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To Bring Japanese Traditional Crafts into the Modern Age — That is Soshin Kimura’s Vision

The spirited tea master in fact has a history of trying new ideas and serving as a key collaborator with artists and artisans in showcasing Japanese art, craft, and culture to the world.

Arielle Busetto

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Soshin Kimura, at the International Hokuriku Kogei Summit in Ishikawa, on August 14, 2021.

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(Last in a series)

I met Grand Tea Master Soshin Kimura in the lobby of a glossy hotel, the Hyatt Centric Kanazawa, on August 13, 2021. He was dressed in a dark summer kimono, wearing sharp-looking glasses.

The potentially intimidating context was soon forgotten. With his approachable countenance and charming manner in conversation, I felt clearly that I was sitting across from one of the most accomplished grand tea masters of our time.

At the age of just 45, he is the head of the Hoshinkai School in Kyoto, which he set up in 1997 — when he was just 21 years old.

From a young age, Master Kimura learned Urasenke Sado, which literally means “the way of tea, Urasenke School,” although many people living abroad might be more familiar with it simply as the concept of “tea ceremony.”

In the world of tea with its centuries of history, Kimura is considered a bit of a maverick. In fact, the head of the Hoshinkai School in a previous interview took issue with the translation “tea ceremony,” arguing that the “ceremony” part of Sado is not the key part of the art.

“The important thing is the appreciation that is shared by guests and made possible by the host’s omotenashi (hospitality),” Master Kimura argued in the earlier interview video released by ANA Global Channel in 2017.

We spoke to the Grand Master on the occasion of the International Hokuriku Kogei Summit in Ishikawa, an event for which he was a main organizer and the emcee, to discuss the importance of Japanese kogei, or traditional crafts.

Kimura also shared some of his thoughts on the future of crafts, including how artisans should approach the onset of 3D printing, and much more.

The Way of Tea with Soshin Kimura

It’s no accident that the International Hokuriku Summit in Ishikawa Prefecture, organized by the Japanese Ministry of Culture, was entrusted to Grand Tea Master Soshin Kimura.

The tea master in fact has a history of trying new ideas, and being a key point of contact for showcasing Japanese art, craft, and culture to the world.

He was responsible for the tea room and the art supervision of the WA-Qu EXHIBITION Fuori Salone in 2005 at the Salone del Mobile in Milan, Italy. 

Kimura worked together with Kengo Kuma in 2007 on the Tee Haus, an innovative architecture space with a tatami inside, suitable for a tea ceremony, in Frankfurt, Germany.

One Wagashi A Day, by Soshin Kimura (Shinchosha, 2014).

He has also authored several books, including One Wagashi A Day (Shinchosha, 2014), showcasing the history and variety of Japanese sweets to match the season, the occasion, and every day of the year.

The discussion of kogei and everyday life, the subject of the craft summit, is a topic the tea master encounters every day through his work.

“I think that choosing the elements of life, and living with them, enjoying them, is extremely valuable and important. It’s essentially the same as ochakai (having tea together).” 

He elaborated: “The questions to ask are: which decoration, which building to use, who to invite, what to eat, what plates and tools are best? Tea is something which uses all the essentials of life, i-shoku-ju (an abbreviation, which stands for clothing, food, and housing).” 

“I want people to know this importance,” he added. “Japanese don’t really think about it because it’s so obvious to them. But I would like for people to protect it in a way that everyday people can enjoy.”

Making Craft Current

The Ishikawa Hokuriku Kogei Summit has been held in Toyama since 2017.

However, also thanks to the organization of Soshin Kimura, its 2021 edition brought in a new spin. While the 2017 version focused on tradition and innovation, the summit in 2021 was about bringing together craftsmen from different walks of life, all of whom had worked with kogei.

Featured artists included renowned architect Kengo Kuma, pottery maker Chozaemon Ohi XI, backed by a heritage of hundreds of years, as well as designer and consultant Tsutomu Nakaya, all with experience in the international branding of small business.

(To meet the needs of the COVID-19 era, the event was also streamed online and archived on the website for people to watch at their convenience.)

Master Kimura focused on a wider definition of kogei, and he shared some insights on why.

“In Japan, the distinction between fine art and craft is very ambiguous, it’s hard to draw the line. Why is that?” asked Kimura.

“In reality, this [fine line between art and craft] originates from a beautiful idea that in Japan it wasn’t the case that the upper class had art, and the lower class didn’t. Craft was something to enjoy,” explained the tea master. “Everything from the unique art piece to the daily tools of life, for everyone.”

Kimura illustrated the thought by describing kogei as a pyramid: there were craft objects with unique art pieces at the top, and mass production objects at the bottom. In the middle were the crafts which were produced in mid-sized quantities, with a reasonable price tag. They all constituted kogei, and they permeated different aspects of daily life. 

His vision of the summit was that it should constitute a practical discussion on the issues in bringing craft to the modern age, and to an international audience. 

“I think that you could say that Japan’s way of life is kogei,” he expounded. “Judo has become a word that we don’t translate — we use it as it is. I would like kogei to become like that.”

The Uniqueness of Ishikawa

Given the location of the summit, it was natural to wonder what Soshin Kimura thought of Ishikawa as a center for craft culture.

“With the modern way of living, and life becoming more fast-paced, convenience is being prioritized. People are moving away from kogei objects, they are losing touch with crafts,” explained Kimura.

However, he argued, this was not true in Ishikawa: “People in this region value craft products, they are close to them. They are still in touch with the way of living, which is local, ethical, and ecological.”

As he simply put it, he is a “huge fan” of Kanazawa and the wider region: “I would like for people in this region to be confident. I would like this to be a renewal, a rebirth of the local culture, of sorts, a message that what you are doing in this region is truly amazing. The way people live their lives here is the essence of kogei.”

For those not in Hokuriku, Kimura sent a message on the uniqueness of the region: “Kanazawa isn’t Tokyo, and it’s also very different from Kyoto. The town has a history, but it also has nature on the Noto Peninsula. It is a microcosm of Japan as a whole.”

The tea master also used this opportunity to remind the wider Japanese community of the pride they should have in their culture.

“Japan has a long history. But they also like things that come from abroad. From an economic point of view as well, Japan has developed outwards. But I think there has been a little forgetfulness of what was right in front of everyone,” Kimura said.

“Exactly because this is an age when one can easily be connected to the rest of the world, I think as a Japanese it’s essential to have the tools to communicate one’s own identity and culture to the world.”

New Challenges

As technology continues to develop, and life becomes more and more convenient, Kimura does not hide his expectation that things will have to change as well.

During the summit, many other speakers also raised some of the issues: How do you make craftsmen understand that business management is just as important as the art? How do you explain the importance of branding? How do you entice the younger generations’ interest in craft? 

One example that came up was, for example, 3D printing. How does an artisan deal with the possibility of craft objects being copied by a machine? 

Soshin Kimura, Tea Grand Master and Hoshikai School Founder.

Kimura told us that he wasn’t so pessimistic. “I think that craftsmen can be a little spoiled. They would say, ‘If people copy what I do, that is not good.’ But it will happen, without a doubt, and copying can have its merit as well.”

He argued: “The essence of a unique object can be passed down to mass production. The issue is just representing it in a faithful way somehow. Otherwise, there is no meaning.”

The focus, he pointed out, should be on the intended consumer, which is always the key in thinking about kogei.

“The various products ー those for mass production, or the unique products, it’s not a matter of one being better than the other,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s always the issue of who you are making this for, and what’s its purpose.”

As the International Hokuriku Kogei Summit came to a close, I reflected on what a unique opportunity it was to rub shoulders with a master in the field, a volcano of new ideas, and an exponent of Japanese culture — the likes of Soshin Kimura. 

One can only be excited for what Mr. Kimura will be doing next. 

This is the last part of a series delving deeper into the ideas presented at the 2021 International Kogei Summit. Craftsmen and experts share their views on the future of kogei, and discuss the ways in which Ishikawa Prefecture is showcasing Japanese culture. Find other articles in the series here: 

Author: Arielle Busetto

Arielle Busetto is a journalist at JAPAN Forward. She has finished the intensive Japanese course of the Inter University Center For Advanced Japanese Studies in Yokohama in summer 2018, and is originally from Siena, Italy.