Dogu, the Tools of Traditional Japan

The evening’s middle hours. An interlude. The commuter mobs surging out of businesses and offices all over Tokyo, packed into the trains with breath-taking density, have finally slowed to a trickle. It’s still too early for the late-night revelers come aboard, and if you’re riding on most of the lines around the city, you can get a seat, even a whole car. The four of us had done just that, on the Tozai Blue Line out of the Nihonbashi Station. One of us was in her twenties, a chajin, a student of the tea ceremony, perched with gentle poise in a blue and white patterned kimono. A few seats away was a kendoka, sitting erect, fists on his thighs; alert. Beside him a shokunin leaned back, arms folded comfortably across his midriff, dozing after what must have been a long day labouring as a woodworker.

Any good Sherlock could have pointed out to his Dr. Watson the clues to the identities of my fellow passengers. Not many young women wear kimono nowadays, for instance. Not unless they’re involved in a traditional art like the tea ceremony. The shokunin had the leathery fingers of a man who chisels and hammers for more than a hobby, more than just a living, either. His callused hands were those of a craftsman who builds because it is what he loves. The collegiate kendoka? He had the wiry physique and steely eyes of a martial artist, a 20th century swordsman. But the real giveaways to their various backgrounds were what they each carried. The tools beside them marked them as surely as fingerprints, tools that in Japanese are called dogu: instruments of the Way.

Cultures, civilisations with even the most primitive tools at their command, inevitably afford some respect to these objects. The Stone Age fletcher who knapped out a flint projectile point felt, no doubt, something for the weapon he’d made that protected him or brought down his food. Tools are not, by their definition, works of art in the true sense of the word. Yet neither can the well-made, well-used tool ever be considered purely utilitarian. The tools of Japan’s traditional arts and Ways are evocative examples, something in between a practical instrument and a masterpiece. Tools in pre-modern Japan were used to create, just as they are everywhere. Dogu in Japan as well have long been considered capable of elevating the spirit of their users. And so the relationship between the artisan and his tools transcended mere craft. Dogu provided the vehicle (they still do) to travel a philosophical, potentially transformational path. To recognise this aspect of the Japanese dogu is to understand their essence.

Plotted on a timeline, there is no single moment to be pinpointed, but somewhere during the 19th century era of the Industrial Revolution, the concept of the tool as an aesthetic object all but disappeared in the West. Turned out en masse on factory assembly lines, everything from hammers to writing pens lost their individuality. They lost the personalized uniqueness they once had when made individually, often by the owner or with his special needs in mind. Those who owned and used them lost as well a sense of feel and affection for their tools. The American frontiersman, for instance, regarded his flintlock rifle in a way his grandson who worked the coalmines of Pennsylvania could never feel about his pickaxe.

“In Japan, to a considerable extent, this transition did not happen until modern times,” Matsuyama Minoru explains, because “we really did not have an industrial revolution in Japan until after WWII.” Instead, says Matsuyama, a retired university professor, “Japan went through over two hundred years of a cultural renaissance. Feudal Japan was, among other things, a two century period of celebration of the artist and the craftsman.”

This is the climate that encouraged a flourishing of the spirit of dogu. Bereft of mass-manufacturing processes that might have stripped them of individual qualities and with a population that was largely rural and so had a constant and varied need for them, Japanese tools remained for centuries, handmade products. The dogu represented a sturdy bridge between art and implement, between the aesthetic and the utilitarian. The Japanese responded to this link by investing sentiments into these usually quite ordinary objects that reveal an element of Japanese culture most extraordinary.

The celebration of dogu continues in odd places in Japan: At rustic hut, for instance, designed for the practise of chado, the tea ceremony, at the Urasenke school of the art in Kyoto. Outside the hut a chill, late winter rain darkens the bare branches of a maple and drips from leaves of a green bamboo hedge. Inside, a woman ladles water, steaming hot, from a black iron kettle into an earthenware bowl. The bowl has a pebbly glaze, its colour the same muted brown hue as the clay from a Nara hillside from which it was made. To be honest, there is nothing outwardly spectacular about the bowl. It is hand-thrown, the lip clearly uneven, splotches of glaze were irregularly applied before it was fired. This simple tea bowl, though, is staggeringly valuable, beyond a nameable price, really. It was shaped by Raku Chojiro, a 16th century potter considered to be a Michelangelo, of sorts, of the pottery art of ancient Japan.

Many of Raku’s pottery creations (along with those made by other ceramists in the style of “raku-ware” he originated) are regarded as national treasures in Japan, which makes them very special tools indeed. Still, they are not museum pieces, kept behind glass. They are working implements. They are meant to be used and they are. Regularly. To guard against the possibility of breakage, these bowls are handled in such a way that keeps them near the floor mats of the tea hut. (Chado is performed usually directly on tatami.) But along with bamboo ladles and scoops, ceramic tea caddies, water jars, and iron kettles, the chawan, or tea bowl is an integral part of the ritual of making and serving tea. All are chadogu, the tools of chado.

Some chadogu, like the bowls of Raku Chojiro, are so famous they are acknowledged as meibutsu, literally “named objects.” They have been awarded or affixed with titles. One slender spoon of bamboo used by generations of tea masters has the meibutsu title Shimo Ayame. Two renowned tea bowls are called Shirasagi (“White Heron”) and Nuregarasu (“Wet Crow”). Even lacquer tea caddies no larger than a hen’s egg may be meibutsu. One, owned by Sen no Rikyu, the patron of the tea ceremony, is called Hatsuhana (“First Blossom”); another is Murakumo (“Gathering Clouds”).

Wrapped in a cloth furoshiki carrying bag, the tea utensils carried by my fellow passenger on the Blue Line may have been elegant, breathtakingly expensive. More likely-she was a young student-she had a set of inexpensive, modern chadogu. Either way, they would have received the same treatment. “Chadogu,” says Fukai Chieko, of the Omotesenke School of the tea ceremony, “are the physical manifestation of the practitioner’s spirit. Their price is immaterial in that sense. Their value is in their ability to connect one’s soul to something larger than oneself.”

Some Japanese handed a dogu of any sort will automatically raise it to their foreheads for an instant before examining it. The gesture is understandable towards tools that are as well magnificent works of art. The motion looks odd when the object in hand is an old woodworker’s plane or a weathered plumbline marker. No objet d’art, though, has ever been more esteemed or cherished than the modest tools of the craftsman. Shokunin, as the artisan-craftsman is known in Japan, have a long history in that country, especially those who work in wood. In a land of wooden houses, wooden temples and shrines, even wooden bath tubs, the shokunin who could produce shoji screens, fine joinery, and other wooden furnishings was a valuable citizen. The shokunin, in turn, treated his working implements, his dogu, with a deep, near-spiritual reverence.

“Every New Years we put our tools in from of my master’s family altar,” remembers Tanabe Mitsuru, a retired shokunin from Nagano. “It was our way of showing our tools to the ancestors we’d inherited them from. When you put your tools in front of the altar like that, you’re showing those earlier generations that the tools they’d passed down were still being cared for correctly.”

Some tools of the shokunin who continue to ply their trade into the 21st century (they are in increasing demand as affluent Japanese are rehabbing ancient folk houses) would be recognisable to a Western craftsman. A carpenter from Cleveland or Seville would find familiar square-headed Japanese hammers. But saws in Japan have wedge shaped blades, often with rows of teeth on both sides, and they cut on the pull stroke rather than the push. The shokunin’s dogu also include an assortment of chisels with beveled or fluted edges unlike those in the West. Some cut precise grooves like the tracks for sliding doors or screens. Others carve sharp-angled rabbets and mortises and tenons, sophisticated joinery that hold traditional buildings together in Japan like giant, intricate jigsaw puzzles.

Shokunin even today are often itinerant labourers, travelling to the building sites of their customers. They carry their tools with them and since they frequently work outside, the dogu require constant, painstaking attention.

“Chisels had to be sharpened first thing each morning with a whetstone and cold water,” says the retired Tanabe. “In winter, sometimes the buckets of water we used would have a skiff of ice on it. After a few minutes of sharpening, my fingers would be white with the cold, all drawn up like a crab’s claws.”

The shokunin’s dogu, often made with the same quality of steel and wood used for the finest weapons of the samurai, were always put ahead of the personal needs and comfort of the craftsman. It’s a tradition that continues. Tanabe-san recalls three days in his early career when he skipped eating to save enough money for a mefuri, a tool to reset crooked saw blade teeth. His approach reflects the attitude of the shokunin who recognises the spiritual connexion between the craftsman and his tools.

“For a shokunin to begin his day’s work without giving his tools their proper respect,” Tanabe insists, “would be like praying at a shrine without clapping first to get the attention of the spirits there.”

During Japan’s long feudal period, a samurai walking down a crowded street could be cut down instantly for allowing the scabbard of the sword he wore to clack against that of another warrior’s weapon. Touching a sword or any other weapon without permission was a deadly serious breach of etiquette. The warrior’s swords were more than essential tools of his trade. They represented much of his sense of honour and dignity. When a samurai cleaned and oiled his sword, for instance, he might keep a square of paper between his teeth so the moisture in his breath would not dampen the blade even slightly, risking a threat of rust. Today, most budoka (martial arts practitioners) aren’t quite so meticulous. But they continue to treat their budogu, their training equipment, with considerable care and they imbue it with qualities far beyond those of ordinary objects.

Tsunoda Michiko, 22, pedals over twenty blocks twice a week to the Butokuden martial arts hall in Kyoto, to practise naginata-do. It is a combative (and now sporting as well) art of the halberd with roots on 14th century battlefields in Japan. Pursued primarily by women today, the long naginata was a polearm originally, with a wicked, curved blade on the business end. The modern form of the art employs a blunt bamboo blade where once was sharp steel. Even so, strikes can be painful, sometimes dangerous. A full suit of lacquered leather armour, sturdy headgear and facemask, chest protector, padded gloves and shin guards; all are worn for practise sessions. Twice a week, Tsunoda-san tucks all her martial dogu into a duffel and balances it on her bicycle. Finished with training, she repacks it all and set off for home. Often it is past midnight before she makes it back to her apartment, yet before going to bed, Tsunoda-san carefully cleans her naginata equipment and hangs it in her foyer to air-dry.

“My dogu have protected me from getting hurt a thousand times,” she says simply. “It isn’t so much for me to take care of it in return.”

Tsunoda’s sentiments express eloquently the spirit of dogu, the feeling of gratitude for implements well made and lovingly used. It is a spirit suggesting that these tools are indeed extensions of the soul, manifestations of the character of those who wield them. Gratitude would explain the requiem of hari-kuyo that is conducted at Buddhist temples every year to honour sewing needles-broken needles, to be exact. Every February, altars are erected at various temples throughout Japan, decorated with offerings of fruit and thimbles and scissors. The centrepiece of each altar is a large slab of tofu. Worshippers come to the temple to poke into the tofu needles that have broken over the past year. Sutras are chanted, thanking the needles for their service. It is a quaint spectacle, a tourist favourite. Even most of those participating seem to approach the ceremony of hari-kuyo lightheartedly. There is an underlying sense in the ritual, though, that the needles, having been broken in honourable use, deserve more than just to be discarded. They are, after all, dogu.

In the Fifties, in the backwoods of Shiga Prefecture, a yellowed slip of paper was found, after his death, among the modest possessions of a hermit woodcutter. It was a will of sorts, bequeathing his dogu, which consisted of a broad-bladed axe that he’d used daily for decades.

“I have called this axe Hige-giri (‘Beard-cutter’),” read the paper. “I hope, when I die, it will be loved and used by one who truly appreciates its qualities.” The note concluded, “I have nothing in life worth a thing except for this excellent axe. But then again, with an axe such as this, how much in life does one need?”

Copyright ┬ęDave Lowry. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in JAL: Winds.