Japanese craft (工芸 kōgei) has a long and proud tradition and includes hand crafts made by an individual or a group. The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture of Japan has stated that crafts (工芸技術 Kōgei Gijutsu), are divided into eight categories: papermaking, woodworking, dollmaking, metalworking, lacquerware, textiles, pottery, and other. The categories are further subdivided into more specific subcategories.
Kokeshi Dolls. | Alex Watson
Many other variations are officially recognized and protected by the government. Craftsmen are eligible for recognition either as an individual (Individual Certification) or as part of a group (Preservation Group Certification), into the list of Living National Treasures of Japan (crafts).
Some crafts are awarded the status of meibutsu, or regional specialties. Each type of Japanese craft takes time to learn. It demands a set of specialized skills that have been passed on for many generations. Japanese craft works are designed to serve a specific functional or utilitarian purpose, making them beautiful and useful at the same time.
History tells us that Japanese craft dates back to the time humans settled on the Japanese islands. Handcrafting had roots in the rural crafts (traditional crafts production that is carried on, simply for everyday practical use, in the agricultural countryside). Traditionally, handcrafters made use of natural, indigenous materials, even today. Traditional Japanese craft distinguishes itself from decorative arts and fine arts, as being created to be used. Crafts were needed by all levels of Japanese society. The execution and design of each type became increasingly sophisticated over time.
Japanese crafts were developed and taught to succeeding generations. This was known as dentō (伝 統), where systems of Japanese traditions were passed down within a teacher-student relationship (shitei 師弟). It included a strict system of rules to enable learning and teaching of a way (dō 道). It was a common tradition that mastery of certain crafts was passed down within the family for many generations, establishing dynasties. The established master’s name was then assumed instead of the personal one. If there is no male heir, a relative or a student could be adopted to continue the line.
Sake bottle. | Ashley Van Haeften
Some Japanese handicrafts include Kutani ware, from Ishikawa, a style of Japanese Gotō Saijirō porcelain known for its colorful, vibrant painted designs. Kutani ware was established by Gotō Saijirō of the Maeda Clan. Another popular craft is Kokeshi dolls, from Miyagi. They are traditional hand-crafted Japanese wooden dolls with origins traceable to northern Japan. And a final example is Bizen ware. It is characteristically reddish-brown in color. It is known for being hard as iron, and it isn’t glazed like other types of pottery. It has distinct markings from the wood-burning kiln (an insulated chamber or oven with controlled temperature used for hardening or drying earthenware) firing.
Japanese traditional arts and handicrafts have been subjected to many outside influences from other cultures. It was a result of the numerous sudden invasions the island nation endured through the course of history, followed by long periods of minimal contact from the outside world during Japan’s sakoku period.
The earliest complex Japanese art form was Buddhism, from the 7th and 8th centuries. During the 9th century, the Japanese began to develop their own indigenous forms of expression as they incorporated their own styles into what they had adapted from the Chinese. The culmination and aesthetic uniqueness of traditional Japanese art is a result of assimilating the influence of foreign cultures and elements.
Many regions of Japan have their own specialties in traditional handicrafts. Here are just a few of them.
Kutani ware, Ishikawa – a style of Japanese Gotō Saijirō porcelain known for its colorful, vibrant painted designs. Kutani ware was established by Gotō Saijirō of the Maeda Clan. He was responsible for setting up a kiln in the village of Kutani, now part of the city of Kaga, under the orders of Maeda Toshiharu, head of the Kaga domain. Kutani ware is distinguished by designs mainly using five colors (red, yellow, purple, blue, and green) that are used to paint over intricate line drawings. Many different products such as vases, tea sets, and ornaments are made using this traditional technique.
Kutani incense burner. | antefixus21
Kokeshi dolls, Miyagi – traditional hand-crafted Japanese wooden dolls with origins traceablle to northern Japan. The dolls have a straight, cylindrical body with large, round heads. The faces of the kokeshi are painted with very simple lines that still convey their various expressions. Since the dolls are hand-painted, each doll is unique; no two kokeshi dolls have identical faces. Traditionally, the body is coated with wax and usually decorated with floral designs of varying colors. The bottom of the dolls should bear the signature of the artist.
Kokeshi dolls. | Hitty Evie
Matsumoto-temari, Matsumoto – these handcrafted balls are decorated with scraps of yarn woven to create beautiful designs. Initially, the balls were meant to be used as beanbags for children. But a way to make the bean bags bounce was discovered, and the toy soon became known as temari handballs. Some balls are made with bells inside. They make a unique sound when bounced around. Temari balls are commonly used today as decorative accent pieces in many Japanese homes.
Temari balls. | GrinnPidgeon
Kokeshi are traditional hand-crafted Japanese wooden dolls with origins that can be traced to northern Japan. The dolls have a straight cylindrical body with large round heads. The faces of the kokeshi are painted with simple lines that still convey their various expressions. Since the dolls are hand-painted, each doll is unique; no two kokeshi dolls have identical faces. The body is traditionally coated with wax and usually decorated with floral designs of varying colors. The bottom of the dolls should bear the signature of the artist. Perhaps the most unique aspect of conventional kokeshi dolls is their lack of arms and legs.
Kokeshi doll. | citykane
The wood used for kokeshi is specially seasoned and left outdoors for at least a year. Sometimes it’s five years before the wood is deemed suitable to be made into dolls. The types of wood used for crafting kokeshi are cherry for its rich dark color, mizuno for its soft texture, and Japanese maple (Itaya-kaede) for its versatility.
Kokeshi exhibit. | Joe Mabel
Kokeshi dolls symbolize the culture of Japan. The Kijiya, or local woodwork artists, makes these dolls with the belief that they will provide a bountiful harvest and the gods will be pleased as children would play with them. Traditional kokeshi dolls from different regions have their own distinct characteristics, defined by their patterns and shapes. Kokeshi dolls were only produced in six prefectures in Tohoku. The most popular of the kokeshi are the Naruko variety (the specialty of the Naruko Onsen village). The traditional dolls are so popular there that the village’s main street is named Kokeshi Street, with plentiful shops that specialize in kokeshi.
Kokeshi dolls in a store. | monika.monika
Japanese kokeshi dolls are a much coveted souvenir item nowadays whenever people travel to Japan. Within Japan, they continute to be popular gifts to give to people as a token of friendship, and some even use them as lucky charms. The craftsmanship and uniqueness that goes into every kokeshi doll makes it truly an art form.