Saturday, February 5, 2011

Finding the Dōgu - the Way of Tools

There is an online article written by Dave Lowry addressing the tools of the traditional Japanese craftsman.  In the article was a story of an old hermit woodcutter that died in the 1950's.  Among his possessions was found a yellowed slip of paper with the woodcutter's last wishes simply written down.  Dave recounts the hermit's desires for his most cherished tool:

"I have called this axe Hige-giri ('Beard-cutter')," read the paper. "I hope, when I die, it will be loved and used by one who truly appreciates its qualities." The note concluded, "I have nothing in life worth a thing except for this excellent axe. But then again, with an axe such as this, how much in life does one need?"

There is a strong connection in the traditional Japanese culture between the shokunin, or master craftsman, his tools, and his work.  And through his work he is strongly connected with his community. Toshio Ōdate describes it this way:

"The shokunin has a social obligation to work his best for the general welfare of the people.  This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, if society requires it, the shokunin's responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.  The relationship of a shokunin to his tools is therefore very close, for it is through the tools that the work of the shokunin is created.  Each of the shokunin's tools is his life and pride." (Introduction, "Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit, and Use" The Taunton Press, 1984)

There is a profound lesson in simplicity, contentment, and humility in considering the life of the shokunin.  It is a value sadly lacking in our industrially bred, consumer fed society, and I would suggest we all suffer because of it.

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