by John Kelsey
In his unusual life, Toshio Odate, now 85, has not only stepped from one continent and culture to another – from rural Japan to urban America – but also from one historical epoch to another, from the feudal era to modern times.
Along the way he became a skilled wood craftsman trained in the old ways, then a student, artist and thinker participating fully in the art movements of the late 20th century, and finally, a teacher.
And in a way, Odate has traveled full circle because he came to understand in the middle of his long life that he has a unique responsibility to represent Japanese craft traditions to Westerners. To demonstrate and teach; to write books and magazine articles; to be photographed working; to explain not only what he is doing, but why and most important, why it matters.
Full circle because Odate’s sense of responsibility, yea of moral duty, comes directly from those feudal craft traditions he absorbed as a boy.
“Absorbed,” hah – as he recounts in his second book, “Making Shoji” (Linden, 2000), the traditions were beaten into him by a fierce master.
An epochal passage might take a human culture several centuries of war and revolution, whereas this infinitely resilient man has done it in a single lifetime.
Today, Odate seems comfortably at ease in each of his roles, even as he now lives much as he began: a modest shokunin who starts the day by making tea and rice on a wood-burning stove, looking out at his garden.
To appreciate Odate, one must start with the Japanese craftsman, the shokunin.
“A craftsman, from the bottom of his or her heart, is to serve society. Every profession has social obligations and responsibilities. The craftsman’s social responsibility is to fulfill society’s demands as best they know how,” Odate has written.
From this perspective, though the craftsman and the artist each play an equally worthy role in society, one difference is critical: “Unlike craft, society does not ask the artist for what it needs. The artist’s social responsibility and obligation is to find a valid concept and execute it, then share it with society…whether society likes it or not.”
Video: Watch Toshio Odate talking about Japanese saws in this free video.
Article: Read a free article by Odate on making koshi-do lattice doors for his studio.
Article: Read Odate’s moving account of “A Teacup & 8 Dinner Plates.”
In Our Store: “Woodworking Legends, An Interview with Toshio Odate,” a full-length DVD.
To Buy: “Talking Japanese Tools with Toshio Odate.”
From the December 2015 issue