By Wilbur Pan
Because I’m of Chinese descent, it’s probably not a surprise that I found myself drawn to Japanese tools when I started woodworking, and that I wanted to learn how they worked and how they were used. At first this was frustrating. Part of the issue was that I don’t speak or read Japanese at all. But a bigger hurdle for me was that many of the sources I found spent a lot of time talking about the Zen of using Japanese tools, and there was much talk about how this method of woodworking was shrouded by Eastern mysticism and philosophy.
I found it curious that there was so much talk about Zen and Japanese woodworking. After all, articles about 18th-century woodworking seem to avoid (for the most part) discussing Voltaire, Locke and Goethe. The thing is, despite the obvious interest of others in the Asian worldview and how it impacted the use of these tools, I wasn’t interested in that aspect of Japanese woodworking at all. I just wanted to learn how Japanese tools worked, and my feeling was that despite the obvious differences between Japanese and Western woodworking tools, at the end of the day it all came down to sharp pieces of steel cutting through wood – and that was the level of understanding that I was trying to get to.
Although I’m a long way away from knowing all there is to know about Japanese tools, I think I now have a better understanding of why Eastern philosophy keeps coming up for discussion where Japanese woodworking is concerned, and my own family gave me insight into this. My wife is Catholic, went to Catholic school all the way through high school and was often called to read at Mass when she was growing up. I, on the other hand, am not. My religious upbringing consisted of hearing my parents talk about Confucian and Buddhist principles, and watching two local Sunday morning TV shows when I was a kid – one that showed the music of Baptist choirs from Chicago’s South Side, and another show for Jewish kids that featured stories from the Torah.
When I attended Mass with my wife for the first time, I found it completely fascinating. I wanted to know about every aspect of the liturgy. The symbolism behind receiving Communion was something I thought about a lot. My wife, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same degree of fascination, because she grew up with it. I think she finds it amusing that at times I’m the one who’s more insistent that our kids perform the sign of the cross properly.
Blog: Visit Wilbur Pan’s blog for more thoughts on Japanese tools.
From the October 2012 issue #199
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