Friday, January 28, 2011
This man was my main teacher during my apprenticeship, a member of the company where I trained. I sat a little over two meters to his left when working, for four years. He began his own career at the age of thirteen, in the town of Kobe. He had vast experience building all different types of furniture, but at some point had become a specialist in chairs, perhaps simply because the shop needed one, furniture of western taste was becoming more and more common.
A transformation would take place every morning when he came into work. A quiet and simple person of relatively slight build, appearing not dissimilar to any somewhat elderly man that you might pass on the street and not glance at twice, but once he dressed in his gray trousers and shirt that he always wore when at the shop, the sense about him would become one of superior strength and confidence. He truly exemplified the shokunin, going about the tasks in a relaxed and definite way, and also conveying a powerful if not fearful atmosphere from his long experience and high degree of commitment to his work. The furniture he built was clean, even from left to right, and had an appearance of efficiency to it's making, something that is not so often seen in woodwork, where one can struggle with the details. He had profound knowledge and skills, the man was a great inspiration for me.
The last day of my apprenticeship, I waited outside the shop to sat goodbye and to offer my thanks. I thought that it would be good to be alone together for a moment, away from the other craftsmen . He looked at me, somehow in a way that seemed slightly different from before, acknowledged my thank you, and said, "You have to get faster". Then he turned and walked out the gate. That was it, no sentimentality, or a pat on the back like I might have wished for, simply his final instruction about the work. All the years that have passed since that took place, the realization remains regarding the wisdom in his parting words, and it is still true, I do have to get faster.
Sometimes I would stop in and see Mr. Nakamichi and his wife on the infrequent visits to Japan some years after. He had retired after sixty years as a craftsman, his health was not so great. We would drink tea together, maybe a chat about how things were going for me as a furniture maker, and I might bring out some photos of what I had been doing.
The last time I visited Mr. Nakamichi, he was bed ridden and only semi conscious, a short time before his death. When I entered his home, his wife said to me, "Go upstairs, you will be surprised to see him making furniture again". I couldn't understand what she might be saying, because I knew that he was not in a good way. When I entered his room, I saw that indeed he was at his trade again, in bed with his eyes closed, with his hands going through the motions. At one point he was holding a dozuki saw and making a fine cut in a piece of wood, his straight cut, it was unmistakable.