Modernity and Carpenters: Daiku Technique and Meiji Technocracy

  • Gregory Clancey


Carpenters are liminal figures in the history of technology, and in studies of architecture, labor, masculinity, and any other commonly recognized disciplinary cluster which might claim their story. The Anglo-American word “technology” and its Japanese translation gijutsu, both coined in the mid-nineteenth century to describe a new regime of continually reengineered devices and systems, were set more or less above (if not against) the existing world of wood and hand-tools.1 Few figures seemed more outside this new rubric than carpenters, who by definition were tied to an age-old organic material, and assigned by necessity to small, widely dispersed work-groups difficult to subject to industrial management or discipline. In both Japan and the West, the image of the carpenter surrounded by shavings still immediately evokes for most people the world of the pre-“technology” past, even if he (and it is still typically a “he”) now carries a union card, the hand-tool is electrified, and the lumber was ripped out of a rain forest by giant skidders.2


Construction Company Architectural History Western Form Trade School Foreign Knowledge 
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  1. 1.
    Technology and gijutsu are not actually identical in usage. The English word lends itself to drawing sharper distinctions between “modern” and “premodern” or “sophisticated” and “unsophisticated” skills, objects, and infrastructures than the Japanese one. Gijutsu is easier to use interchangeably with technique. There is, on the other hand, an arguably closer fit between gi-jutsu and gi-shi, the Japanese word for engineer, than there is between engineereer and technology in English. For an introduction to the history of the English word technology see Leo Marx “The Idea of Technology and Post-Modern Pessimism,” in Does Technology Drive History?, ed. M.R. Smith and Leo Marx (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994).Google Scholar
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    For a reflection on this paradox from the standpoint of American history, see the introductory essay, “The Experience of Early American Technology” in Early American Technology: Making and Doing Things from the Colonial Era to 1850, ed. Judith McGaw (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994). Two scholars, one American and one Japanese, who have argued for a fuller consideration of carpentry in accounts of technology and architecture are Brooke Hindle, America’s Wooden Age (Tarrytown, N.Y.: Sleepy Hollow Press, 1985) (reprint)Google Scholar
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    For discussion of the various building trades in this period see Hatsuda Tōru, Shokunin-tachi no seiyō kenchiku (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 1997).Google Scholar
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    Ibid.; Hazama notes that many Meiji-period “capitalist” firms, and not just the construction companies, made use of existing artisanal structures through subcontracting. There was also an appropriation of the term (and some aspects of the role) of oyakata (master) in new factory-based industries, as they made the transition toward foremen and wage-workers. Hazama Hiroshi, The History of Labor Management in Japan (London: Macmillan, 1997), especially chapters 2 and 3.Google Scholar
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    There is a relatively large and growing literature, in English as well as Japanese, about the phenomenon of wayō setchū much of it illustrated with photographs and floorplans. The discussion below draws particularly on Fujimori Terunobu, Nihon kindai kenchiku shi, Vol. I; Suzuki Hiroyuki and Hatsuda Tōru, Zumen de miru: Toshi kenchiku no Meiji (Tokyo: Kashiwa Shobō, 1990); Hatsuda, Shokunintachi no seiyō kenchiku; Muramatsu, Nihon kindai kenchiku no rekishi, Chapters 1 and 2;Google Scholar
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    Meiji-period secondary education of building artisans and architectural “technicians” is dealt with at length in Shimizu Keiichi, Meiji-ki ni okeru shotō chūtō kenchiku kyōiku no shiteki kenkyū, unpublished Ph.D. diss., Nihon University, 1982; and Suzuki and Yamaguchi, Kindai, gendai kenchiku shi, pp. 271–279.Google Scholar
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© Gregory Clancey 2005

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  • Gregory Clancey

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