Hender Scheme is a line of leather apparel and homegoods made by a Tokyo-based craftsman whose sneakers take close to a year to produce and sell for nearly $1000, without hesitating on the shelves. The company’s founder, Ryo Kashiwazaki, says that creating an exclusive product is not his goal, neither is pleasing his customers. He says, “We are not necessarily making these shoes to impact sneaker culture, but it’s more important for us to do it the way we like.”
His way is that of a modern Japanese craftsman, known for caring for the elemental materials, tools, family traditions, and each motion involved in creating something by hand. But what motivates this level of considerate attention?
Kashiwazaki is practicing shokunin, the Japanese concept of ‘mastering one’s profession’ implying a certain pride and spiritual devotion to the work.
Shokunin means not only having technical skill, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness… a social obligation to work his best for the general welfare of the people, [an] obligation both material and spiritual. -Tashio Odate Nagyszalanczy
In the west, we rarely include a spiritual devotion into our concept of work. Or if we include spiritual devotion, it’s more related to why we work, rather than how we work. We certainly have a sense of obligation to our work, but not the type of obligation that values work as a channel to the sacred. I think the type of obligation we see through those that practice shokunin is more like the obligation we have to things we believe to be precious like the ocean or a broken heart. If we are obligated to our work this way, we have no choice but to treat it with awe.
This newfound awe for our work doesn’t only apply to the purpose of what we do. It can also apply to the tools of our work as well. Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry has a certification called, “Master of Japanese Traditional Crafts for Blade Grinding and Sharpening” dedicated to the care of knives. A Kamikoto knife is crafted by a 19-step process that takes several years to complete. Japanese craftsman care for their tools with as much care as the finished product of those tools. The tools are passed down through the generations. Pride in the craft is passed down as well. “I learned this from my great grandfather,” we hear them say. If we considered the work that we do and the tools we use to do it, do we feel more exhausted or proud? Are we working as if to leave something behind for the next generation? Do we think of our work as a prayer, or simply an obligation?
Kashiwazaki’s shoes sell for $1000 a pair because he’s more interested in doing the work “the way he likes” rather than trying to impact sneaker culture. I’m guilty of working to impact nonprofit culture. I do this because I’m legitimately trying to leave something for future generations. But, the shokunin way teaches us that we leave something for future generations simply by submitting to the disciplines of our work, rather than trying to be noticed or significant.
If my work were to take on a shokunin quality, I would stop worrying about significance. I would slow down long enough to study the basic elements that make up the skills I am practicing. I would step back far enough to see what the thousands of emails and documents are adding up to for the next generation. I would find someone who is masterful at this work and ask if I can suit up and work beside them. I would consider if my tools are dull or sharp.