Spring 2021 begins a season of resiliency. After a long and particularly snowy winter in New York, I look forward to welcoming my favorite cherry blossoms. It’s been a year now since the COVID shutdowns took hold and the pandemic pause has required enormous energy from all of us at Japan Society, from remote work with constant online meetings, to safeguarding our 50-year-old building, to pivoting to online programming and finding new ways to bring in revenue. It’s not really been a “pause” in the traditional sense, it’s been a race for organizational transformation, adaptation to new ways of communicating with our colleagues and our members, and now — a reopening!
This spring, we are delighted to celebrate our reopening with When Practice Becomes Form: Carpentry Tools from Japan, a special exhibition that explores the extraordinary, centuries-long tradition of Japanese architecture and woodworking artistry, and features a range of hand tools and models that reflect techniques used for hundreds of years to build and restore Japan’s wooden architectural masterpieces — temples, shrines, and bridges.
Philosophy of Japanese woodworking
The philosophy that undergirds Japanese woodworking is deeply engrained in Japan Society’s own history. As master woodworker George Nakashima wrote in his book, The Soul of a Tree, “We can walk in step with a tree to release the joy in her grains, to join with her to realize her potentials, to enhance the environments of man.” Fifty years ago, Junzo Yoshimura, the architect of Japan Society’s now-landmarked building, asked that Japanese hinoki cedar be used for the coffered ceilings in the Society’s lobby and selected with his own hands stones to be shipped from Japan for the foyer garden. He also specified furniture to be crafted by Nakashima in his New Hope, Pennsylvania workshop, furniture that has stood the test of time and is still in use today.
Precision is a hallmark of the Japanese experience. One of the many ways to view this is through the concept of kodawari — a unique Japanese notion that is difficult to translate — referring to the uncompromising, relentless devotion to one’s art, pursuit, profession, or activity. In a world turned upside down by a pandemic, there has never been a more welcome time to explore this relentless pursuit of precision and quality in one’s work at all levels of kodawari — in the form of Japanese woodworking.
Tools of leadership, alliance & innovation
The resilient spirit of Japanese craftsmanship resonates, especially in these unusual times. The presence of tools in our galleries and an exploration of their longstanding heritage for a broad audience highlights the persistent strength of U.S.-Japan relations and human ingenuity. As a leader, I take my own inspiration from Nakashima, using the strength of the oak tree in the West and flexibility of bamboo in the East to bring out the strength, resiliency, and innovation of the U.S.-Japan alliance through my own set of tools. These are the tools of leadership, which require the knowledge and precision of a master carpenter, building for the present while planning for the future. As Nakashima writes, “Each cut requires judgments and decisions on what the log should become.”
In kigumi — traditional Japanese wooden joinery — each part plays a crucial role since the joints are fitted together without any nails or fasteners. To have structural integrity, the work — whether furniture or architecture — needs to be weight bearing, and with its direct connections, the whole will ultimately be stronger than its separate elements. In an ongoing cycle of repair and renewal, old joints are replaced by new ones, allowing traditional Japanese buildings to stand for hundreds of years. I find a parallel in the U.S.-Japan alliance, where our direct connection is the strength of our relationship — a collective strength where each nation can accomplish more together.
Fifty years ago, as Japan Society’s new building was preparing to open to the public, Deputy Executive Director Daniel J. Meloy wrote to George Nakashima: “Your first shipment to us arrived safely today with all pieces in good shape. We have unwrapped them, dusted them, carried them to their respective rooms, and we love them.” This spring, I invite you to visit When Practice Becomes Form, and help us celebrate our reopening. Let’s work together, using the tools of tradition and innovation, to build the next 50 years of our alliance.
Given the challenges the world has faced this past year, the U.S.-Japan alliance has never been more necessary — as acknowledged by the fact that the first world leader to visit President Biden’s White House will be Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. The personification of the importance of this relationship through this visit, along with the elevation of the “Quad” meeting between the leaders of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, indicates a new emphasis in American foreign policy. In addition to the geopolitical challenges confronting our nations, Americans have been struggling domestically with the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and harassment — a powerful reminder of critical battles still to be fought at home. The Japanese American experience, including forced relocation to internment camps during World War II and the 1980s discrimination triggered by economic tensions with Japan, are only two examples of the long history of anti-Asian racism we continue to confront as a country and community. Now, more than ever, we must bring our collective strength to bear to fight hate and bigotry — and build a stronger and more resilient society.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.
Joshua W. Walker, PhD President & CEO
Walker leads Japan Society to create deep bonds between the US & Japan through programs in culture, education, business, policy & technology