Japan: the country
Located along the junction of three continental plates, the long, narrow, mountainous country of Japan is famous for its earthquakes (jishin), tidal waves (tsunami), and volcanic activity (kazan), the latter which is responsible for Japan’s fertile soil.
Its location north of Tropic of Cancer is the cause for the four distinct seasons (shiki) in Japan – spring (haru), summer (natsu), autumn (aki), and winter (fuyu) – each of which has its unique symbols and celebrations.
Japan manifests a rich diversity and variety in its vegetation. It is a place of astonishing natural beauty.
Being surrounded by such natural beauty, the Japanese people have instinctively developed a fine sense of beauty and aesthetics. And to achieve closeness to nature is the ultimate goal in Japanese crafts and architecture.
In the Western world, the arrangement of God, Man and Nature follows a vertical hierarchy with God occupying the highest place, and Nature the lowest. Man is in the middle. In contrast, the Japanese believe that Man and Nature are equal, and therefore represented along a horizontal plane.
There is also a very strong sense of togetherness perceived between Nature and Man. For instance, the Japanese from their tradition of Shintoism believe that every living creature be it plant or animal, has a soul, and therefore is worthy of veneration. This attitude also extends to creatures that the Japanese come in contact with. For example, there is a ceremony that honours the caterpillar of the silk moth including a Japanese proverb about the silkworm that translates as
‘One silk insect, one soul; half a silk insect, half a soul’
(or ‘Even a one-inch insect has a five-tenths of a soul.’)
Even the common household cockroach is respectfully addressed as ‘gokiburi-san’, with the suffix, san.
Wabi-Sabi, the Japanese aesthetic 侘寂
Traditionally the Japanese people recognize and appreciate beauty in very ordinary and simple objects, a concept termed as Wabi-sabi. It can be roughly translated as ‘simple quietude’ (wabi), and ‘elegant simplicity’, (sabi). It is an aesthetic that is centred on the acceptance of transience, and acknowledging three simple realities that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. Wabi-sabi has been elaborated as a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing that an object induces in the viewer.
Woodcraft in Japan
Wood for the Japanese is a material of much utility and has been an essential part of Japanese life for centuries. With over 70% of Japan’s lands under forest cover, wood has been used in a wide range of applications, including bridge construction, architecture, house-building, furniture, cookware, and specialized woodcraft such as statues and religious sculptures.
The training of a Japanese carpenter stresses not only knowledge and skill, but also a high sense of intuition necessary to understand the “personality of the wood”. In fact, developing and refining this intuitive ability is considered essential for every Japanese woodworker, and one that is a lifelong process.
Japanese carpentry stems from a deep love of and respect for wood as a living organism. The Japanese carpenter pays attention to the many subtle details about the wood he works with: the location and altitude where the tree grew; the orientation of the tree on the land; the part the tree the wood comes from; and even the direction of the wood grain.
Japanese woodcraft follows many unwritten rules. For example using the root-side of a tree to create the top surface of a piece of furniture would be a grave error; or wood from the south-facing side of a tree can be used only in the southern side of the house; or if the tree grew in the Northern part of the mountain, its wood has to be used for constructing the North part of the house, and so on.
When the Japanese woodcutter cut a tree down for wood, he expresses both a reverence and gratitude to the tree, and sincere apologies for causing it pain. In the past the woodcutters of Japan had a saying: “The hunter can give instant death to the animal, but we kill the tree little by little.”