It all started with a cup of coffee. It was tiny, took 20 minutes to make and cost eight dollars, but still, it was a cup of coffee from Daibo Coffee in Tokyo that planted the seed for Michael Magers’ photography project, Shokunin. Though he had worked as a coffee bean and cocoa trader in a past life, the 39-year-old photographer had never tasted anything that came close to what he was drinking that day. Why? Because that cup of coffee was the result of a lifelong dedication to its perfection, a process that characterizes all of Japan’s master craftsmen, or Shokunin. Magers spent the next months researching and photographing these remarkable artisans, who often work in obscurity and always with an intense, almost meditative focus. His work will be on show at The Terminal in Kyoto from April 4th as a satellite event to the international festival Kyotographie. He met R&K for a cup of coffee in New York.
Roads & Kingdoms: You shot this project over seven weeks in Japan. Tell us about the first Shokunin you photographed.
Michael Magers: There’s a place called Sakai City about 20 minutes outside of Osaka that’s famous for its swordmaking tradition. They make really amazing knives there. I contacted the local prefecture and asked if they could arrange a visit with one of the knifemakers. They said “of course, we’ll take you to the factory.” I showed up there late – it’s Japan, so I already felt horrible – and in typical fashion, there were three people that greeted me and who took me around. We pulled up in someone’s driveway and they said “we’re here, this is the first workshop.” This is where I met Ikeda-san, a blacksmith who looks a bit like Mick Jagger and makes knives for David Bouley and Michael Romano and all these really famous chefs. The space was tiny and I could barely move around. In Sakai, they say the reason why the knives are so good is because it’s not just one guy who does everything, they’ve actually taken the specialization and have broken it down into more specializations, so you have the blacksmith who forges the blade, then it goes to a shaper or sharpener, then there’s a third guy who’s job it is to put the handle on and to engrave it. That’s what he does. He sits like a buddha, putting handles on knifes all day long. I just thought it was amazing that these guys were doing this incredible work that might not get passed down. So the whole idea was to do something that raises a little bit of awareness about this. I was really surprised at the response I got in Japan. People told me they never see this. These guys work in obscurity. Part of being a Shokunin is that you’re doing something for the greater good, that society benefits from this obsessive work that you put in.
Noriyuki Yoshida, toolmaker and blacksmith in Shimabara. Photo by Michael Magers.
R&K: There’s a bit of a spirituality to it, too…
Magers: When you’re around these guys, there’s an incredible sense of peace and focus. They’re like monks. And they’re so in the present. There are old samurai texts that talk about doing the small things right, and letting the bigger things take care of themselves. I started to think about how we have this pyramid inverted in the West, where we tie our happiness and our success to these big picture things and in the end, most people are pretty miserable. To create a thing that’s so perfect as the Shokunin do, you don’t start with the big picture. You start with the small things and you do those things really, really, really well. I thought it was a bit of a metaphor for life itself.
Kyubei Watari, ceramic artist in Nogata. Watari-san passed away shortly after I met him. He was the 11th generation of his family’s ceramic dynasty. His son, Hitoshi, follows in his footsteps. Photo by Michael Magers.
R&K: What does this say about Japan in general?
Magers: Japan is the only place in the world that I’ve ever been where you can have a guy who is still using traditional methods to hand-harvest rice in a small plot by his house and then hop on a bullet train to Tokyo. There’s no place in the world where the traditional and the modern coexist the way they do in Japan. What these guys are wrestling with, and not just Shokunin but all of Japan in some respect, is how that balance will continue moving forward.