Kyoto's Luminous "Other" People


An Interview with Craft Visionary

Sri Akira

Nancho Advisory: Born into a traditional Nishijin weaving house, Nonaka Akira, abandoned plans for a career in automotive engineering, and took a four-year tour of ancient and modern textile centers in Europe and Asia. He returned to Kyoto in 1976 with the dream of reviving traditional workmanship with new technology, "linking up fine handcraft communities across Asia, skipping across the mass-productive death of the Industrial Revolution. " His twelve companies, spread across Japan, China, Thailand and India, include computerized design centers, silk handweaving houses and Kyoto's Jaguar/Daimler franchise.

- Verbatim Excerpts -

You inherited a traditional weaving business in Japan and you are now devoting your energies to tapping the design and craft skills of other Asian nations. Japanese textile craft seems to be in its death throes. If you were to try to turn that around, where would you start?

Nonaka Akira: With education. Everything goes back to that. Every year around 110,000 kids drop out of high school in Japan. Middle school is compulsory but as soon as they have the freedom to choose nearly 20% opt out. If there were less outside pressure I think that number would easily double. There are that many kids who don't fit, who feel they don't fit in that academic straitjacket.

The system goes back to Meiji when we imported it wholesale from the most economically advanced countries we could find in the West. We were the first in Asia to do that, the first to introduce the whole western classroom apparatus and to pour our children into it. And now we're the first in Asia to experience the problems that I understand are now quite common in western schools.

In the traditional industries, any trade that requires fine hand skills, you have to start between the ages of 13 and 15. Much later than that and you rarely achieve real excellence. Like the mind, the hands have to be educated. And craft education too has to start early, at least from middle school. There isn't a single school in Japan offering that. in the old days, it was almost the opposite. There were plenty of craft education opportunities, but few chances to attend ordinary schools. That's a very clear and important difference between prewar and postwar Japan. So you really can't expect a rebirth or even a continuation of Japan's craft traditions.

Didn't the illiteracy of many prewar craftspeople put a stigma on their professions? Weren't they looked down on?

NA:Early on, there was a kind of prejudice, but it was left over from the Edo-era class system. From top to bottom the hierarchy ran: samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants. Being near the bottom, artisans were not exactly admired. But at the end as Edo society collapsed, the positions reversed. The real social order then became merchants, artisans, farmers, samurai. Edo's feudal military society was transformed into a political society, an economic society. And overwhelmingly, an industrial society, which meant that in the early stages, merchants and craftspeople were central, important figures. Any stigma they suffered after that was mostly because of their low-income status and economic deprivation. But they were no longer looked down upon emotionally. They were mostly just poor, pathetic. True, they weren't academically educated. In that world, craft training had the highest priority and few people saw the necessity of book learning. The idea or the fact that a school career naturally led to good employment - that world didn't begin in Japan until the mid-1950's. From then, there was finally a systematic relationship between your schooling and your professional opportunities. Until then everything depended on whether you had a skill or capital or a family business.

Today what Nishijin's textile community needs, what Kiyomizu's ceramic community needs, what all the traditional craft communities need is fine handwork. Where is that being taught?

But you have to admit there remains a prejudice against manual labor. There are still a lot of civil servants and office workers that grow the nails on their little fingers long to show that they don't work with their hands, the old Confucian sign of rank.

NA: Funny, I thought it was for cleaning their ears. [Laughs] Anyway, those petty bureaucrats and office drones are objects of public ridicule now. Those are jobs you take when you can't do anything else. It's not a question of looking down on handwork or craft skills. The lack of apprentices or successors in our traditional crafts is not because of social censure, it's because young people don't have the necessary skills, because the school system has destroyed their chance to learn them. Now, on the one hand, we've got these hundreds of thousands of dropouts with nothing to do, nothing they can do. On the other, we've got incredible craft traditions dying for lack of new blood. It doesn't take a genius to see how these could fit together. But you can't set up craft education in a slightly disguised school - with classrooms and teachers and textbooks and laboratory workshops. Do that and these kids will drop out all over again.

So, what, back to the apprentice system?

NA: Well, with the apprentice system you start doing drudge work - polishing, cleaning, running errands. They take a long time to teach you anything. Besides, these kids would be middle school graduates. They're used to that system and wouldn't put up with all the feudal trappings of apprenticeship for long. So in my view, a craft school system wouldn't work and we can't go back to traditional apprenticeship. Something new has to be invented in between, and that's the most important challenge the traditional craft world must deal with.

Ultimately, though, it's not just an educational problem. It starts in the family. You almost have to have a craftsperson in the home to nurture those values, to teach you to clean, to care for things, to be able to see and appreciate detail and workmanship. So the problems of traditional industries are really problems with the current social environment. And frankly I don't see the solution coming out of Japan. At least in time to make a difference.

Look, every culture has its shortcomings. Take America. If Americans don't have an enemy or an opponent they don't concentrate or accomplish much. The society always seems to run on competitor-oriented policies, enemy-oriented policies. Japan's bad side is that if Japanese aren't imitating or following someone who has already succeeded, they won't even begin to work. They won't back or support anything that hasn't already proven successful. So if America were to tackle this problem, start a national Craft Council, create a great craft training program, Japan would pick it up in a minute. By themselves, Japanese won't do a damn thing about it. They can't imagine something totally new and go on to successfully create it.

Japan envied western industrial power so we copied their most industrial education systems. Serving the individual, serving the nation's history or culture, even serving Japan's long-term best interests were never even an educational question. Everything, everybody was to serve the industrial system. There had been indigenous educational traditions for craftspeople that grew up during Edo, and the new system set out to systematically destroy them. The fewer self-employed craftsmen there were, the more jobless laborers would be available for industry. Meiji leaders saw handwork and the craft professions as primitive and inefficient. They encouraged people to give them up and devote their energies to the drive for heavy industrialization. That was conscious, official policy. And whatever you feel about it, it was very, very effective.

- End -

Nancho Rep: W. David Kubiak

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