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Japanese Craft: An ancient history

Japanese craft has a long and traditional history throughout Japan. Included in Japanese craft are handicraft, a sometimes more precisely expressed as artisanal handmade craft style, that includes a wide variety of useful and decorative objects all of which are made completely by hand using simple tools. As well as traditional Japanese craft many modern craft pieces are now produced by independent studio artists, working with traditional craft materials and or processes to protect the nature of traditional crafts. Let’s take a look at what makes Japanese craft so unique.

Types of Craft

According to the Japanese Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, Japanese craft can be divided into eight auspicious categories: pottery, textiles, lacquerware, metalwork, dollmaking, bamboo and woodwork, papermaking and miscellaneous. These categories of craft can then be further divided into a number of more specific subcategories. The Japan Kōgei Association agrees with the distinct definitions set for Japanese craft and the many variations are protected by the government. In order for an object to be officially recognised as traditional Japanese craft, it must meet all five of the following requirements:

  • The item must be practical enough for regular use.
  • The item must predominantly be handmade.
  • The item must be crafted using traditional techniques.
  • The item must be crafted using traditional materials.
  • The item must be crafted at its place of origin.

Each individual craft requires a set of specialised skills, and those who work in crafts are eligible, either individually or part as a group, for inclusion in the list of Living National Treasures of Japan. Although Japanese craft serves a functional or utilitarian purpose, they are often handled and exhibited in a similar way to visual art objects.

History of the Craft

Japanese craft dates back since centuries to when humans settled on Japan’s islands. Handicrafters used natural, indigenous materials, a tradition which continues to be emphasised today. Traditionally, objects were created to be used and not just to be displayed and therefore the border between what was Japanese craft and what was Japanese art was not always very clear. Japanese craft had close ties to folk art, but developed into fine art as well as becoming part of the concept of wabi-sabi aesthetics. As time developed, crafts became increasingly sophisticated in their design and execution with craftsmen and women becoming artisans with increasing sophistication.
By the end of the Edo period and the advent of the modern Meiji era, industrial production was introduced. This lead to Western craft objects and styles being copied and they began to replace the traditional Japanese types. Traditional Japanese craft began to wane, and disappeared in many areas, as tastes and production methods changed. Specific crafts that had been practised for centuries were increasingly under threat, while others that were more recent developments, introduced from the West, saw a rise.
Although Japanese craft was is seen as a National Treasure under the protection of the imperial government, it took some time for their intangible cultural value to be fully recognised. In order to further protect traditional Japanese craft and art, in 1890, the government instituted the Guild of Imperial Household Artists, who were specially appointed to create works of art for the Tokyo Imperial Palace. These artists were considered amongst the most famous and prestigious and worked in areas such as painting, ceramics and lacquerware.
The Second World War left Japan devastated and as a result, Japanese craft suffered. The government decided to introduce a new program known as Living National Treasure, to recognise and protect the craftspeople of the fine and folk art skill set. Inclusion in this list came with financial support for the training of new generations of artisans so that the traditional art forms could continue. Although the government has taken steps, private sector artisans continue to face challenges trying to stay true to traditional Japanese craft whilst at the same time reinterpreting old forms and creating new ideas in order to survive and remain relevant to consumers.
Despite modernisation and westernisation, a number of Japanese craft and art forms do still exist, partly due to their close connection to certain Japanese traditions such as tea ceremonies and martial arts. Many exhibitions and displays take place every year to exhibit a number of both modern and traditional kōgei artists in an effort to introduce Japanese craft to an international audience.
At Atelier Japan, our makers powerfully encapsulate ancient and artisanal Japanese craft that has been articulated for the modern audience. All of our products are intricately made by hand to create authentic Japanese products for you to enjoy in the comfort of your home. Visit our website and browse our bespoke range of teas, fans, jewellery and pottery.