【On the Mike #2】Coming Full Circle - The Japanese Philosophy on Mastery and Success

Master: Again.

Student: Again?


Student: I just did it.

Master: Again.

Student: How many more times?


Student: I just did it. Again.

Master: Again.

Every master in every workshop throughout time has had this communication. Repeatedly. For centuries. Will it ever end?

Shikinen Sengu(式年遷宮)

Shikinen sengu is considered to be part of religious festivals held on fixed years.

At Ise Jingu(伊勢神宮), in Mie Prefecture, the ceremony takes place every 20 years. The shrine is built with wood, bamboo, paper - products that are not as durable as stone, bricks, concrete, and steel, the construction materials preferred today and with structures that are built to last.

But in building the shrine from mostly recycled materials the community is not merely able to renew and refresh, but attains a different kind of sustainability. The builders, craftsmen, and the farmers and tradesmen that supply materials and construct the shrine buildings, fencing, and other artifacts - the skills and means are maintained and passed onto future generations.

At Ise Jingu, this has been the practice for more than a thousand years.


It’s one turn of a dial. Like a clock.

It generally refers, though, to the cycle of the “Eto(干支)” - the Chinese Zodiac: Rat-Ox-Tiger-Rabbit-Dragon-Snake-Horse-Sheep-Monkey-Rooster-Dog-Wild Boar.

One hitomawari, then, is twelve years. Why is that important?

When a person says in Japanese that they’ve grown up a lot since the last time they met, they will say that someone is “hitomawari” bigger. It can mean the person’s actual size, but it can also be a metaphorical reference, as in that much more powerful and mature.

In crafts and trades, it has had an even more significant meaning.

Hitomawari was how long it took for an apprentice to be able to make something original. This meant that the student studied for twelve years, directly under his master’s tutelage, until he was able to make is own craft and earn more than a pittance beyond room and board.

Futamawari(二回り) and Beyond

Futamawari is “two times round.” 24 years. The term has less significance, but the number of “times around” remains significant. 

After a craftsman, fisherman, or samurai set off on his own, it took another turn before the person could take on a student - become a “master.”

A third turn, and the master became a real teacher, one who would take on more than one disciple, thereby take his craft or trade and become a manufacturer. With multiple students, the craftsperson could finally take on work beyond what a small number of patrons would order from him. He could produce in sufficient volume to supply and distribute through merchants. He graduate and leave the control of temples and noblemen. He was, for the first time, a master of his own destiny.

It was during this fourth turn that a master craftsperson could become a real superstar, one that would become either an aristocrat himself, with a bevy of students and disciples, or one that would receive national recognition.

Reeling in the Years

So its clear that 12 and 20 have been important numbers in Japanese history and to craftsmanship. The two numbers have had a fundamental importance in enabling the skills of manufacturing things to be passed on for many generations.

The two also had a huge impact on when people started their “careers.” If you were lucky enough to live to old age, you could fairly easily expect to live to 70 or so. That was a big “if,” but if you did get past childhood, and you were one of the professionals and not a samurai, you stood a very good chance.

But if it takes you at least 36 years to become “successful,” then you wanted to start early. If you start at 12, then if you did become skilled and you found some good sponsors, and became lucky enough that a wider audience liked your work, then you could become a producer with a good reputation at the age of 50. This would give you 20 years to reap in the harvest of a lifetime of effort.

There may have been some shortcuts, but for the most part, genius was a hard earned title. 

For most people, as an apprentice, you did a lot of hard work, and got no credit for it. And no respect either. Once you sought out on your own, you got the first real work of your life. You worked hard, finally getting some customers, reheat buyers. Still, most of your work was obtained through your master and through alliances with other people who are related (it’s all a family network). 

Depending on the timing of the Shikinen Sengu, you may have worked as an apprentice or as a novice craftsman on a major local project. The next time you do so, however, it will be as a person of relative importance and power, someone at the peak of his craft. If this goes well, then the next phase of your career is uphill. If not, you still have work to do, but it’s largely in a supporting role. 

The Future of Craftsmanship

It isn’t possible to know if we can ever move again towards a future that is more like this in the professions. But there is little to doubt that the sustainability of craftsmanship is easier to maintain this way. I think that today, we tend to think more about the sustainability and durability of things than of systems.

I try to think in parallel about the recycling of things and the durability of systems. Instead of just thinking about how to make things that last for a long time, how can we ensure that people are able to keep doing the things that are sustainable and recycle resources and goods that can be cultured permanently? How do we pass on these skills over time and over distances?

I find a lot of clues to this in Edo Era(1603-1868) Japan and in Satoyama(里山) concepts.

What is On the Mike?

Mike Kato is a transplanted California who has been living continuously in Japan now since 1987, longer than his time in California - by nearly a decade. This accounts, in part, for his middle-age paunch and oyaji humor. Please don’t gag on the jokes that fall flat.

“On the Mike” will be a series of articles in which Mike will write about the things that interest him - about his loves, pet peeves, and the things that really matter about Japan and its relationships in the world. He hopes that there is something interesting for everyone here. Please follow him on Facebook and Twitter or drop him a line if you like anything in particular, agree, or even if you think that he’s just bullocks.