Shokunin: The Spirit of an Artisan
The word can be translated as craftsman, artisan, tradesman, worker, or workman. Yet, the literal translation is not sufficient to transport its full meaning – as with many Japanese words.
Shokunin are a people who love their craft and work, have high work moral and discipline. They repeat the same processes over and over. They are proud of their work and try to improve (改善, kaizen) constantly and strive for perfection. They are aware that they’ll never reach perfection, but follow its path nevertheless for their whole life.
Whatever is rightly done, however humble, is noble.
Japanese culture embodies what it means to take pride in every aspect of one’s work, regardless of what activity one is engaged in. People take pride in their work, even for the simplest of tasks or menial occupations in Japan. Visitors to Japan can see and feel the result of this dedication everywhere. Everything is clean, orderly, made with care and everybody is on time, friendly, and helpful.
From the moment they wake, they dedicate themselves to the perfection of whatever it is that they pursue.
This is called shokunin kishitsu (職人気質), the spirit of a true artisan.
It is the opposite approach to work as we have in Western countries. People here are driven by upward mobility, thrive to earn more and more money, achieving titles, and getting promotions. If this means stopping doing what one loves, so be it. The loyalty to an employer is low, and the average duration of a job is 4 years. Dedication to a profession is rare, and low work is seen with pity or even disgust.
Traditional shokunin work as farmers during the summer and collect materials from their area. In winter, when their fields are covered with snow, they pursue their craft as shokunin. These highly qualified artisans, whose families passed down the production process over generations, specialize in one particular area of craftsmanship. The repetition of the craft is not only done by each individual artisan, but stretches over generations. They work together with other families to improve the community. Each family might only produce one part of the production process for a final product.
What makes the work of a shokunin different from that of an artist, is that such one-time
creations are really the result of endless repetitions of splitting, planing and so on. It is not
just from practice of my own lifetime, but from the experience handed down to me from my ancestors
in a perpetual line of accumulated wisdom from ancient times.
Sachiko Matsuyama writes in Shokunin and Devotion1 that she sometimes takes guests with her when she visits shokunin studios. They often ask how long it takes to make a piece. The shokunin, who is sometimes annoyed by this question, replies,
Shokunin and Taoism
I think that shokunin kishitsu has its roots in the Taoist philosophy. Japan was influenced by two major religions, by Shintoism (神道, Shintō) and Buddhism (仏教, Bukkyō). The latter is influenced by Confucianism (儒教, Jukyō) and Taoism (道教, Dōkyō).
The Tao Te King describes the wise person as somebody who does the job, completes it effortless, and stays humble about the result.
(…) It does its work but claims no merit. Because it claims no merit, merit is never lacking in
it. (…) When the work is done and the task complete the people will say:
It just happened.
Zhuangzi describes in his story of The Dexterous Butcher the difference between a mediocre, a good and a masterful craftsman:
A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.
He describes how the shokunin butcher knows every part of the animal, every bone, muscle, and tendon and his knife glides between them and everything falls apart magically. This is the description of a person who brought the art of their craft to perfection.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
The term shokunin was popularized by the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It is about Jiro Ono, born 1925 (now 98 years old), who started working in a restaurant at the age of 7. He became a qualified sushi chef at the age of 26, and opened in 1965 his sushi restaurant called Sukiyabashi Jiro in Ginza subway station, Tokyo, Japan. He has three Michelin Stars and still works every day in his restaurant.
The restaurant is tiny and has seats for 10 people. The menu has 20 courses and costs at least 30,000 yen (€200), no appetizer or menu dishes are available. Barack Obama called his meal there the best sushi he had ever had.2
Jiro’s talent is to create incredible sushi, and has been doing so for 50 years.
Shokunin try to get the highest quality fish and apply their technique to it. We don’t care about
money. All I want to do is make better sushi. I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by
bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top
but no one knows where the top is. Even at my age, after decades of work I don’t think I have
achieved perfection. But I feel ecstatic all day I love making sushi. That’s the spirit of the
shokunin. When to quit? The job that you’ve worked so hard for? I never once hated this job. I
fell in love with my work and gave my life to it. Even though I’m 85 years old I don’t feel like
retiring. That’s how I feel.
The apprenticeship in his restaurant is difficult and lasts 10 years. It starts with the preparation of hot cloths for customers and ends with the preparation of tamago (egg omelet) in the 10th year. One apprentice tells how it took him 200 tries before he got the perfect tamago. The chefs that complete this training receive the title of shokunin by Jiro Ono.
I was always fascinated by art and craftsmanship since I remember. My great uncle was a carpenter, my grandfather was a carpenter and civil engineer, my uncle is a civil engineer, and my father learned to be a toolmaker.
My grandfather made sure I was exposed to craftsmanship early on, I remember having a children’s workshop with metal tools for drilling, carving, sawing, and sanding with wood. A wooden sword, I crafted and painted for my uncle’s initiation as a president of the local Lion’s Club, is still hanging on the wall of his office today.
As a web developer, I create digital crafts, but the philosophy and care is the same as with physical objects, using digital tools. I have multiple websites I work on to improve my craft, I constantly re-create them with new tools or new designs. One website is in its 9th iteration (1999) and another in its 4th (2006).
I found it always strange meeting web developers that don’t have any websites or that aren’t concerned with the web. It’s like meeting a librarian who doesn’t read or a carmaker who doesn’t drive a car. I enjoy trying new techniques, libraries, and tools. I enjoy integrating tools into my workflow that speed me up or make the work more enjoyable. I tinker around with the Terminal, Neovim or the TMUX terminal multiplexer, learn new programming languages like Lua and enjoy learning the latest things in the CSS styling language.
The Search for Shokunin
Even though my craft is digital, I love observing any craft made with care, no matter if physical or digital. I enjoy buying well-made physical things, like my Traveler’s Notebooks or my French Laguiole en Aubrac pocket knife.
Over the years, I found countless examples of the shokunin spirit, before I even knew the word. The following is a collection of things that I think express the spirit of shokunin.
Bonsai Releaf is one of the most fascinating Bonsai YouTube channels I know. Each video is the work of months or even years of preparation.
The presentation is made with such care, I rewatch the videos sporadically for relaxation. Everything is incredible, from the planning and sketching to the final tree. The artist uses professional camera techniques, depth of field, macro shots, time-lapse, and music.
The Last Artisans of Japan
The Varis Japan Story
Shokunin: Japanese Arts and Crafts Across Borders
Shokunin: Japanese Arts and Crafts Across Borders is a documentary series with 10 standalone episodes. Each episode showcases a different art or craft, such as shamisen making, kimono dressing, wood joinery, and hand tattooing.
Shokunin Series by Rachel and Jun
This 9 minute long documentary shows the craft of Japanese woodwork. Japanese woodwork is known to create houses, furniture, and other wooden objects without the use of iron nails or glue. The wood parts are fitted perfectly to be stuck together like a puzzle.
The wooden designs of Karakuri Box are based on a 120-year-old traditional craft of “secret boxes” made in the Hakone Odawara region of Japan. Each box has a different design and way of opening. Even the smallest boxes might take a puzzle master five minutes to open.
The company has a club program that automatically sends each Christmas season a new box puzzle to a member. You can pick out of the currently ten craftsmen for your present.
The YouTube channel has plenty of videos presenting the designs (including solutions).
Irezumi – Japanese Tattoo
Since I first saw Japanese tattoos in a Yakuza movie, I’ve been obsessed with the art form and bought several art books on the topic.
One of the most renowned tattoo artists is Horiyoshi III, Japans undisputed tattoo master. The tattoo motives are not random, but symbolize religious or mythic stories and have a long history. The art form was submitted over many generations of tattoo masters.
The Reluctant Master
The Reluctant Master is a short documentary about Sasuke, one of Japan’s well-known blacksmith brands. Yasuhiro Hirakawa is the master of a 22 generation old tradition leading back to ancient times when his predecessors crafted guns for Japanese Daimyō (Warlords). For the last 5 generations since 1867, they have produced knives and gardening scissors, where the most expensive items can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars. A second short documentary shows him creating a $35,000 Bonsai Scissor.
Crafting a Traditional Japanese Noh Mask
Noh is a traditional Japanese theater art with a legacy that dates back to the 14th century. It often draws from traditional literature and often involves the supernatural, with masks playing an important role in the performance.
In this short documentary Mitsue Nakamura carefully crafts each mask from Japanese cypress, cutting and chiseling it to create the nose, lips, and eyes. She then applies coating and lacquers, mixing a concoction of seashell powder and rice glue. Pigments are hand-blended and the teeth are blackened in a practice known as ohaguro, which has been around since the 8th century.
Atelier (the original title is Underwear, but changed for the Western market to Atelier) is a brilliant Netflix TV Mini Series from Japan. It’s one of my favorite Japanese TV Shows. N
The story follows a young lady who is a “fabric geek.” She manages to get the rare position of an apprentice in the Atelier of a famous lingerie designer and has to work through a hard training to become a shokunin at her art. I love recommending this TV Show to people for its fine depiction of Japanese craftsmanship and culture.
Chef’s Table (2015–) is an Emmy-nominated documentary following the best Chefs in the world. Each episode is a carefully crafted biography of the presented Chef with fantastic cinematography and beautiful music. N
Abstract: The Art of Design (2017–) is an ongoing documentary TV Show on Netflix that shows the craft of world-famous designers, illustrators, architects and interior designers, and photographers. N
Japan has a category of TV Shows, I’ve never seen before. I would call it a Docudrama. They have several fantastic shows that connect a beautiful story with the skillful presentation of Japanese craftsmanship.
Midnight Diner is one of the best examples of this kind. The TV Show is so good, it has two TV Shows: Midnight Diner (2009–2014) and NMidnight Diner: Tokyo Stories (2016-2019) and a NKorean and Chinese Spin-off.
It is a beautiful drama about a diner that opens at midnight and closes at seven in the morning. Each episode tells the story of one of its guests. Just beautiful! And each time, a specific Japanese dish is the focus of the story, and its creation is shown.
Samurai Gourmet (2017) is the second TV Show of this format (I know of). The story follows the recently retired Takeshi who discovers his culinary passion in restaurants around his town while following an imaginary Samurai. N
The third TV Show of this format is Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman (2017). The story follows a salaryman who works extra fast to have time to take time off his job and to try different sweets around his town. N
Thermae Romae Novae
Thermae Romae Novae (2022) is a TV Show of the most unusual kind. The Anime follows a proud ancient Roman bath architect who starts falling into his baths and travels through time to modern Japan’s bathhouses. At the end of each episode follows an extra documentary of a few minutes showing the Anime creator visiting different Japanese bath houses where the owners proudly present their ancient baths and the individual specialties. N
Prime Japan: Nihon no kokoro ni deau (2016–2017) is one of the best made documentaries on the pursuit of “Japan’s heart” I’ve ever seen. In 12 episodes, different Japanese themes as Sushi, Ramen, Japanese Design, Tea, or Japanese Swords are explored in detail. Unfortunately, the show is currently not available anywhere for streaming or even for sale. P
The Great Shokunin
As my final example, I present Takuya Matsuyama, an indie app developer from Osaka, Japan. He develops the Markdown note-taking app Inkdrop. I include him in this list because I think he presents a modern digital version of a shokunin.
His well-made YouTube videos on his channel devaslife attracted in less than 4 years over 160,000 subscribers.
As he is not a native English speaker, he found a brilliant way to teach other people development without speaking. He rarely speaks, but types the instructions as custom designed chat messages while recording his screen. Each video takes him a very long time to create, but he leaves errors and mistakes intentionally included in his videos because they are a natural part of the software development process.
The silent videos with surrounding noises and the clicking of the keys from his mechanical keyboard deliver an ASMR sensation.
I hope this short reflection of my thoughts of shokunin kishitsu will help the one or other person to see work and profession in a different light or to admire things made well more. A society that is centered around cheaply made, quickly exchanged goods needs this old, Japanese philosophy.
Sachiko Matsuyama (2018): Shokunin and Devotion, https://www.kyotojournal.org/culture-arts/shokunin-and-devotion/. ↩
Miller, Zeke J (2014): Barack Obama Just Ate The Best Sushi In The World, https://time.com/73570/barack-obama-just-ate-the-best-sushi-in-the-world/. ↩