Review: 'Making Shoji' by Toshio Odate

  • Posted on: 29 April 2016
  • By: Jay Oyster

Cover of my copy of Making Shoji by Toshio OdateBook review -- 'Making Shoji' by Toshio Odate.  Reviewed on 4/29/2016.

Recently, I've been thinking of ways to make my woodworking more . . . oh, I don't know, soulful, I guess. I do this hobby not so much to complete projects (based on my pace, that much should be right obvious) but to enjoy a sort of zen mindfulness. But I also do want to accomplish something. It's a personality flaw of mine that I can concentrate on something so intently that I slow to a crawl and don't make any progress. Woodworking with no progress isn't woodworking, it's meditation. (Or more likely in my case, ennui and then sleep.) But one of the ways I've been hoping to increase the mindfulness of my woodworking was to take on something elegant, simple and beautiful. I've always wanted to try to build a Japanese screen. Not one of those Western, free standing ones you saw in 1930's movies where the movie star goes behind it to change suggestively into 'something a little more comfortable', but rather those structural elements from Japanese homes. Shoji, as they're called in Japan, form an ultra material-efficient way to form rooms in a private home. And I'd like to make some, hopefully in a way that is less cultural appropriation and more a way to honor the masters.
With that desire in mind, I went on Amazon and ordered a book. I'd heard the name of Toshio Odate in recent years. He's known in the U.S. as a teacher and ambassador of Japanese woodworking into North American culture. The Amazon showed me that he had written a book on just this subject. I almost squeee'd with glee. I ordered it in about 14 nanoseconds and with the Prime account, had it on my doorstep in 23 and one half hours.

I've now read the whole thing, and from the perspective of someone who's not yet built a shoji and is not steeped in Japanese culture otherwise, here is my review of the book. My experience with Japanese woodworking is limited to the fact that I own a ryoba, a double-sided japanese saw, and I've used Japanese sharpening stones.
An example page showing Mr. Odate's wonderful text, Laure Olender's photos, and the nice line drawings detailing toolsPublished in 2000 by Linden Publishing out of Fresno, CA, the book is a not-overly-thick paperback with a color cover and crisp-white 8 1/2" x 10 1/2" pages. The binding is standard thin-book glue binding, but it does include a cardboard insert at the glue joint, so I'd expect it to last quite well for several decades. Overall, it's about ¼" thick, composed of 120 pages printed duplex. The paper has an excellent feel and is slightly off-white which works well for reading comfort, but isn't the greatest for the photos, line drawings and art. But it's a good compromise making it easy to read. In fact, I hadn't planned on finishing the book so quickly, but it's such a relaxing lyrical read that I did it in less than a week.
In many ways, there are parallels between the structure, layout and writing style of the book, and the subject matter. As described by Mr. Odate, Japanese woodworking is all about achieving beauty through consistency, efficiency, and the mindful use of the proper materials. His language follows the exact same philosophy. (I fear I may wax a bit too effusively here, for I was quite surprised at exactly how much I loved reading this book.)
The topics described are handled quickly and with efficient prose. After a quick introduction to Japanese woodworking in general, the book is made up of a blend of two specific large projects, descriptions of the foundational techniques of shoji-making, descriptions of the tools and materials used, and most charmingly, personal anecdotes about the author's time as a young man learning the trade. Accompanied by a large number of well-labelled and illustrated photos and drawings, it taught me an astonishing amount about not only the techniques in question, but the reason and thinking behind those techniques. 
Some of the most wonderful facts I learned from the book were often asides in the material, or occasionally deeply philosophical thoughts brought down from Mr. Odate's mentors. For instance, I learned:
  • that the makers of paper doors, or shoji, have their own profession, not mixed together with general carpenters who build houses and furniture. A shoji maker is known as a tategu-shi, or sliding-door maker.
  • Shoji are made with extremely deep mortises. So deep, in fact, that they just barely stop from completely piercing to the other side of the wood. This makes them strong while using the least wood possible. This also highlights another thing I learned, that . . . 
  • Japanese woodworkers (and the public in general) have been taught that visible end grain is ugly and to be avoided at all costs.
  • the Japanese try to retain the orientation of each piece of wood to the way it would have stood and faced within the original tree. This is a level of attention to material that almost nobody in North America or Europe would even consider.
  • Every tool motion in Japanese woodworking is a pull motion toward the worker. In fact, the motion of the marking gauge and the plower plane are exactly the same. They are the exact opposite for European legacy tools. 
  • Clamps are very small and are only used for marking, almost never for glueing.  
  • The Japanese not only understand the way wood moves and crushes, they actually use those traits in enhancing the strength of their structures. In the lack of consideration of this by Western woodworkers, we truly seem like Neanderthals to their civilized men.
  • The traditional method for glue is to make-it-yourself, using nothing more than rice and water.
The story around the glue provided one of my favorite asides in the book. Mr. Odate describes how to make the glue by first cooking regular, un-converted, medium grain rice. His master told him that the best glue is made from "the most deliciously cooked rice," because it is soft, but hasn't collapsed into mush. From a scientific perspective, this makes perfect sense, since as a starch glue, you want the starch to be fully hydrated, but to not go past that point where the starch loses its stickiness and just becomes soupy or rubbery. But the description that the best glue comes from 'the most deliciously cooked rice" had me grinning when I read it.
Each autobiographical section is accompanied by these wonderful woodcut drawings, showing a similar sceneBut as informative as the book is, that wasn't my biggest takeaway. This book hit me with a profound feeling of insight that I liken to the time I first read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". It provided insight into my fellow humanity in a way I didn't expect based on the topic. Much of my interpretation of these things comes not from the projects, nor the techniques, but from the wonderful personal anecdotes. They read like near-mythic parables. They feel like purely human stories of growing up, striving for skill and work, dealing with one's own shortcomings and disappointments, and in one particularly poingnant moment, learning how as you grow up, your mother can no longer protect you from pain the way she once could.
There is a fundamental difference between Japanese culture as is described so well here, and the American culture that I grew up in. And that difference is both embodied in the woodworking styles of each culture and representative of larger truths about the way people see themselves in each. I sat down after reading the book to the end, and for some reason, wrote a series of contrasts.

  • Social rigidity vs. Individualism
  • Refinement and efficiency vs. Innovation and crudity
  • Role of shame: shared vs. private
  • Historically scarce resources vs. historically abundant ones
Clearly, the left list are traits central to Japanese culture. The traits on the right are more central to U.S. culture. The Japanese do have a very socially rigid culture. Americans seems to value individuality above community. Japanese craftsmanship is built more on refining traditional ways and using materials efficiently, where American craftsmanship is comparitively about new ideas and working quickly to get the job done. 
The fact that these traits are so diametrically opposed informs and even insists on the resulting differences in our woodworking. For instance, what drives a craftsman to create quality workmanship. We're all human, so we share many, but what is MOST important in these cultures? For Japan, I'd say a woodworker there is driven first by a fear of shame and secondarily by pride in his work. I'd argue that an American woodworker is also driven by these two things, but in exactly the opposite order. A Japanese woodworker first and foremost fears having his work seen as inferior by others. An American woodworker is probably more likely to create quality work primarily because he's proud of his own skills. A Japanese craftsman is secretly proud of his skills, but would likely be mortified to place them foremost in his mind while performing the task.
The driving force for the way Japanese and American woodworkers approach materials is obviously based on how scarce or plentiful those materials have been, and continue to be, in their respective worlds. Japan is a mountainous island country. Trees are rare and precious, especially large ones. America is continental, broad, and pregnant with life. Trees in America are plentiful, fat and less valuable. Why do the best redwoods cut in the Pacific Northwest go to Japan? Trade seeks higher value for materials and no one values clear-grained softwoods more than the Japanese.
But these cultural and personality traits go even deeper into the heart of woodworking. The tools and techniques themselves are driven by these differing world-views. It is interesting, isn't it, that the motion of Japanese planes and saws are always *toward* the woodworker, while western tools almost always push those tools AWAY. This mirrors the way that the woodworker in each culture views himself relative to his work. For the Japanese, the work fundamentally references back to the woodworker, usually resulting in shame and embarrassment if the work ever shows itself to have been done incorrectly. Western woodworkers seem to push their work out, to the world, divorced from the craftsmen when completed. The Japanese pull the responsibility for the work toward themselves. The Americans push the responsibility to the eventual owner or user.
I find it telling when Toshio Odate says this about what it's like to deliver a finished piece:
"Installation is the joy of displaying the work. However, installation is also the moment of truth."
Between this book, and Susan Cain's book "Quiet", I see an important lesson for those of us who are the quiet ones. And I never put it together before reading this book. To summarize, I'd say, and this is only me saying this (a typical American thing to do here) . . .who knows if it's true:
Japanese culture seems to encourage, and in some sense, even enforce, introversion. 
U.S. culture encourages, with such strength that it might as well be an edict, extroversion. 
Hence the way the tools and the woodworkers who hold them each work.
I loved this book. I will be using it shortly to build at least one pair of shoji doors. (They're always built as pairs.) I'll probably try something similar to the second project as well, a decorative transom. And given my philosophical synchronicity with the work, I suspect I'll probably build more than that in this style. And I know I'll go back and read this book again.