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Tradition and transformation

Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Posted in: Azteclady Speaks

As some of you may know, I have an Etsy store *cough* *hintnugdewink* *seesidebar* *cough* One of Etsy’s many features is a blog where both staff and members contribute articles. Today’s article, by fukunaga, is a short film portrait of one of Japan’s last living traditional swordsmiths, Korehira Watanabe.

Handmade Portraits: The Sword Maker from Etsy on Vimeo.

I love this man’s ‘quiet intensity’ and his passion for his work.


At one point, Mr Watanabe says (paraphrasing just slightly) that adapting traditional crafts through modern methods or tools is cheating, as it strips away the traditional cultural values–the soul, as it were–of the craft.

While deeply admiring the ingenuity, dedication and artistry that made it possible for artisans long gone to create such amazing items as the Koto sword, I beg to disagree with him. The marrying of traditional crafts with modern perspectives, tools and purposes doesn’t destroy, it creates.

(I am, of course, biased. In a world where there is only one true way, outliers have no place. As a left handed, mostly self-taught, stubborn knitter, most of what I make would be considered poorly made.)


  • Maili
    November 16
    4:15 am

    I feel he’s referring to *discipline*, which is probably the hardest aspect of any art or craft because it demands time, commitment, patience, hard-won knowledge, skills and respect. It’s also the most difficult to master, especially in today’s world with all kinds of modern technology available – and our concept and value of time are drastically different from those of the past.

    I also believe there’s the emotional aspect to consider. By using the traditional means of producing a traditional craft, you’re doing exactly what someone did 2,000 years ago. No amount of modern technology or modern tools can ever give you that sense of humility.

    Take my granddad for example. He was an oral historian of our village, which he inherited from his eldest cousin and so since I’m the eldest, he felt he should pass his ‘role’ to me (which I didn’t want), so he poured a lot of crap stories down my ear. I wrote them down to help me remember. My granddad was seriously pissed off when he found out. He actually called it ‘cheating’ a few times in his numerous lectures. Having the discipline to absorb, memorise, categorise and pass them all to the next generation through storytelling is what being an oral historian about.

    I argued that text is a means of communication with better exposure and it’s more reliable than oral because of the ‘Chinese whispers’ issue. Granddad went ballistic at that. 😀 While I still don’t agree with him (and since I left home at 16, the role went to my eldest cousin), I do understand what he was getting at and I feel he’s right.

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using modern tools to create something traditional, but I feel it’s not traditional. It’s merely an adaptation or copy of the real thing. So for one to say it’s traditional when it isn’t, it’s ‘cheating’. It’s far better to say it’s part of the natural evolution of a certain traditional craft or art.

    In other words, one shouldn’t use the word “traditional” as part of description when one did nothing of its kind during the making of it. It’s a different form with different history, skill set and challenges in its own right. That’s what I think, anyway. 😀


  • LVLMLeah
    November 16
    4:01 pm

    Maili said it far more articulately than I can but here’s what I wanted to say.

    Having lived in Japan and studied the language and culture, totally immersing myself, I get what he’s saying.

    I don’t believe it’s about not using modern perspectives and tools and such, but more about the heart (Kokoro) that goes into creating an item traditionally made by hand and through a certain process that gets lost if you do so.

    It’s like Tea Ceremony. You can use a teabag with boiled water, but the whole process of it, the meditation, soul and heart of the person doing every painstaking step of making tea and serving it in the precise manner it’s supposed to be doesn’t come through.

    However, I don’t disagree that mixing traditional arts with modern sensibilities isn’t being creative. It’s just creative in a new direction.


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