Echoes of Tradition

During countless centuries before modern Japan’s advent in the Meiji era (1868-1912), traditional culture flowed like water deep within the earth, and was absorbed by the widely dispersed roots of East Asian civilization, nourishing and permeating every branch of Japanese society. Aesthetically uninhibited traditional forms passed from person to person and inspired native ways of life naturally in rhythm with—and sensitive to organic materials, the seasons and environment. Without being interpreted as self-expression, this traditional energy welled up spontaneously in the hearts of ordinary people, and was manifested in both refined and mundane aspects of daily life.

This exhibition, Echoes of Tradition, presents this flow of deep cultural energy as it took shape in Japan’s distinct and remarkable tradition of wood- and earth-building techniques that emerged from the archipelago’s rich forests and geology. Even today, the Japanese landscape is still dotted with splendid traditional architectural structures built by carpenters and other specialized artisans whose craftsmanship has origins dating back as far as the Jomon era (12000-300 B.C.E.).

From our viewpoint in modern-day Japan, the ancient tree of East Asian civilization appears to have withered. Nevertheless, new leaves still spring forth. To grow, they require the nourishment that resides deep within the cultural soil that still lies underfoot. In the noise and rush of modern life our senses are now challenged to respond to those subtle cultural energies inspired by the land that sustained our ancestors’ lives for generations. How can these new leaves find the sustenance they instinctively yearn for?

Today, many aspects of Japan’s traditional building culture have been superseded by modern technology. As a result, the number of artisans who retain essential skills and wisdom are dwindling. To carry this way of life forward into the future, it is vital to preserve the intimate bond between master and apprentice, and the co-dependency of craftsman and toolmaker. As long as these relationships are nurtured and kept intact, the ancient spirit of Japanese craftsmanship will continue to exist in the hearts of young men and women.

Craftspeople who take pride in their work experience life with a satisfaction that reflects their personal style, spirit and integrity. Some go on to become teachers and leaders, playing a selfless role as vital transmitters of cultural energy to their apprentices. In Japan a few become cultural figures of the highest rank.

The blacksmiths who create the tools used in Japanese carpentry are unsung heroes, the high priests of Japanese omokage culture. Their masterpieces in metal reveal rare beauty, and have yet to be fully recognized as profound examples of Japanese naïve art. These handcrafted tools are rich in the aura of the soul and spirit of takumi—master workmanship. Following traditions that date back to the earliest days of recorded Japanese history, when the first metallurgy technologies arrived from the continent as a sacred art, these blacksmiths delve into the mysteries of alchemy, creating a marriage of science and art.

On reaching the time of life when wrinkles begin to crease his body, a master blacksmith has forged within himself the mental clarity and breadth of skills that enable him to discern the subtle forces that lie hidden in the heart of iron, fire, air and water. Such a craftsman may attain a level of accomplishment that allows him to transcend the limits of personal style, pride, and the burdens of his era, to create works of artistic profundity with a timeless presence, recognized by generations to come.

The nineteenth-century collodion ‘wet glass plate’ photographic technique used in creating the images for this exhibition was chosen over film or digital imagery because the wet plate, like the tools made by a master blacksmith, exhibits the alchemic marriage of science and art that speaks to our deeper nature. It has been my aim in this project to bring a fresh and deeper inquiry into the spirit of takumi, and the ageless cultural forces that continue to drive Japanese culture forward.