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Monozukuri - Craftsmanship and Innovation Japanese Style

The Japanese notion of monozukuri has often been translated as “manufacturing” but it is much closer to craftsmanship in the way it is understood by most Japanese. It represents a blend of craftsmanship (thing making) and “bringing a thing to life”. One can view the mono (thing) and the tsukuri (making) as interpenetrating each other. The material has some of the "made" already in it, as if some animism is inherent in the object-world. Wasn’t it Michelangelo that once said that he did not carve the marble so much as scrape it away to reveal the life inside it? As if there is already something down deep there to be “revealed”.

When discussing monozukuri with a Japanese friend, he recounted the reaction of a monk at a Kyoto temple to a newly crafted tokonoma. He talked of the "graining" of the hinoki wood as if they were veins, the "life" of the tree, which the carpenter (a known Kyoto craftsman) revealed to be "there."

In the West, we would either try to transcendentalise it (God's creation) or, collaterally, read it as part of a "sign" system by which God “reveals his mysteries”. The monk was seeing them as life lines of a tree and a good carpenter was more like a cross between a craftsman and a doctor.

This perhaps explains certain Japanese practices regarded as rather quaint by foreigners. One example, is that of Japanese pharmaceutical companies which perform ceremonies to honour experimental rats for their "sacrifice." It is to convey thanks and appreciation for helping make medicines safe for humans. Or, take the case of Japanese electronics companies, that likewise “thank” prototyping materials for morphing into products that are safe and useful for our consumption.

Consider also funeral ceremonies for robots (mechanical pets of sorts) that have sprung up ever since Sony created Aibo, the beloved robotic puppy. One such ceremony takes place in Kofukuji temple in Chiba prefecture’s city of Isumi, to say a final goodbye to a loyal robot friend. In Japan, even mechanical pets are imbued with some spiritual qualities, even if these may actually be reflections of our own attachment towards them.


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