Handmade in Japan: Irwin Wong’s Book Takes Readers “On a Journey Through the Island Nation”

Sep 14, 2020
Photographer Spotlight

I am confident that the skills of Japan are a gift for humankind: a gift for the future rather than just a way to create beautiful products, as in the good old days. – Kengo Kuma in the preface to "Handmade in Japan" 

Irwin Wong has worked with some of the most recognizable names in the modern corporate world, such as Amazon, Nike, and Mitsubishi Motors. But we’re here to discuss more timeless things, namely those “gifts for humankind” that Kengo — a famous Japanese architect — alludes to in his quote. Those gifts are the product of hundreds of years of dedicated craftsmanship, during which time generations of Japanese artisans have plied their trade and created gorgeous pottery, stunning swords, and delicate tea whisks.

Irwin Wong Handmade in Japan Kiln Tear

The Tokyo-based photographer has spent years profiling traditional Japanese craftspeople and recently compiled those photographic essays into a book called "Handmade in Japan," which came out this past spring. The reason I brought up Irwin’s impressive client list is because the questions he asks in his book are directly related to the ever-developing world we live in. From the press release:

Extraordinary craft makers meet rising demand for the uniqueness in the world by bringing millennium-old Japanese traditions up to date. 

Irwin Wong Handmade in Japan bow Tear

Seeing their work raises questions about our own modern lifestyles: What does the way these artisans treat natural materials tell about their way of appreciating the world? Is the dedication they have for their mastery informative for the way we lead our lives? 

One of the best parts of this exceedingly informative book is that it takes the time to identify different Japanese traditions and celebrates the island nation’s rich cultural diversity.

"Handmade in Japan" takes the reader on a journey through the island nation, offering insight into its varied and fascinating culture and traditions, while also revealing the histories of its diverse regions, from the fiery southern island of Kyushu, to the imperial capital of Kyoto, to the snowy wilderness of Hokkaido.

Irwin Wong Handmade in Japan Brewer Tearsheet

The book provides a rare glimpse into some of Japan’s most remarkable workshops, unveiling the techniques and stories behind thousand-year-old pottery kilns, katana swordsmiths, and the art of crafting delicate tea whisks out of bamboo.

There are, as you can imagine, a plethora of examples of the kind of craftsmanship for which Japanese people are known the world over. Below are just a few examples that show how ingrained these various crafts are within the people who make them.

Fujiwara Kanefusa is a licensed katana smith, of whom there are nearly 200 nationwide. It is estimated that only 50 to 60 of these swordsmiths make swords full-time, with the rest making a living creating other sharp-edged implements, such as knives and tools.

Irwin Wong Handmade in Japan Kanefusa sword

The Kanefusa family was smithing ceremonial swords for the imperial family. They are able to see the temperature on the burning sword from the color of the flame.

Another example of being able to see whether a craft is done correctly comes from 90-year-old Ichibei Iwano, who is as productive as people half his age.

Irwin Wong Handmade in Japan Washi papermaker

He can tell from sight whether the thickness of the so-called washi paper is consistent. He spots differences of 0.02 mm. Ichibei Iwano has clients such as Yayoi Kusama and the Musée du Louvre. To open up his craft to a larger audience, he offers workshops. 

You could spend a lifetime studying these enthralling traditions and learning about the history of “The Land of the Rising Sun.” Irwin’s lovingly documented stories serve as some of the most detailed accounts of Japanese cultural practices and trades, making them an excellent introduction to a truly magical place.

Over the course of centuries, Japan has developed a culture of the handmade known world — over for its quality, precision, and artistry. Today, these traditions in Handmade in Japan are being kept alive by master artisans who have dedicated their lives to the stewardship of this irreplaceable cultural heritage.

Handmade in Japan was published in April of 2020 by German publishing company Gestalten. It is available for purchase online

Check out more of Irwin's work at irwinwong.com.

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