Perfect fit of craft and design

by Yuko Naito

Sashimono is a traditional Japanese joining technique for wooden cabinetmaking. It also refers to the furniture made with the technique, such as desks, wardrobes, dressers and chests.

Like many other traditional crafts, handmade sashimono has been replaced by Western-style furniture in most Japanese households, as contemporary lifestyles become more and more Westernized. These days, however, they are drawing young people’s attention despite the Japanese design and rather high prices.

Cabinetmaking was originally part of the carpenter’s trade. In the early Edo Period the Tokugawa Shogunate, aiming to promote industry in Edo, recruited craftsmen in various fields from all over the country and they settled in Kanda and Nihonbashi. Some places there still have names related to their origins, such as Kaji-cho, literally “blacksmiths town” and Kanda Konya-cho, or “dyers town.” There also used to be a Daiku-cho (carpenters town), but it does not exist any more.

As the demands of Edo consumers diversified, artisans began to specialize. The carpenter’s trade was subdivided into carpenters specializing in building temples, shrines and palaces, manufacturers of screens and sliding doors, cabinetmakers and other specialties.

In Edo, sashimono furniture was favored by samurai families, merchants and kabuki actors, so it needed to be elegant, not too gaudy, and robust. To make joints strong, craftsmen developed a variety of complicated mortise-joining methods that cannot be seen from outside, which require rare technical skills.

The most difficult thing in sashimono-making, however, is not the joining technique, but making the best use of the grain of the wood as a design element, says Edo-sashimono craftsman Kazunori Nemoto.

Sometimes the products are adorned with gold and silver lacquer or inlaid with mother-of-pearl, but wood grain can be the most important factor in determining the impression the work makes.

“The completed products look totally different, depending on what part of the wood is used and how,” Nemoto says. “I decide the design after seeing the materials. I feel like the wood tells me what to make.”

Nemoto, who is in his late 40s and therefore considered young for a sashimono craftsman, was apprenticed to a sashimono master at the age of 17. The first day of his apprenticeship, he was told to make his own chopsticks. He somehow managed to do it, but it wasn’t easy for a beginner even to use tools properly, he says.

Nemoto lived at the master’s atelier as a resident apprentice (uchi-deshi) for nine years, and even after starting a family he worked at the studio for six more years.

“It takes at least 10 years to become a full-fledged artisan,” he says. “Even now whenever I make something, I wonder what my master would say if he was still alive.”

He has heard some people in their 30s say they want to become sashimono craftsmen, but Nemoto says it’s too late for them. “There is a time when you can learn things physically, which is when you’re under 20,” he says. “As you get older, you try to think first.”

Nemoto belongs to the cabinetmakers’ guild, the Edo Sashimono Kyodo Kumiai, which regularly holds group exhibitions. His dream is to hold a solo show in the future.

“I’m glad some people are becoming interested in sashimono again,” he says. “I believe sashimono works well in Western-style rooms, too. “Also,” he notes, “once you buy it, you can use it for generations.”