44 Years On

Haneda, Changes
My wife Lou and I made our first visit to Japan in July 1974.  The Aeroflot flight from London’s Heathrow was punctuated by a one hour stop-over in Moscow.  The strength of the disinfectant used by the airline made it difficult to forget what was a long and less than comfortable flight, especially as the smell lingered in our clothing for sometime.

The burly cabin crew did not help to make things any easier.  We were unceremoniously woken when a tray of food was thrust in front of us.  “Eat!” was the command.  Why Aeroflot?  It provided the cheapest fare at the time.

Having landed at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport it was the level of humidity confronting us as we left the plane that became a long lasting memory.  We were met by a wall of moist air, the likes of which we had never experienced before.

The “modern” airport buildings were a disappointment.  Was it due to the long flight or was I expecting too much.  I did not expect to see traditional Japanese wooden buildings but the run-of-the-mill structures there did nothing to announce that we had actually arrived in an Far East.  It was all a little unreal.

Leaving the confines of Haneda by taxi via a short tunnel, my perception of where I was changed immediately.  Emerging into strong sunlight I suddenly felt I was in Japan.  A small colony of cormorants at the edge of Tokyo Bay by the tunnel exit along with the clusters of somewhat rundown low-rise buildings were all, strangely enough, rather reassuring.  So this was our first glimpse of real Japan.

At the beginning of June this year I found myself repeating the journey we made 44 years ago, this time courtesy of an Air France flight at a price I simply could not turn down—£387!

The flight also arrived at Haneda, which has been greatly expanded by reclaiming land from the waters of Tokyo Bay.  There is now also talk of making Haneda a 24/7 airport, partly because Narita is so inconveniently far from the centre of Tokyo.

Haneda now has three terminal buildings, two of which are for domestic flights—one mainly for Japan Airlines flights and the other for All Nippon Airways.  The terminal buildings are all modern palaces of concrete, glass and metal and of a style repeated in part or whole heartedly throughout the world.  So, apart from the abundance of Japanese customers and ramen and sushi eateries, there is little to suggest that this is a gateway to Japan.

The cormorant colony has apparently gone.  And what has happened to the cityscape of 1974 is inevitable and astonishing in equal measures.  The highways out to Haneda slither over the ground between highrise structures or rise above the urban melee of buildings to alarming heights.  But this is how urban Japan has been developed.

Although the modern planning of amenities at Haneda’s terminal buildings is exceptional, they do not have the kind of heritage of such places as say the Burlington Arcade in London or on a grander scale the Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert in Brussels.  History is something money cannot buy.  Haneda’s terminals do, however, cater for more than just passengers.  It seems that the airport is considered to be a good place for a date by young and mobile Japanese couples.

An unusual tray of food with four lacquered bowls.
So, Haneda has changed enormously since Lou and I first landed there and will, no doubt, change more in the run up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.  But what has happened to Japan’s crafts since we were first there?

Many of the recognised traditional crafts still have a place in people’s homes but their presence is far less dominant.  This is particularly true of lacquerware and can be represented by the decline in the numbers of those making such products.

The Center for Cultural Resource Studies associated with the Institute of Human and Social Sciences at Kanazawa University has recently published a comprehensive report focusing on Wajima lacquerware.  The research was carried out to try to understand the challenges this craft faces and what the future may bring.

The document reports on how local producers emphasise the skills and techniques used in the production of Wajima lacquerware, which is know nationwide for its durability and robust construction.  While this is certainly an important factor, a number of others must also be considered, not least of which is how lacquerware can adapt to the changes in lifestyle of the Japanese.

In a lacquer workshop….
Both now and in the past much of the work has been done by highly skilled artisans who are specialists in their own field.  Some deal with making the wooden core of pieces, others are experts in the application of true lacquer.  And then there are still others who are masters of individual decorative techniques.  Very few of these highly accomplished craftsmen and women are every expected to be “designers”.

In many cases in the past it seems that the design of items was also carried out by skilled artisans—designs developed over time and by continuous refinement.  Or pieces may have been designed by somebody with an opinion about how a piece might look—the work of a “designer”.

In reality the number of artisans engaged in making Wajima lacquerware has fallen as has the number of firms employing them.  As suggested the production process can be broken down into four main areas—woodwork for a product core, application of lacquer, decoration and packaging.

In the 37 years between 1980 and 2017 the total number of individuals involved in production in Wajima has fallen from 2,550 to 1,349 (down by 1,201) but peaked at 2,893 in1990 due to a buoyant economy.  Likewise, over the same period the number of firms making lacquerware has decreased from 769 to 503 (down by 266) with a peak of 878 in 1991, also due to economic factors.

Skilled artisans are national treasures in their own right.  And they are essentially different from those who make pieces of studio craft.  The division of labour in Wajima is a well established culture.

….pieces of work are rubbed down.

Most of the traditional crafts in Japan rely on a number of highly skilled individuals to produce items of repeatable craft, not one-off artefacts.  Should things be left as they are?  Is there any merit in having “artisans” who design and “designers” who can make?  Who knows?

Meanwhile, Japan will go on changing in its own indomitable way.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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Reference:  Kanazawa Cultural Resources Studies No. 18 Wajima Collaboration Project—Taking on the challenges of the future of Wajima nuri, Edited by Eri Matsumura
Center for Cultural Resource Studies, Institute of Human and Social Sciences, Kanazawa University

文化資源学研究、第18号、輪島連携プロジェクト―輪島塗の未来に向けた取り組み、松村恵里 編
ISSN 21-86053X

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