Kawakami Shingo on the Enduring Spirit of Japanese Handmade Crafts

&ASIAN sits down with Kawakami Shingo, a craftsperson featured in Japan House London’s exhibition The Carpenters’ Line: Woodworking Heritage in Hida Takayama, to discuss sustaining a 1,300 years-old tradition.
All photos: © Maddie Armstrong for &ASIAN. Please do not repost without crediting.
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Kawakami Shingo on the Enduring Spirit of Japanese Handmade Crafts

Nice to meet you, Kawakami-san. Please share all of the ways you self-identify!

I was born on the 7th of April, 1983 and studied architecture at university. In 2013, I joined Nissin Furniture Crafters, and their development team the next year. Alongside my main work of researching and developing wooden furniture, I was involved in the restoration of fittings and fixtures at Honmaru Palace of Nagoya Castle, along with other cultural properties such as Shokoji Temple. In addition to my continued work on furniture design and restoration, I have begun to research, develop, and produce kumiko [wooden latticework screens/panels that are hand-constructed without the use of fastening hardware].

As for my hobbies, I don’t really have any in particular but if I had to pick something, I enjoy sharpening blades. When concentrating on sharpening the blades of kitchen knives or planes, I feel like my senses are being sharpened alongside the blade. I often lose track of the time and can spend hours lost in it.

What does this identity represent for you?

In my work, the most important thing to me is to not lie to myself. When it comes to woodworking processes, which are constructed of many small parts such as kumiko, fundamentally you don’t use any machinery. Because of this, the techniques and the personality of the woodworker - such as how careful or how fastidious they are - are directly reflected onto the product. Restoration work is the same: the final product will vary depending on who is working on it. I think that therein lies the real appeal and the true value of a creation.

As I am employed by my company, any work that we do has to make a profit: work speed and efficiency are often desired above carefulness. If you choose to abandon all sense of fastidiousness and produce a large number of easily made items, then it would be easier to turn a profit. Japanese people right now tend to want things that are cheap. And because handcrafted creations are expensive, it is no surprise that there is a small demand for them. 

I’ve loved precise and minute work ever since I was small, and I’m aware that this is an expression of who I am. So if I lie to myself and drop this fastidiousness that I hold dear, then I think what I create will lose its value. In my creative process, even if what I make can’t be sold cheaply, I still believe that it has value and will one day meet someone who understands that value.

As a master woodworking craftsperson, how were you first introduced to woodworking as a path, and do you remember the first ever piece you made?

The first thing I ever made was a little bookcase in elementary school. I've had an attention to detail ever since I was small and had a personality where I could lose myself in concentrating on one thing. I think that this is what led me here to this job in Hida, surrounded by nature and woodworking, which requires a precise and steady hand.

What were your feelings and thoughts the first time you fully executed the Kumiko process from beginning to end?

Anyone can make kumiko as long as they are attentive towards appearances. However, it’s easy for the overall appearance of kumiko to look unbalanced unless the finer parts are carefully crafted. There aren’t many jobs like woodworking where you’re making adjustments to 1000ths of a millimetre, so the blades for your planes and other tools need to be sharp enough in order to accomplish this. 

When I first made kumiko, my blade sharpening skills were still rather poor, so rather than feeling satisfied at finishing it, I instead felt more despondent at the immaturity of my abilities.

In your panel discussion with Japan House London, you mention the kumiko lattice motif as a Shinto religious reference but also as a product of respect for nature and the Japanese culture of not wanting to waste. What do you think the rest of the world can take away (or learn) from these concepts?

Naturally, each country has its own culture, so I don’t think there’s a necessity to force oneself to learn something. I also don’t think that the Japanese way of seeing things is necessarily always correct. What is important is to be aware that there are cultures different from that of your own country, to accept this, and sublimate this fact within yourself. 

Even with kumiko, it is said that the technique originated in China before merging with Japanese culture to become the kumiko we know today. Instead of focusing too much on learning, I think that feeling and experiencing things around you fully will influence your future actions. 

In Nara and Kyoto, we see many of the famous shrines and temples built by Hida craftspeople. With craft evolution overlapping with religious structures, how would you say the development of Hida craft has changed from the 8th century to the 21st century?

This is just my personal opinion, but I doubt that any of those people that we call “the masters of Hida” who worked on various buildings in the past believed that they had mastered their craft. I think that this is the reason why they were constantly challenging themselves and why there has been the continuous development of various techniques right until the present.

I think it’s possible to say that woodworking techniques have developed alongside their tools. Regarding religion, I think that it is fundamentally a universal thing, so the attitudes towards that haven’t changed between the past and now. Essentially, I believe that woodworking techniques in Japan have developed up to the present day as a coexistence between an unchanging spirit (in religions such as Shinto) and constantly changing new ideas (which come from the evolution of tools and machines). 

Does your work refer to this history, and do you believe this history translates across to furniture? How can we strike a balance between our past and the future in craft language?

I look at old documents and old creations and think about them in my own way, and put in my own efforts to finally be able to create works that I am satisfied with. Thinking about it in this way, I think that my creations reflect the past.

Additionally, although there are more machines being used now to make various parts, the actual joins (in particular a type of join called ほぞ, “hozo”) are the same as those used in the wooden architecture of the past. In other words, although production has increased thanks to machinery, these important connecting joints aren’t something that can only be made with machinery: they’re almost completely unchanged from how they were made in the past. Thinking about this, I think woodworking in Japan balances the techniques of the past and present.

How is the process of your restoration projects different to the work you do at Nissin Furniture Crafters? 

The main work I do at Nissin Furniture Crafters is developing furniture and producing their plans. In regards to my restoration work, I’m not just restoring and repairing how they simply look, I’m also restoring the shape of the original joints. Developing furniture is the creation of something new, whereas restoring cultural properties is the recreation of things of the past. 

If I had to pick, I would say that I prefer my work restoring cultural properties. You can’t usually touch cultural properties, much less deconstruct them. However, when restoring them, you need to recreate the techniques of the period they were made in, and in order to work out how to do this, you need to deconstruct them and see how it’s all put together. Even with different creations made in the same time period, there may be differences in construction depending on the region, or you may get to see the techniques of the craftsperson of the time; there are so many new discoveries from these old constructions and every time it’s refreshing and fun.

You spoke of how competition between Japanese woodworkers brought more intricate details into kumiko craft. For yourself, do you find competition helpful?

Again, this is my own personal opinion: because there are so many craftspeople in Japan who are both confident in their skills and have a strong sense of pride, rather than acknowledge their peers, there are many people who instead want to prove that they are superior. In regards to woodworking in particular, not only is a certain level of expertise required to make many things, the personalities of many craftspeople manifests in a desire to, after seeing someone make something that you yourself cannot, try and make it for yourself. As a result of this, competition naturally arises. 

If there’s a disadvantage to this, I think that it is easy to arbitrarily set your own limits after seeing someone who possesses a far higher level of expertise than you. To prevent this, the only thing you can do is to continually polish your own skills for your whole life.

What are your thoughts on CNC (i.e. automated machining) or other newer technologies around woodworking? Do you think convenience is the enemy of authenticity and tradition?

I think that the convenience of machinery is undeniable. We can now create extremely precise parts out of metals that we could not achieve by hand, resulting in ever smaller products. Due to the physical properties of wood however, even with the current incredible development of machinery, there is a limit to what can be achieved with machines. Although there are many things that you can only do with machines, when it comes to woodworking there is an equal number of things that you can only do by hand.

Even if there were innovations that led to a whole variety of formerly impossible things to be achievable with machinery, I think that craftspeople in Japan would seek to develop hand-crafting methods that cannot be emulated by machines. We’re all sore losers, so I don’t think any of us wants to lose to a machine. In this way, I think that machines can be both a partner and a rival.

Being a part of The Carpenters’ Line exhibition alongside many amazing craftspeople, each with their own established styles and ways of working, what is one thing you learned from them that you will take back to your practice?

It has been a really invigorating experience seeing works from people who work in different fields to me. If I’m perfectly honest, I can’t say that I was moved by every single piece that I saw, but because I believe that technology develops in a flexible manner as it takes in various new elements, it’s an exciting prospect to think there may be a hint there somewhere in how to further develop my own expertise. 

There is no clear answer on what it may be or in what manner it can be implemented into your own work, but I think there is something to learn and to utilise from the work of every craftsperson.

Our last question is for fun! What is your favourite chair? (It can be one of your own.)

I don’t have a chair in particular that I’d say is my favourite. There are many famous chairs designed by renowned architects and designers, but I prefer a chair that has been made on its own by a no-name craftsperson. When you have a chair made in a small workshop by one person, you can directly talk to the person who made it. Hearing about the process of making the chair, even if it has small imperfections, I start to take a shine to it. 

Rather than a chair that’s become famous in a world so far removed from mine, I feel like I can grow more attached to a chair when it’s closer at hand, and I know about the background behind its creation.

Special thanks to Japan House for facilitating this interview and its translation.
The Carpenter’s Line: Woodworking Heritage in Hida Takayama is on show at Japan House London from the 29th of September, 2022 to the 29th of January, 2023. Admission is free, timed bookings are recommended here.
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