All together

Masahiko Sakamoto

Division of Labour
It is difficult for me to begin to explain just how important the division of labour is in the  making of a piece of Wajima true lacquerware.  It is almost unique and I am struggling to find a similar system of manufacture, be it industrial or craft-based.

On a production line for cars, for instance, besides robots there are operatives with specialist skills who attach parts to the slowly moving carcass of a car.  But although these employees are highly skilled they are not making the parts.  Their job is to assemble or attach parts, not make them.

In the case of lacquerware, however, a number of highly skilled specialists contribute one by one directly to the finished article.  They might actually rub down a previous application of hardened lacquer or apply an additional coat of true lacquer.  This is the way that many workshops produce lacquerware—by a division of labour.  A few craftspeople make pieces of lacquerware from start to finish.  They are, however, in the minority and are usually making a piece of studio craft rather than something of a repeatable kind.

But how can a number of skilled artisans work independently and yet contribute so meaningfully to the completion of a fine piece of lacquerware?  In order to try and answer to this question I went to the Shioyasu Showroom and Workshop (http://www.shioyasu.com with English )in Wajima.

First I spoke to Masahiko Sakamoto.  Before starting employment at the Shioyasu workshop he worked independently on lacquerware along with his wife who was a makie artist.  Makie is the fine and detailed decorations which are sometimes applied to the more expensive items of true lacquerware.

Masahiko mixing the paste
which forms a ground and primer to a
lacquerware core.
So, just how do a number of artisans with specialist skills manage to work in an organised sequence?  Masahiko’s answer was instantaneous.  “Each person must produce work which is unquestionably good and recognised as such by the person before as well as the next person in the chain”.

In other words each stage of the work must be of the highest possible quality.  There is no opportunity to cover up mistakes or to get away with poor workmanship.

Remember that we are not talking about a finished article.  Each person in the chain must, however, produce work of the best possible quality and in doing so contribute directly to the quality of the finished article.  It is the quality of the work at each stage that instills a sense of respect.  Along with it comes a sense of trust.  And it is this command of respect and trust which Masahiko and many others like him have, and that gives them a sense of pride and self-esteem in their work.  A job done well and beyond reproach—a very Japanese characteristic.

Masahiko is responsible for applying the ground and primer to pieces of work, which will become bowls, dishes or other items of tableware.  His work, therefore, is early on in the sequence of production.

Akira Kosaka begins to filter lacquer
through a piece of handmade Japanese paper.
Akira Kosaka, on the other hand, is primarily working on finishes.  Perfection is demanded and requires special measures.

Lacquer for a final application, for instance,  is filtered by squeezing it through a piece of handmade Japanese paper.  The strength of the paper is staggering and the result is lacquer with no specks of dust or other impurities in it.

Akira will produce the kind of finish that is required.  His work is respected and he can be trusted to produce work of the very best quality.  Just like Masahiko, Akira is proud of his work.

The strength of the paper is amazing.

The paper is twisted down to almost nothing.
Akira first applies the red lacquer, leaving the rim for the black lacquer.

He now feathers the red lacquer into the rim of wet black to achieve the desired graded effect.
I have always been envious of craftspeople and especially of those who, like Masahiko and Akira, work on making a number of the same item.  After all, by making the same item over and over again it is possible to hone a skill and to gradually become better and better at doing the job.

Why am I envious?  Well, having been trained in fine art (painting) and then having worked in a design office, doing things for the first and sometimes only time becomes a challenge of a different kind to that experienced by Masahiko and Akira.  There is little or almost no opportunity to immediately learn from mistakes or to stave off blunders by repetitive actions.  It is only the wastepaper basked that gets filled.  Of course, these days working on a computer has made the job a little easier.  It is the same with photograph too.  We can now see the image immediately and either accept it, reject it or even modify it back at home.  For me, though, there is an enormous degree of satisfaction in doing the kind of work Masahiko and Akira do and it is something I have tried to incorporate in my own work.

Some of the tools of Akira’s craft.
Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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