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Structures That Meditate: The Beauty of Japanese Carpentry


Traditional Japanese carpenters aspire to making the spirit of a tree immortal in an everlasting structure.

Like all of us, trees will end up as dust. But there is the possibility of interrupting that process and do something with a tree that will allow it to continue to exist and have a second life. Traditional Japanese carpenters aspire to that ––to capture the spirit of a tree in a piece that, as well as being an object of beauty, will last forever.

If a tree has had an enjoyable life it expresses it in its fibers, says George Nakashima, acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost master carpenters and, according to the Japanese government, “the carrier of a sacred secret.” Nakashima believes, as the druids did, that each tree has a ghost inside and that the carpenter must know it and make it last. The more years and the better conditions the tree has lived, the better it will be for transforming its spirit into a beautiful object. For that reason, all woodwork in Japan is one-on-one –man to trunk – and never with metal or iron, which would prevent them from bonding. The tools used by the master carpenter are limited to chisels (nomi), hammers (mokuzuchi), saws (nokogiri) and brushes (kanna).

For many, the charm of Japanese carpentry lies in the fact that it reminds them of the ancient world of handcrafts, a now-extinct era that was in harmony with nature through the careful observation of its cycles and rhythms. For others it is the esthetic of the assembly, whose technique comes precisely from that observation of the natural rhythms presented by the geometric union, often invisible, of all the parts. The system of interlocking that connects the wood via complex and self-sustainable joints was already a widely used skill when the Miya-Daiku built their famous Zen temples and teahouses.

Nakashima, the grandson of a samurai warrior, was one of the more modern practitioners of this technique and he brought it to the West. He saw his skill as a kind of spiritual occupation that transformed the beauty of a tree into functional art. His work ethic can be summarized in his final comments of The Soul of a Tree:

I have a one-man war against modern art, for instance. It’s the predominance of a personal ego that bothers me. My ideal is that a craftsman should be unknown rather than known. He doesn’t have to throw his ego around. This goes back to other civilizations. For instance, in the Sung Dynasty in China, the craftsman never signed his pieces. I think that’s indicative of a healthy civilization. Everything that they produced was worthy, artful, beautiful.

Japanese carpentry conserves the singularity of each one of its master craftsmen and, according to them, also conserves the spirit of the tree that spawned each piece. But all of the transmigrations that occur in the creative process belong to a subtle and discreet world, similar to the invisible joints in furniture or houses where what is important is beauty, strength and the long-lasting quality of a tree that otherwise would have died.

The invisible assembly seen in the modern world represents the survival of an art form that directly imitates the discretion and phantasmagorical geometry of nature. A work that is carried out almost psychically with the wood. It is not the interest in the piece of furniture itself that is important (a master craftsman would hardly design a plastic chair), but what matters is a good piece that appears to be meditating in place.

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