Many people use Japanese words when doing bonsai as many of us in the West learned about bonsai via Japan even though it started a long time ago in China. I admit to being a Japanophile, having spent lots of time in Japan working with the Japanese Space Agency to build the International Space Station. However I also believe in using my native language (English as I live in the USA) where possible for effective communication. I was recently pondering the Japanese word 匠 (takumi) – literally translated as master artisan after watching a National Geographic video segment sponsored by Mazda (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/artisan-crafts-talismans-tohoku-japan). Mazda’s recent marketing campaign is trying to promote the hand work and artisanship in its products as a differentiator.
Artisan has several connotations in English most of them good from my point of view. In English the word comes the French word “artisan” which originally was from Medieval Latin artītiānus. It’s derived from Latin artītus (“skilled”) the past participle of artiō (“I instruct in arts”), from ars (“art, skill”). Artisans work in craft. Yet if there would be a continuum for creation artisan would be to the left of artist and crafts person further left. The word artist seems to have a more creative aspect to it.
The concept of artisanship has taken off recently. The Institute for Small Business said “The next ten years will see a re-emergence of artisans as an economic force. Like their medieval predecessors in pre-industrial Europe and Asia, these next-generation artisans will ply their trade outside the walls of big business, making a living with their craftsmanship and knowledge.” Bakers, barbers, carpenters, jewelers, leatherworkers, metalworkers, painters, potters, sculptors, and weavers all now consider themselves artisans. It seems these trades are using the word for the same reason as Mazda; to differentiate themselves. Another reason might be as a contradistinction to mass production. Made-by-hand has a marketing cachet.
In Japan 匠 has similar connotations as in English, but culturally an artisan title in Japan brings with it a lifelong devotion to mastering a craft, usually a traditional craft. Mazda’s marketing campaign attempts to stretch that word to modern design and manufacturing. Clever idea especially when you recognize that most modern cars have good quality and materials. An appeal to artisanship helps differentiate the product among potential buyers. When craft becomes art people tend to ascribe more value to the product. By the way, Mazda is not the only corporate entity to do this. There are many products offered today that are called “artisan-made” to try and elevate them from the morass of mass-produced items on the market and to command a market premium. For example Ryan Neil held a bonsai exhibition in Portland several years ago called the “Artisan Cup.” He used innovative display concept of limited lighting to set apart the display from the more repetitive typical Japanese display.
While artisanship aims to keep certain crafts alive and perhaps serve as an income generator, in bonsai artisan might have a different connotation. Certainly bonsai require lifelong commitment to keep them alive. And while there is a lot of craft to bonsai, I view it more as an art and try to employ more creativity than didacticism in my designs. As a rich mix of horticulture, craft and patience, bonsai could use more artistry in both design and display. If that makes one an artisan or an artist depends on the level of creativity – but in the long run the titles don’t matter. It is the trees that do the defining.