A Teacup & 8 Dinner Plates | Popular Woodworking Magazine
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A proud Teacup without handlesNot only living beings retain a soul; some objects do as well.

by Toshio Odate

The word “Pantheism” is defined as “the religious belief or philosophical doctrine, which identifies the universe with God.” And, “The doctrine that God is not a personality, but that all laws, forces and manifestations, etc. of the universe are God.” God is everything and everything is God.

“Panpsychism” is a similar ideology, defined as, “The doctrine that the entire universe or any least particle of it has a psychic or mental as well as a physical or aspect.” PSY-CHE = personification of breath, spirit, soul, mind.

Many Japanese people believe that gods are all over and around us – in the kitchen, in the bathroom, on the roof, in a tree, a rock, river, mountain, etc. So, we often treat objects as living beings and sometimes worship them.

I do not know if I can call Japan a pantheistic or a panpsychistic country, as Ancient Greece was. However, both of these ideologies are deeply embedded in Japanese life, and especially in Buddhism and Shintoism. I am not a conscientious believer of these ideologies. However, the ideologies are so naturally woven into the Japanese way of life that we practice them without any special psychological or spiritual resistance. It is simply part of our culture.

One often witnesses a scene in Japan – a gentle mother mildly rebuking her son, “Don’t take your frustration away by kicking things.” The mother is telling her child to respect objects; things have their own spirits.

Tools are Treated with Respect

Rice Cake; In this way on January first we decorate our tools and toolbox

Rice Cake; In this way on January first we decorate our tools and toolbox

The Japanese woodworker cleans his tools and toolbox at the end of the year then decorates and places them in the Tokonoma – a special corner in the room or cleaned workshop, to show his family’s and his own gratitude for the tools’ hard work and the crucial role they play in the craftsman’s life. Hand tools are an extension of the craftsman’s body, thus the craftsman gives extreme care to his tools and handles them with respect.

The Japanese also believe that the craftsman’s heart and mind are married during the making process. I heard, in my childhood, an example that will clarify this point:

The story involves two swordsmiths,  Muramasa and Masamune. Both were reputed to produce excellent swords that were prized among the Samurai. Muramasa was said to be jealous and cynical; his ambition and sense of competitiveness motivated him to concentrate on forging blades that cut keenly. Thus, the story went, Muramasa created brilliant swords; any Samurai who possessed a Muramasa sword, it was said, felt its power and quality and was urged to cut people mercilessly.

Masamune’s swords, on the other hand, were said to invest their owner with a sense of confidence and serenity. Though these swords also cut well and were brilliantly beautiful, much of the time they remained calmly sheathed.

The moral of the story is that the quality also concerns itself with attitude and motivation.

It was quite early in my life (during my late 20s) that I started believing that anything I do – any action or any of my behaviors – is manipulated by my heart and mind. For example, when one walks or handles objects with anger in one’s heart and mind, one behaves quite unpleasantly. But when one speaks or talks with peace and happiness in one’s heart and mind, one creates, in contrast, a very pleasant atmosphere around oneself.

As I said, I am not a conscientious follower of these ideologies, however, in my 80-plus years of life, I have often heard of, read about and practiced them. Somehow, I started to suspect that some kind of energy, force or will is present  in some objects.

A Father’s Love

I know a man who loves woodworking but he is not a trained woodworker. He had a little baby girl, whom he loved dearly. He knew that the baby girl would grow older and some day fly away from home and from him.

One day he decided to make a “hope chest” for her. He had stashed away some special wood for it and he wanted to make the best construction he knew, including dovetailed corner joints. He acquired a dovetail joint book and at night and on weekends he did his best to construct the chest, always thinking of his lovely daughter and the day she might leave.

Because he was not a trained woodworker, I can only imagine the result. But the chest he built – as rough as it might have been – had his palm holding the sandpaper as he caressed the chest, full of love and care. These feelings are retained in the chest very deeply. Years later, long after he is gone, his daughter will feel her father’s love and care  with the warmth and comfort retained by this chest.

A Saw Brought Back to Life

Photo 3: Geta Shokunin’s saw; Since it’s arrival in America this saw is now rust free and wearing a new handle, and bearing proudly its signature.

Geta Shokunin’s saw; Since its arrival in America this saw is now rust free and wearing a new handle, and bearing proudly its signature.

A friend of my master was a Geta-Shokunin – a wooden clog maker. When the shokunin died, he left no apprentice to continue his trade. So his son, who had dedicated himself to farming, gave his father’s tools away.

It was a short time after the shokunin’s death that my brother and I visited the son. I remembered all the tools that used to hang on the wall of the workshop, so it surprised me that the son had not kept even a single plane. He merely said: “I have none,” in response to my question about the tools.

Intimate emotions are not easily understood by others. I am certain that the son had good reasons for giving or throwing away his father’s tools. I remember the son truly loved his father, who was a very soft-spoken gentle man. Not wanting to invade his personal feelings, I stopped asking about the tools. But the son then said, “Wait a minute,” and disappeared into the barn. He reappeared carrying a large saw with a badly rusted blade and a handle that was half rotted away, “This was buried under the dirt floor,” as if he was saying, “I thought I cleared out my father’s tools completely.”

“If you like this,” the son said, “you may have it.”

At that offer, I felt great sorrow for the shokunin who had died and great pity for this ignored tool. I accepted the offer and took the saw back home. At my brother’s house, I immediately started to clean it. The rust wasn’t too deep. Soon thereafter, an almost bluish body began to appear as if awakening from a long sleep. The blacksmith’s signature came out brightly and clearly; it seems like the saw had been waiting for me to rescue him.

A Reminder of the Master

When I was 16 years old, I met a Kobiki Shokunin (sawyer) named Tenjin (guardian of heaven).

Tenjin was a good friend of my master. Together, we often worked at the house of our customers. I respected and admired him so much; I often thought that some day, I would like to be a master just like Tenjin.

Many years later, when I visited my master in 1976, I asked him about Tenjin. My master replied, “Tenjin passed away.” I then told my master that I wanted to acquire a Kobiki’s Maebiki-saw (sawyer’s rip saw) for my collection.

We decided to visit Tenjin’s elder brother, who was also a Kobiki Shokunin, to pay our respects. After

Photo 5: Tenjin’s Saw has settled down in Woodbury

Tenjin’s Saw has settled down in Woodbury

a very formal and stilted conversation, I said, “I would like to take a Maebiki-saw to America.” Tenjin’s brother brought out two Maebiki-saws. One was very large, shiny and clean with sharp, perfect teeth. The other was much smaller and had two teeth missing, a dark shiny handle (a sign that it was well used) and a beautiful shape. When I expressed difficulty in choosing between the two, the brother pointed to the smaller, older saw and said, “This was Tenjin’s.”

That, of course, decided it for me. I knew that Tenjin loved this saw and used it well. Did the saw know that I loved and respected Tenjin so much? Is that why he wanted to travel to America with me?

Soul of the Teacup

My professor Shinji Koike wrote a short essay titled “The Soul of the Teacup,” that I will summarize here:

I met a young ceramist named Katˉo, he offered me one teacup from several available. I chose one

Toshio named his tea-cup “sezzai” (standing in snow) & made this box with aromatic Cedar; caligraphy was written by the known chisel maker Iyoroi. In this way Kato’s tea cup was given a name, and placed into a paulownia box.

Toshio named his tea-cup “sezzai” (standing in snow) & made this box with aromatic Cedar; caligraphy was written by the known chisel maker Iyoroi. In this way Kato’s tea cup was given a name, and placed into a paulownia box.

and took it home. However, the teacup was so special I didn’t use it too often; soon it was pushed to the back recesses of the cabinet. Years later, my friend Akanuma visited me and our conversation turned to the tea ceremony. This discussion reminded me of Katˉo’s teacup.

Mr. Akanuma, who in contrast to me, liked to brew Maccha – a powdered green tea. I thought the cup more suited to his taste in tea, and I felt that the cup itself wanted a new master because I had given up on it.

Just as a lecturer at the Tokyo Museum of Natural History had spoken of the “life and death of tools,” I thought that teacups also lived or died depending on their masters. Twenty years later, a royal lady came to Akanuma’s tea house. Akanuma then consulted a tea master to determine which cup he should offer the lady. The master decided that the correct cup would be one that I once owned. This teacup was made by a young ceramist named Katˉo. Today, he is a well-known and celebrated ceramist. That cup was presented to the royal lady who loved ceramics so much that she had her own kiln. Perhaps it was fate but that lady’s ceramic teacher was Katˉo.

Symbolic Meaning

I came to America in 1958, and married an American woman of Hungarian decent. We had a baby boy. We wanted to give him a Japanese name but not a common one, so we named him “Shobu,” which means “iris” in Japanese. Giving a flower name to a boy is not a Japanese custom. However, the iris is a symbol for “Boy’s Day” in Japan (May 5th; now it is called “Children’s Day”).

My ex-wife’s cousins – Dr. Howard Hochman and his wife, Patricia – had three children. They are a very generous and warm family and they accepted Shobu as if he were one of their own. Perhaps because of my special devotion to Shobu, and the unusual name “iris,” Pat went out of her way to find anything with an iris flower on it, like a wine bottle with an iris label or a pad with a printed iris flower on it. It pleased me deeply.

Even long afterward, when Shobu left home to go to college, Pat still would surprise me with iris items. One of them was a Japanese coffee cup with a beautiful blue-purple iris on a gray background. The shape of the cup is just like a deep Japanese tea cup. It was a little bit too skinny for a regular coffee cup, however I was very much charmed by it and used it every day.

One day, as I took it out of the cabinet, the cup slipped from my hand and the handle broke into pieces. I was shocked, then immediately tried to mend it, but it was beyond repair. Usually, after such an accident, a cup would become another pencil holder. However, the handle broke off very cleanly and now the handle-less cup looked just like a beautiful traditional Japanese teacup. Then I felt as if the cup itself did not want the flimsy handle to begin with and so it took it off by itself. I ground down the scars cleanly, flat and smooth. Now it is one of my favorite teacups in my house. When I use it for tea, on very special occasions, the cup seems to be very proud of itself.

Shobu finished school, and on Aug. 11, 2007, he married in Cape Cod, Mass. Of course the Hochman family was there. I stayed at the same motel as they did, and on the morning of the wedding day I met Pat in the motel parking lot. She was holding several plates that seemed very heavy. “Aren’t these beautiful?” she said. “I found these at the flea market in town.” They were Japanese ceramic dinner plates – more like large individual serving plates – with wild flowers painted in a beautiful deep purplish-blue, with light-brown leaves on a light green gray base. They were very subtle and elegant. I saw three of them, all hand-painted with the same motif but each slightly different.

I went to the same flea market hoping, in my heart, to find some similar plates. However, I had no luck. The wedding was over that evening and the next day I drove back home. The design and glaze of the plates, however, stayed in my mind for quite a long time.

After the wedding, I went to the Hochman’s house many times, for many occasions. However, I never saw the plates and forgot about them.

Friday July 9th, 2010, was my 80th birthday. Pat and Howard invited us to their house for dinner. Just before we were leaving Pat brought out the eight dinner plates and said, “Many times in the past Howard and I thought and tried to give these to you, but we could not find the perfect occasion. Here they are!  Happy birthday, Toshio!” I could not find any words. I thanked them from the bottom of my heart. It had been almost three years since I last saw these plates but I remembered the blue, the brown, the touch of the brush so clearly – as if I had seen them every day.

I arrived home and looked at all eight of the plates one more time. Each one of them was slightly different with no mark or signature. I placed them safely in the cabinet. As I lay in bed that evening, one thing puzzled me. Why did the color and design of the plates seem so familiar? While thinking, I fell asleep.

A proud Teacup without handles; this teacup still retains a mysterious power

A proud Teacup without handles; this teacup still retains a mysterious power

The next morning, I woke up a little bit earlier than usual and continued thinking about the plates. Then I realized that the plates’ blue, the brown and the gray base were the same as my iris tea cup with the broken handle. I was very excited that I had solved the puzzle.

I got up from bed right away, went downstairs and took out the tea cup from the cabinet. Yes, it was the same! I also took out all the plates and noticed that they have the same glaze, the same brush touch and a similar base clay. Was it at all possible that this teacup and these plates were produced by one ceramist? Yes, it is possible. All the evidence indicates that they were! Yes, I am sure of it.

When Pat picked up the iris coffee cup she was thinking about me, but when she showed me the plates in the parking lot, she wasn’t thinking about giving them to me. I only expressed how beautiful they were and she was already imagining serving dinner to her guests, what kind of food to offer and how to present them. She was enjoying the idea of using them and obviously loved them.

However, now the plates are here, with me, and with the teacup. Pat had found the coffee cup around Stonington, Conn., many years ago, and she found these plates much later at Cape Cod Mass., miles away. I wonder what kind of energy was involved for this extraordinary event to take place?

A Lasting Energy

When a person creates an item, a painting, a sculpture or artifact, there are feelings and senses of the maker that stay in the piece. There is, of course, the material, color, form, function, etc., and all these characteristics are somewhat tangible elements.

However, there are also invisible, complex and powerful forces within each object. This special kind of energy, which the creator knowingly or unknowingly injects into the object, forms the character and quality of the item. In some way, I think this energy itself becomes the spirit of the object and somehow the object develops some kind of will of its own. Sometimes, it will find the right person to care for it and keep its spirit alive and appreciated. Other times it will carry on the creator’s strong will and wisdom. These forces are so powerful that they will stay in an object long after it’s parted from its creator, or the person who cared deeply for it.

My professor describes this phenomenon as “a fate”; many people might say it is a simple coincidence. I don’t have any clear answer for that. However, I strongly believe that a creator’s heart and mind or will and wisdom goes into the entity which he or she creates, and also the beneficiary’s loving and caring energy will remain as part of the force of an object as well. PWM

As an author, lecturer and teacher, Toshio has been pivotal in spreading knowledge about Japanese tools and woodworking techniques throughout the Western world. He now works out of his Connecticut shop with the assistance of Laure Olender, who builds alongside Toshio and photographs his work.

Watch “Woodworking Legends: An Interview with Toshio Odate,” available on DVD or as a video download

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