When the first Westerners of record stumbled onto Japan in the 1540s, the discovery of the islands resulted in an influx of foreign traders and Christian missionaries, both intent on expanding their empires in Asia.
Among the many things that astounded these first European visitors to Japan [other than its institutionalized and ritualized prostitution districts] was the incredible quality of its handicrafts and arts and the ability of Japanese craftsmen to copy any Western product not only perfectly but to improve on it in the process.
European traders who took up residence in Japan from the mid-1500s on began to ship large quantities of Japan’s arts and crafts to the capitals of Europe, where many of them became collectors’ items. Europeans found their aesthetic appeal both seductive and fascinating, and still today that appeal is one of the secrets of Japan’s attraction to visitors from around the world.
What was the source of Japan's traditional quality standards? How were the Japanese able to raise the quality standards of their handicrafts to that of a fine art? This too, relates to their skill in copying and improving upon things they copy, but in this case it goes back well over a thousand years.
Beginning around 300 A.D. Chinese ideas and products began trickling into Japan, mostly through Korea and via Korean immigrants to the islands. Along with these products came the ancient Chinese custom of the master-apprentice approach to the arts and crafts.
But the Japanese didn't just imitate the Chinese and Koreans. They institutionalized and ritualized the master-apprentice training methods, adding to it the concept of kaizen (kigh-zen) or continuous improvement. Within a few generations these products had been totally Japanized and their quality raised to the level of fine arts.
As the generations passed, these institutions and rituals were further strengthened by the introduction of the Zen principles of dispensing with the superfluous and harmonizing life and nature, resulting in masters who could actually achieve virtual perfection in the arts and crafts.
This was the Japan that Westerners first encountered in the 1500s and again in the 1800s, by which time, the Japanese were so conditioned in the principles and practices of quality that they didn't have to think about it. Achieving it was simply the Japanese way of doing things.
Another important factor that continues to distinguish Japan’s traditional arts and crafts, as well as many of its modern products, is a look and a feel that is unique, that grows out of the psychic of the Japanese that precedes their contact with Korea and China—something that was programmed into their culture by Shinto, their native religion, which holds that all things have spirits and a beauty of their own and that it is up to craftsmen to bring both of them out.
The influence of this "Japanese thing" on Westerners varies from very weak to very strong, depending on their sensitivity and aesthetic development. But it influences everyone to some degree. To the sensitive person, it has a calming, soothing effect on the intellect and the spirit, and creates a harmonious repose with nature.
Westerners who visit Japan even for a few days are invariably touched by this unique facet of Japanese culture.
Visitors to Japan do not have to go out of their way to experience this extraordinary influence of Japan’s arts and crafts—and to take some of it home with them if they choose.
Examples of Japanese arts and crafts can be seen in shops, in Japanese style restaurants, in traditional inns, and in hotel arcades. Every department store in the country carries a range of the very same arts and crafts that so impressed the first European visitors more than 400 years ago.
Copyright © 2009 by Boye Lafayette De Mente