not we the craftsmen, but you the consumers, who will decide which crafts will survive. We are waiting, our skills ready to be at your service. Our future is in your hands.
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Colourful woodblock prints - for people all over the world, to hear this phrase is to think of Japan. Japan has a long history of woodblock printing, or hanga, originally for illustrations for books. By the late seventeenth century, hanga in the ukiyo-e style came into its own as an art form, and prints came to be appreciated on their own merits. The many woodblock prints that accurately depict life in the Edo period are excellent examples of this tradition. Whether a print of a geisha, a kabuki actor strutting on stage, or even a completely modern image, the woodblock printing technique seems to provide the perfect means of expression to capture the essence of things Japanese. (1998)
Woodblock craftsman combines old, new
Day after day, David Bull sits in his workroom almost all day long using his energy to make hanga or woodblock prints. His workroom, housed in his four-story house standing on the side of a riverbank in Ome, Tokyo, has yet to be completed because he is building the room himself by taking time from his busy production schedule. (2004)
Recapturing Edo Images
Squatting in front of a photocopy of an ukiyo-e print in the light from a 50-watt bulb, David Bull puts his carving knife carefully to a block of cherry wood. Under his blade, the image of an elaborately robed Heian minister slowly begins to emerge. "The hardest thing about making woodblock prints is the carving of intricate lines - you have to be able to use your knife like a brush in order to do justice to the fine lines," Bull says. (1989)