Extinction @ Handcrafts

Japan is a fascinating place, and never ceases to surprise us. This is a fantastic article on changes in society and culture in Japan, how our future is being shaped by the modernized ways of lifestyle and easy living. The mechanics of machines and lost traditions being replaced by modern materials. The author is Shiono Yonematsu, a contributor to Tokyo Foundation and take the time to read it.

How was Japan transformed from a nation of artisans into a nation of mass-producers and mass-consumers and what have the Japanese lost in the process? In the first article of a three-part series, the author describes the great extinction that wiped out cottage industries all across Japan in the decades following World War II.

Before discussing the extinction of the handicrafts and hand trades in Japan, I should first explain what I mean by those terms. My discussion is not limited to such traditional decorative arts as lacquering, woodcarving, ceramics, weaving, and dyeing but covers all the trades in which people rely primarily on their own hands and bodies to fashion goods for practical use. This includes the manufacture of everyday household items like colanders, buckets, and barrels, as well as such diverse trades as boat building, thatching, plastering, metalworking, and furniture making.

A Japanese woodworker uses the traditional tools of his trade in a photograph taken in the early years of the Meiji era (1868–1912). The furniture, boxes, and other objects such master craftsmen created were works of art by today's standards. (Courtesy of the Open University of Japan Library)

Skilled manual trades of this sort have been dying out for a very long time, and people have been lamenting their death for just as long. In the Meiji era (1868–1912), the renowned sculptor Takamura Koun commented to his son, the poet Takamura Kotaro, on the disappearance of handwork since the end of the Edo period (1603–1867). He was looking back over a career in which he had reached the summit of success only after years of grueling training under the apprenticeship system that was common to all Japan’s traditional arts, crafts, and manual trades.

After the Meiji restoration, the numerous cottage industries that had flourished during the Edo period fell victim to the national goal of developing industry to build up economic and military strength and catch up with the West. And the trend only accelerated as time went on. In the Taisho era (1912–26), people looked back nostalgically on the craftsmanship of the Meiji era, and in the Showa era (1926–89), they lamented the disappearance of the kind of hand work their parents and grandparents had taken for granted.


Be that as it may, the decline of the skilled hand trades accelerated dramatically in the period of social transformation following World War II. The causes of the change were many. In the new postwar world, people who followed in their parents’ footsteps and took over the family business were regarded as behind the times. The authority of the patriarch had been weakened, and the old apprenticeship system was labeled as feudalistic. People were abandoning their rural towns and villages and moving to the cities in droves. Changes in people’s lifestyles and livelihoods drove changes in the goods and tools they used, and these changes in turn undermined the ethic and ideals that had supported the hand trades.

Then again, to some extent, it was probably the other way around.

I was born in 1947 in the small castle town of Kakunodate  in Akita Prefecture. Culturally, the town was at least a decade behind Tokyo. This is not to say that the people were uneducated or uncultivated, only that it took that long for the latest trends in consumer culture to find their way to our town from the city. The nation was not nearly as uniform as it is today, and one could still find in the countryside an older Japan that had ceased to exist in the cities. The scenery, lifestyle, and attitudes were those that had grown out of the local geography, climate, and history.

When I was a young boy, many of the traditional trades still survived in my town. In the commercial section of town, which consisted of about 30 buildings, there was a blacksmith, a caterer, a tailor, a fish merchant, a seller of koji (mold for fermentation), a carpenter, a stonecutter, a cooper, a barber, a wooden sandal maker, a sake brewer, a tofu maker, and a sushi shop. The neighboring town had traditional artisans specializing in cherry bark, carved wood, and lacquer, as well a tinsmith, a sawyer, and a horse-shoer. This is also what a typical Japanese town had looked like at the beginning of the Showa era. In our part of the country, very little had changed.


In 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, I was a second-year high school student, and in 1965 I left to attend college in Tokyo. Around that time, things began to change rapidly  in my hometown. The blacksmith disappeared, the caterer died, and the cooper closed down because there was no one to take over the business. The sandal maker’s shop turned into a shoe store, and the tailor retired and went to live with his son, who had become a schoolteacher.

When I had graduated from middle school in 1962, my class of baby-boomers filled eight classrooms of more than 50 students each. Approximately half of those graduates were recruited by urban firms and migrated en masse to Tokyo. A few of my classmates became apprenticed to carpenters or plasterers as in the old days, but it was already unusual by that time.

The young people from my town were snapped up by expanding Tokyo-area factories and retailers greedy for labor. In the postwar cultural climate, hand trades were already regarded as backward. Moving to the city to work in a factory or office was the thing to do. There one could earn money without getting one’s hands dirty and buy new things with the money one earned. This was what it meant to be modern.

From that time on, the hand trades disappeared at a breathtaking pace.

There were always cold, hard economic reasons for the extinction of a trade.

One was the disappearance of the natural resources on which such trades generally depended for materials. Another was a lack of human resources to do the manual work such labor-intensive trades required. In some cases, the simple but specialized tools and other equipment the artisan relied on became impossible to obtain because no one making them any more.

But the most basic reason was that demand for the hand-made items produced by these cottage industries had declined sharply.


For centuries the only goods and tools that people used were crafted by hand. Then factories began to churn out comparable objects cheaply, in large numbers. Given a choice between a hand-made bamboo colander and a mass-produced plastic one, people chose the plastic because it was cheap, looked nice, and was easy to care for. It dried so quickly that there was no need to wipe or air it after use. Furthermore, people found the bright colors attractive. The splash of unaccustomed color these plastics brought into Japanese homes must have impressed everyone as quintessentially modern.

Farmers began buying hoes and other implements mass-produced in factories instead of having them made to order. Since they were tailored neither to the soil in one’s field nor to one’s own body type, they were a bit harder to use, but they were so much cheaper that people decided to adapt themselves to the implement instead of the other way around. In this case they chose price over ease of use, and this made the work itself more onerous and less enjoyable. Instead of people shaping the implements, implements shaped the people.


Boats changed from wood to fiberglass-reinforced plastic; buckets and barrels, from wood to plastic; boxes and cartons, from wicker to cardboard. Food-storage containers hand-crafted from lacquered wood or thin, curved sheets of cedar gave way to Tupperware. Virtually everything people used was transformed by the same process.

The factories that manufactured these goods employed workers who had migrated from the countryside, often the sons and daughters of tradespeople who had made a living producing similar objects by hand. Efficient mass-production robbed the goods of their individuality, but it made them cheap. And we, the users, made our choice.

When people stopped buying those hand-made goods, wholesalers and retailers stopped stocking them, and the makers themselves had no choice but to suspend production. The people who supplied those makers with materials had to find another line of business as well. All over the country, blacksmiths who had been the source of countless metal implements vanished in the blink of an eye. “The Village Blacksmith,” once sung by elementary school children throughout Japan, disappeared completely from the textbooks and was forgotten. No one even knew what a blacksmith did any more.

Formerly, the streets of Japanese towns had been lined with the shops displaying the hand-made wares of artisans and other tradespeople in their windows. Often the window provided a view of the artisan at work, allowing passers-by to inspect the quality of the materials and workmanship. As these shops closed down, the towns themselves were completely transformed.

With the disappearance of these traditional handicrafts and skilled manual trades, the Japanese people lost a way of life and a vast fund of knowledge. In the next article, I will explore these changes.

The disappearance of handicrafts and hand trades in Japan is scarcely a recent phenomenon. Although a few isolated survivors can still be found, precious few vestiges of handwork remain in our day-to-day lives.

If this means nothing more than that hand-crafted objects were replaced by mass-produced factory goods, then the loss does not seem so great, especially when one considers all the modern, convenient, durable, and inexpensive items to which we have access. But in fact, there is much more to it than that.

When hand-made objects vanished from our lives, the culture and traditions that had grown up around them vanished as well. To appreciate the extent of this loss, we need to examine the change from two perspectives, that of the producers and that of the consumers. For now, we will focus on the producers.

Traditional Japanese artisans almost invariably learned their trade through a long apprenticeship to a master. Under the totei system, an aspiring artisan would be apprenticed from an early age, generally living in the master’s house. The master was not an educator per se and did not make use of textbooks or any other teaching aids. Simply put, the apprentice learned by observing and assisting. In some cases, assistance included menial labor and household chores like cleaning, doing the laundry, and babysitting. Eventually such practices were criticized as archaic, and since the end of World War II, the system has all but died out.

Certainly the apprenticeship system can appear archaic in the light of modern educational practices. Classroom education focuses on the memorization of facts and figures via textbooks and other forms of verbal transmission. But traditional artisans and tradespeople rarely used words to transmit what they knew. The reason is that words were of almost no use in transmitting the kind of skills they possessed.


After a test run, the kiln is finally ready for charcoal burning. To better appreciate this, imagine yourself training to become a charcoal maker.

The basic steps involved in making traditional Japanese charcoal are building a kiln, cutting the wood and loading it in the kiln, firing, closing the kiln door at a particular time, and allowing the wood to rest a certain amount of time before removing it. A clay kiln is used for the softer black charcoal, a stone one for the highly prized bincho charcoal, also known as white charcoal. (The two types of coal also require slightly different treatment near the end of the process, but such details can be ignored for our purposes.)

Now, you might think it simple enough for the master to write the instructions for each step on paper for you. But because of the multitude of variables involved in each step, such written instructions would be virtually useless.

Beginning with the kiln, stone and clay vary by locale. Even in one locale, no two stones or deposits of clay are the same, and some are much better suited than others. Even if you learned the principles of building the ideal oven on paper, you could never know whether you had successfully applied those principles until you tried the oven. As a charcoal maker, you need to spot and fix problems as you go along. The proper makeup and construction of your kiln will depend on all manner of climatic and environmental factors.

Even the loading of the wood into the kiln requires the kind of know-how that comes only from experience. Like most hand trades, charcoal making is not highly profitable, so you need to produce as much charcoal as possible each time you fire up the kiln. For that purpose, you need to arrange the wood in such a way as to fit as much as possible at a time, without compromising the quality of the final product. And since no two batches of wood are the same, the arrangement will differ from one firing to the next.

After the wood is loaded and the kiln fired up, you must carefully monitor both the color of the flame and the color and smell of the smoke. The color of the flame indicates the temperature, while the color and smell of the smoke provide important indicators of changes going on within the kiln. These days there are thermometers that can record very high temperatures, but in the past, the color of the fire was the surest way to gauge the temperature regardless of the material or construction of the kiln. How the fire reaches the correct temperature is also important.

Temperatures in the kiln reach more than 1,000ºC. (Courtesy Takeshi Sumibito Kai)Temperatures in the kiln reach more than 1,000ºC.

As the carbonization process proceeds, the color and odor of the smoke gradually change. The smoke that initially pours out of the kiln is white, but it gradually turns purplish and then dwindles to almost nothing. The smell also changes, from a pleasant smoky fragrance to a sharp, acrid odor. Since the subtle differences in color and smell are impossible to describe in words, the master charcoal maker can only admonish you to memorize them. In time, after repeated failures and admonitions, you will absorb your master’s ability to distinguish those smells and colors—that or you will never learn to make charcoal. Since your master cannot bequeath you his or her eyes and nose, your only choice is to learn through example and experience.

Now let us suppose you are training to become a miya-daiku, a master carpenter who builds and repairs wooden shrines and temples. For the longest time you find yourself doing nothing but sweeping and lugging tools and lumber. You are eager to take up your tools and begin sawing and planing wood into beams and posts, but that must wait; everyone must start at the bottom, doing menial work. To begin with, the master has to show you what kind of work a carpenter does. You need to learn how to walk, move, and behave at a building site amidst sharp chisels and saws and pieces of lumber large enough to crush a person. How can you even begin to take part in the actual building before you have thoroughly familiarized yourself with the weight, texture, and smell of the wood, with carpenters’ jargon and the names of all the members and elements of a building? In the process of sweeping, carrying tools, and doing other menial jobs, you gradually gain a familiarity with the work place and acquire a visceral understanding of what it means to be a carpenter. Only then can you respond appropriately when told to do something and steer clear of countless workplace hazards.

A carpenter’s work involves shaping wood members, cutting them to measure, drilling holes in it, and joining them together, and each of these processes involves the mastery of difficult skills. Unless you know just how to wield the saw, you will wear yourself out without accomplishing anything. Even with the benefit of guidelines clearly drawn on the wood, your saw will not cut straight. When sharpening the plane, you know you need to make the blade perfectly straight and level, but in trying to correct a blade that slopes slightly to the right, you overwork it so that it instead slopes to the left. Your mind knows exactly what needs to be done, yet your hands are unable to do it. Your whole body must be trained and disciplined to do as your mind bids, and books and verbal instructions are of no use in that kind of training.

The curved, razor-sharp yariganna, or spear plane, is but one of the traditional tools that the miya-daiku must master. (Courtesy Mitsunari Sakurai)The curved, razor-sharp yariganna, or spear plane, is but one of the traditional tools that the miya-daiku must master.

When you have finally begun to get the hang of these tools, your master gives you a board and tells you to plane it flat. You carefully sharpen the blade, meticulously shave the board, and measure it to make sure it is perfectly level. You then ask your master to check your work. “What’s this?” he cries disapprovingly. “I told you to make it flat!” You’re bewildered. When you measured it with your ruler, it was perfectly level. Finally, a senior apprentice comes over and explains. You can’t rely on a ruler, he says consolingly. You have to use your own eye. A perfectly flat plane looks slightly concave to the eye, which is why a plasterer will finish his wall by creating a slight swelling in the middle. No one can tell you by how many centimeters. Only your intuitive visual judgment can tell you whether it looks flat. Cultivating this judgment is part of becoming a carpenter, but there are no words that can impart it. You must simply absorb the judgment, intuition, and sensibility of your master. In this way, you gradually learn to use the tools of your trade and distinguish between superior and inferior work.

The totei system evolved to allow the transmission of skills and understanding from person to person, body to body. Instead of cramming one’s head full of abstract knowledge, it physically imprinted the required techniques and aesthetic judgment, training one’s hands to execute and one’s eyes to discern instinctively. This was the raison d’être of the totei system, however irrational and inefficient it might appear.

The belief that it is possible to learn anything through written words, numbers, textbooks, and a teacher who explains everything patiently is an illusion. Of course, there are those who believe that one can dispense with arduous training by replacing color and smell with numerical values and by teaching machines how to perform the most technically demanding tasks. In fact, our factories are full of such sophisticated robots, which are able produce goods meeting exacting standards. And if consumers are satisfied with that, so be it.

Master carpenter Mitsunari Sakurai's skill and artistry are the products of years of arduous apprenticeship. (Courtesy Mitsunari Sakurai)Master carpenter Mitsunari Sakurai’s skill and artistry are the products of years of arduous apprenticeship. But the long process of honing one’s own skills and perceptions is not just about producing a perfect product; it is also a process of personal growth as a human being. It is only after you confront your own shortcomings, endure rebukes, and lament your own inexperience that you realize there is no substitute for tireless effort and persistence. You become committed to progress, however slow, and take satisfaction in knowing you are a little better today than you were yesterday, and will be a little better tomorrow than you are today. You keep working, you grow stronger, and you mature as a human being.

Today, sophisticated machines read the data we input and create the products we instruct them to, and that is all. We seek only speed, low cost, and efficiency. Underlying it all is a cold, mechanical, and single-minded pursuit of efficiency.

The traditional apprenticeship system, on the other hand, was a means of nurturing human beings. And that is something precious that we have lost.

Most of the materials used in the traditional handicrafts and hand trades were taken from the immediate environment. And since fine work requires fine materials, part of the body of knowledge transmitted from generation to generation was an understanding of the materials of one’s craft and how to extract or harvest them from the environment. This included strict rules regulating that process to prevent the depletion of the resources on which the trade depended.

For example, the artisans of Akita Prefecture who wove baskets and other objects from akebia vine did not begin harvesting the vine until after midsummer. By allowing the vine to grow as long as possible before cutting, they were able to maximize and conserve that resource.

There were different rules for all such materials. Bark was collected only from the rainy season (June) on. Lumber could only be cut from late autumn or winter, after the leaves had fallen and the trees’ growth had stopped, to around March the following year, before the sap began to flow. Bamboo, likewise, could only be cut in the winter, when the plants were dormant. And never was the “parent tree” cut down. This meant, in the case of akebia, cutting only the vines and leaving the trunk intact. When harvesting spicebush wood for toothpicks, one could cut the long branches, but the base was left untouched.

This ensured that the vines or the bush would grow back the following year.

When deciduous trees are cut near the base, they will usually put out tillers. If the most promising tiller is left intact, it will eventually grow back into a usable tree. In the case of the ubame oak—used in the making of fine bincho charcoal—it takes 15 to 20 years for a tree to regenerate and grow back to a size suitable for making charcoal. Japanese (nara) oak, sawtooth oak, and other trees used for black coal take about 20 years to regenerate, as does the Japanese basswood (shina) trees used to weave basswood cloth. Even if you cut down the urushi tree used for making lacquer, it will regenerate and, in about 20 years time, once again produce sap suitable for making lacquer. Japanese cedar and cypress for construction purposes take much longer. Such trees were only cut down when they were 60 to 100 years old, and then seedlings were planted in their place.

By using the forests and woodlands cyclically in this way, artisans could ensure that the supply of materials would never dry up. But such careful use of resources was based on the assumption that one’s children and grandchildren would be following in one’s footsteps. An artisan who knew that the business would end when he or she died might just as well cut down the parent tree or leave the tillers to grow as they might. In such cases, the forests would no longer serve as sources of renewable resources.

People often assume that nature can renew itself without human assistance. But the natural materials that are most useful to people need to be tended and cultivated. High-quality materials do not grow by accident. Even the miscanthus and reeds used to thatch roofs required cultivation. After they were cut, the field was burnt and fertilizer applied so that the grasses could be harvested again later. A durable thatched roof cannot be made from the kind of reeds that grow randomly by the riverside.

With the demise of handicrafts and hand trades, our view of nature changed. We lost the underlying belief that we ourselves benefit by skillfully coexisting with nature. For the Japanese, this was a huge transformation.

By changing our ideas about production, the demise of handicrafts also altered our attitudes toward education, human relations, and the environment. In the next article in this series, we will examine the repercussions of the great handicraft extinction from the standpoint of consumption.

In my previous article, I examined the impact of the great handicraft extinction on Japanese culture from the maker’s perspective. Here I will approach the topic from the standpoint of the user and the relationship between user and maker.

The changes that have swept Japanese society since the great handicraft extinction began can best be illustrated by exploring a single craft or trade. Here I will focus on blacksmiths and their relationship to farmers.

At one time almost all the metal tools people used were fashioned by local smiths, who would heat raw metal at a forge and pound it into shape with a hammer. A smith’s customers were typically farmers and artisans, but if asked, they might fashion anything from a harpoon to a kitchen kettle.

A blacksmith and his wife forge a blade, ca. 1904-05. Hand-tinted glass lantern slide printed from a half-stereoview negative. (Courtesy of Okinawa Soba)

A blacksmith and his wife forge a blade, ca. 1904-05. Hand-tinted glass lantern slide printed from a half-stereoview negative. Farmers relied on the smith for the spades and ploughs they used to till the soil, the hoes they used to cut through roots and clear the fields, and the sickles needed to harvest rice or mow hay. The smith made each implement to order, tailoring it to the farmer’s individual needs. The form of the implement and even the quality of the metal used depended on the crop for which it was intended and the quality of the soil (how rocky, the clay, sand, or ash content, and so forth). The implement’s angle, size, and weight were adapted to the individual user’s height, hand size, strength, and age. Each of these tools had a hand-wrought, functional beauty of its own.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of customizing when it comes to hand tools. Tools are extensions of the human body. Tools that are clumsy or awkward to use make every task a chore. The user tires quickly and may even be unable to complete the job to his or her satisfaction. This is no less true in agriculture than in any labor-intensive industry. Nonetheless, at some point farmers stopped buying tools from blacksmiths, and smithing ceased to exist as a viable trade.

The immediate cause of this change was the mechanization of agriculture, which rendered hand implements like spades, hoes, and sickles obsolete. With the influx of cheaper farm produce from other countries, the scale of farming in Japan expanded to reduce costs, and farmers grew increasingly reliant on labor-saving equipment that was beyond the capacity of any blacksmith.

That said, hand implements are still necessary in some situations, even today. Small-scale farms and elderly farmers unable or unwilling to keep pace with the new technology still rely on them. But, of course, the smiths have long since vanished, together with their forges, bellows, and hammers. Hand-crafted tools tailored to the individual farm and farmer are nowhere to be found.

Nowadays, if one has need of a farming or gardening implement, one drives out to the hardware superstore, where one will find a large stock of factory-made items. Needless to say, they have none of the functional beauty of their hand-made counterparts, nor have they been adapted, through a laborious process of trial and error, to a specific task or agricultural environment, let alone an individual farmer. They are manufactured to uniform specifications in order to minimize costs through mass production and mass distribution. Their appeal lies exclusively in their low price. But that appeal is so universal that today one can buy almost nothing but these cheap, standardized farm implements.

Faced with this reality, farmers have no choice but to adapt their bodies, movements, and methods of work to the implements, instead of the other way around. It is the price they pay for cheaper merchandise.

When cheap implements like these become bent or broken, they are discarded and replaced. But this was not the way farmers treated their tools in the era of the blacksmith. A custom-made implement was far too precious to throw out. If the tool wore down or was damaged, it was taken back to the blacksmith, who replaced the functional metal blade or tip. Referred to as sakigake, this service was an important aspect of a blacksmith’s work.

Repair is only worthwhile if one intends to use an object for a long period of time, and that is exactly what people did with their high-quality, custom-made tools. Farmers, artisans, and tradespeople were deeply attached to their customized tools, which allowed them to perform their own work at a high level. Such attachment to and attention to the tools of the trade was the mark of a good worker. It was an integral part of the handwork ethos.

In the case of carpenters’ tools, sakigake was generally impossible. As a consequence, a carpenter typically used a tool until there was nothing left to use, and this is why very few of the tools used by master carpenters have survived. The same was true of chefs and others who used special knives or scissors in their work. I have spoken to quite a few of Japan’s remaining artisans, and most tell me that when the tools they are using now wear out, it will be time for them to retire. Even if they have work, they cannot continue working without the traditional tools of their trade.

Of course, not all mass-produced goods are awkward and difficult to use. But the basic principles and objectives of production have changed. As a result, users’ attitudes toward the tools have changed as well. Because the tools are not tailor-made, and because they are easily replaceable, they are treated as disposable items.

The demise of the blacksmith’s trade, in other words, has changed the character of farming, obliging farmers to lower their expectations and make do with substitutes. But this phenomenon is by no means limited to farming; it has occurred in every area of life. Wherever we go, we are surrounded by substitutes, even in the foods we eat. In the wake of the great handicraft extinction, we have come to take such ersatz items for granted.

A critical difference between our contemporary world and the era of handwork is the frequency with which producers and consumers of goods meet face to face. In earlier times, someone in need of a tool would meet directly with the maker and play a part in the tool’s design. The maker would keep the user’s physique and mannerisms in mind when fashioning the tool and would meet the consumer again when delivering the final product. In fact, the makers and users of tools and other goods were members of a small, close-knit community in which ongoing dialogue was not only possible but natural.

A user who was dissatisfied with the product would take it back and ask for changes. The maker, in listening to the user’s comments and responding to them, would inevitably learn lessons that were applicable to future work. In such a society, one was bound to acknowledge and respect the viewpoint of others. And the more conscious one became of others, the more conscious one became of oneself.

In a situation where the maker and user meet face to face, business could not be conducted unless the two came to an understanding. It would have been unthinkable for makers to dictate their terms unilaterally. Dissatisfied users would take their patronage elsewhere, and the maker would lose business. In other words, in an environment where maker and user interacted face to face as the principles in a transaction, the competitive mechanism functioned effectively. Artisans were forced to perfect their craft and produce strong, durable, beautiful, and easy-to-use goods if they wished to survive. This in itself provided strong motivation for constant effort and continuous self-improvement.

In addition, as long as makers and users dealt with one another face to face, ethical standards naturally came into play, and such standards were further developed and codified in the context of the master-apprentice system and the distribution network. This was a society that shunned deception or trickery.

In our era of factories and mass consumption, the connection between makers and consumers is a vague one in which personal relationships play no role. Our awareness of others is diminished, and as a result so is our awareness of self. Individual character and regional character both dissolve into sameness. The flexible but sturdy ethical and moral standards that functioned in an environment of personal relationships have been replaced by laws that regulate rigidly and uniformly. Not only our goods but also our culture and traditions have been replaced by substitutes that lack the depth or subtlety of the originals.

We have examined some of the tangible assets that have been lost as a consequence of the great handicraft extinction. When handwork was the norm, the Japanese people lived in small, more or less self-contained communities, where people trained long and hard to acquire the complex skills and know-how of their trade, including proper care and preservation of the resources on which their work depended. The environment and the process contributed to the cultivation of character and a sense of business ethics. These were communities in which everyone, including minors, the elderly, and the disabled, had a role to play.

In a society in which no one could rise high in his or her profession except through years of hard work, those who managed to rise also came to enjoy the respect of the community. The anticipation of such respect served as an additional incentive to work hard.

Today the skills and knowledge formerly acquired through direct experience have been replaced by masses of digital data stored in computers and other electronic equipment. Today we can take electronic surrogates, load them with digital information approximating human skills and knowledge, and crank out an endless supply of goods. Anyone with the minimal skills needed to operate computer-controlled machinery can instantly produce the perfectly fitting joints that a Japanese carpenter needed years to master. The more subtle skills and knowledge that can be gained only through physical labor and long experience are considered dispensable.

Electronic equipment has all but replaced the know-how of traditional Japanese fishing, which previously relied on knowledge of ocean floor topography, wind currents, ocean currents, landmark navigation, home-made proprietary bait, and complex techniques for luring fish. On today’s fishing vessels, one has access to digital maps, satellite images, and electronic equipment that reports weather and water conditions and even the precise location of the fish.

On such a fishing vessel, an inexperienced youngster with a flare for video games would be able to master the requisite skills in no time, while an elderly Japanese fisherman with a vast store of experience-based wisdom would only be in the way.

This signifies a complete reversal from the values of traditional Japanese society, with its respect for accumulated experience.

What we have lost along with our traditional handicrafts is nothing less than our value system—including our sense of beauty, concept of nature, concern for others, and implicit belief in human dignity.

Many Japanese people find the new reality incompatible with their tastes, ideals, and preferred way of life. There are still traces of traditional Japanese culture, with its close-knit communities and its hard-working professionals, people who consider the needs of others without compromising themselves or their own high standards. But a society with antithetical values is spreading throughout the world at an alarming pace.

As human beings, we have the capacity for self-correction and the ability to build the kind of society that meets our real needs; without that ability, we could not survive. Now is the time to ask ourselves how we can lead a life of beauty and integrity in this new society. And where can we look for guidance if not to the past?

The past is where the guideposts to the future are to be found. I believe that one of the most important guideposts to which we can look is the ethic of handwork, which has shaped Japanese culture through the ages, and which continues to serve as a beacon even today.