The historical craftsmanship spirit — part 2: shokunin

Sushi shokunin at work

This post is part of my 200 words per day challenge that I am sharing publicly on Twitter in order to improve my writing and develop a writing routine. Feel free to join and comment.

In the first part we saw that historical craftsmanship revolves around a vertical organization structure, master-journeyman-apprentice.

However, craftsmanship is not only a vertical hierarchy, but also an horizontal organization structure: individual workshops collaborate closely together, forming guilds, and are an integral part of society as a whole.

The concept of guild as an assembly of craftsmen is tighly coupled to the spirit of crafsmanship: craftsmen are highly independent, yet they spread their knowledge and collaborate together, within a given guild. And even though processes and techniques were kept secret by each guild individually, the secret teachings could eventually be spread thanks to the master / journeyman system and lead to the betterment of everyone.

It is interesting to analyze the word “artisan”, a synonym for craftsman originating from France and derived from the latin for “art”. Artisan means, from an etymological definition, the one who uses his art for the benefit of others. And this concept of work ethics is well illustrated by the japanese artisan, the shokunin:

The Japanese word shokunin is defined by both Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries as ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan,’ but such a literal description does not fully express the deeper meaning. The Japanese apprentice is taught that shokunin means not only having technical skills, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.” — Tasio Orate

I do not think that the term shokunin is the only one infering the need to support society through one’s work, but I appreciate how direct its implications are: a shokunin serves others through himself.

A great shokunin example is Jiro Ono, a famous sushi chef based in Tokyo.

In conclusion, the craftsman spirit is a balance between seeking constant self-improvement while benefiting society as a whole.


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