The Crafts Guilds of Edo

The craftsmen who live in the Kyobashi area are fairly well off. Officially, craftsmen have about the same status as merchants -- that is to say, they rank lower than either samurai or farmers. However, in practice, skilled craftsman are not only relatively well respected; they can usually make a pretty good living too. This is particularly true of craftsmen who live in large cities like Edo, where the demand for their services is very strong. If you want to visit some of the neighborhoods where the craftsmen work, we will have to leave the main highway for a while. Most of the workshops are in neighborhoods behind the main shopfronts. To get to these neighborhoods, we have to leave the main road and pass down the narrow sidestreets, through large and solid-looking gates.

There are gates like these on almost all of the side streets and alleyways in the city. They are part of the security system that people use to guard their neighborhoods at night. Edo has a relatively low crime rate, but in a huge city of over 1 million people there are bound to be some bad characters around. Particularly troublesome are bands of unemployed samurai who dress up in wild outfits and roam the streets at night, brawling with other gangs and accosting merchants or craftsmen who are out late at night.

To help keep these troublemakers out of their neighborhoods, most of the city districts are arranged in a similar pattern. The main streets and canals divide the city into large blocks (neighborhoods), known as machi, or cho. To enter one of these neighborhoods, you have to leave the main street and go down one of the side streets or alleys. All of the side streets leading into the neighborhood are guarded by gates, which can be closed at night. This is an effective way to keep out most criminals, drunks and other disreputable characters who might be wandering about late at night.

Groups of guards, known as yoriki and ban-nin (sort of like police officers) patrol the main streets at night, making sure that the gates are closed and keeping a lookout for troublemakers. Anyone who is out on the main streets late at night is likely to be stopped and questioned. A person needs to have to have a good reason for being out late at night, and if they act suspicious, the yoriki may take them in for questioning.

Meanwhile, in each neighborhood, the citizens take turns working as night watchmen in a sort of "neighborhood watch". The job of the person on duty is to close the gates late at night, and walk around the neighborhood making sure that all is quiet. If someone comes home late at night, they have to knock on the gates and convince the person on guard duty to let them in. Naturally, the guard will only open up if he recognises the person who knocks at the gate.

The neighborhood we are entering now is home to a community of potters, and the shops on the main street have row after row of porcelain and pottery lined up on the shelves and tables. Each store offers a range of different types of plates, saucers, mugs, bowls and vases.

Pottery is a highly developed craft in Edo, though the best products still come from the far western provinces of Suo, Aki and Nagato. A wide range of different styles of pottery are available, from inexpensive dishes used by average townspeople to the works of master craftsmen, which can fetch extremely high prices from rich daimyo, merchants or members of the Emperor's court.

Everyone is intent on what they are doing, and take their work seriously -- even the youngsters and women who prepare the clay for use in making the pottery. Like many of Edo's crafts, there is a close connection between the business of making pottery and the expression of fine art. Apprentices may produce large amounts of simple pottery for daily use while they are learning their craft, but their goal is always to develop their skill to a fine level and to create true works of art.

The center of the potter's district is almost uncomfortably warm. You can feel the heat from the kilns as soon as you enter the square. The huge ovens used to bake the porcelain are set up in the center of the district, and they are tended carefully to ensure that the temperature is kept at just the right level. Around the square, individual craftsmen are shaping clay into different types of products. Every few minutes, someone will carry another large rack of molded pottery over to the kilns to be baked. This neighborhood can be unbearably hot in the summer time, since potters have to work all year round. On the other hand, it isnt such a bad place to visit in the winter. Each of the crafts districts is entirely devoted to producing their specialty products, and each member of the community has a part to play. Most of the people are closely bound together by ties of kinship and community, and all work together to help the entire neighborhood become prosperous.

Craftsmen in Japan have to spend ten years working as an apprentice for a "master craftsman" before they can start to work on their own. While they are an apprentice, they will spend the entire day working with their master, watching every move that he makes, and attempting to imitate his skills. Although the crafts tend to hereditary professions, with people passing on their trade from father to son, it is not that uncommon for people to switch to a different craft while they are still very young.

In order to take up a different craft, the youngster has to be accepted as an apprentice by one of the "masters" in another craft, but if their parents pull a few strings, this is not too hard to arrange. In addition, some low-ranking samurai give up their status as samurai in order to become craftsmen. While this may be a step down in social rank, for the lowest-rank samurai it can often mean a big improvement in wages. All the same, every apprentice starts out at the same level, as a raw student, regardless of their family background, past experience or "connections".

People who are extremely talented at a craft -- whether it be pottery, weaving, wood-carving or bucket-making -- can become quite famous. For this reason all of the best young students will compete to try to become the apprentice of a master craftsmen. Master craftsmen only pass on their best techniques to the top apprentices, so when the apprentices get older they often boast about being the "former student" of some famous craftsman. "Officially", craftsmen belong to a lower class than farmers or samurai, and only a shade above merchants. However, the best craftsmen are often granted honorary ranks of nobility, including the right to wear a sword and take a surname. Originally, only samurai and nobles from the Imperial court had two names, but nowadays, many of the leading craftsmen and merchant families also have been granted "honorary" second names as a reward for some service to the Shogun or some other high-ranking official.

This next neighborhood is home to the blacksmiths. Different crafts have higher or lower status, depending on the importance of the work. Potters and weavers tend to be ranked in about the middle. People who make sandals, floor mats (tatami) or other goods made of straw tend to have a lower status. The crafts with the highest status are carpenters and smiths, since their skills are the most valuable to the Shogun. Blacksmiths make all sorts of useful items from steel, but the most important, of course, are the swords that they produce for the samurai.

Those men over there are smelting steel in a large, open-air furnace. Production of a high-quality steel product, such as a sword, is a very painstaking job. First, the steel ingot must be produced by smelting iron. The iron is collected in large ingots, and stored in a warehouse until it is needed.

When the time comes to produce a sword, the smith heats the ingot and breaks off a piece of the proper size. This is then heated repeatedly and beaten into shape using heavy hammers. The job often requires two people -- one to heat and hold the steel, and the other to swing the heavy hammer to beat it into shape. It takes a great deal of practice and skill to shape the sword just right. Finally, the blade is covered with a layer of clay to control the rate of cooling -- fast at the edge that will be used for cutting, and slower at the back of the shaft. Finally, the blade is plunged into cold water to cool it. Another group of craftsmen will fashion the decorated wooden handle and the scabbard. The result is one of the most beautiful and deadly of weapons -- a katana (long sword).

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