Bond Between a Master and Apprentice

What unfolds within a master-apprentice relationship?

In this video, Yujiro Seki shares how in Japan, the master-apprentice relationship holds great significance as a means of skill refinement through observation and skill acquisition from the master.

Stealing the craft from the master

Nick: It has come up with past conversations I've had with Japanese friends, and also, podcast guests, including neuroscientist and author Ken Mogi. Actually, on a past episode, if people want to listen to that episode, it was episode 41.

But he actually reminded me of this concept that the apprentice must steal the craft from the master. And this almost seems to contradict that relationship. So would you like to talk about this unique concept or custom? How in Japan, the apprentice must steal the craft. What does that mean?

Yujiro: So without spoiling the movie too much, I'm gonna go into it a little bit. So, yes, this is one of the theme of the documentary, actually. So in the modern time, we go to university, and you pick your major, and you write an essay, take a test, and the you get the degree, and you go out there and try to find a job. That's the idea, right?

I think many people cannot find a job after going to universities, but that's a story for another time. This is a whole system of this apprenticeship engine system. Nowadays, more people go to universities, but back in my father's time, 50, 60, 70 years ago, it was a common place.

After you finish Junior High School, either you continue education by going to high school, or you just try to find a job. And often people don't have any skill set, they try to find a skill set that could feed them for the rest of their life.

They want to find a job, occupation, but to do that, you need a training. So they don't go to school, but you become an apprentice for somebody and learn the skill for a set amount of years. And you become independent and you start make a living.

This is not only about the world of Buddhist sculptures, but it's also about umbrella, I mean, like carpenters, daiku — many places, they do apprenticeship in order to find an occupation. So some of them require three years, five years, 10 years, it depends on the field that you're getting into.

Some people may only want to find an occupation that pays the bill. Some people are passionate about certain skill sets, and they want to make a career out of it. So that's the idea. But what's unique about the apprenticeship here is you almost become a child of somebody.

The master, they feel they're responsible to bring up their children. It's not like university professors, I don’t want to offend University professors, but you just go to universities and they give you assignment, and you don't really have personal connections with them that much.

You don't live under the same roof as your professor. But often, apprentice and the masters, they eat together, they do stuff together, and they form a very close relationship. But at the same time, since he or she is your mother or father, they’ll be strict on you. They won't be easy on you.

And also, this is kind of a unique thing that you said that apprentice must deal. They're not going to really teach you anything step by step like in university. So you actually have to steal the techniques. This means without being told, you have to be observant and careful about stealing, or learning the craft without being taught.

If the master says, ‘You got to do this. Can you do this?’ And you say, ‘Oh, I don't know, you never showed me.’ That’s a big mistake. The master will say, ‘You are supposed to be looking, learning, and you should be able to do that.’

So there’s a positive side and negative side. Because if you are not fast, you're not gonna be able to learn it. Whereas in university, they teach you step by step for the most part. So yeah, that's what they mean by stealing.

Nick: It’s interesting. And I've seen it in other documentaries. I think quite a popular documentary was Jiro Dreams of Sushi. There's some element of that. You see Jiro never complementing or never praising his apprentice chefs.

And there's actually one scene where he interviews an apprentice, and he's making egg for months, and he's still not getting it right. And Jiro won't teach him. Then finally, one day, he gets the egg right, and then Jiro casually says, ‘Maybe one day, you'll become a good chef.’ So there's unique relationship where, I guess if you're the apprentice, you have to be observant, and you have to really want to learn.

And maybe in the West, or maybe in traditional education now, it's become so easy, we teach you everything how to do it, and maybe there needs to be a balance between the two.

Yujiro: Interesting story. So one of the apprentices in the film, I will not say who, but he went to this university, wood carving University, before he enter into the apprenticeship world, the world of Busshis.

So he was very cocky and confident because he thought he was good at it. When he was being interviewed, because he wanted to learn Butsuzo, how to make Butsuzo, he was so fascinated. He said, if you want to be like true artist, true wood carver, I must learn Butsuzo.

So yeah, he wanted to be an apprentice. And he was interviewed, and he told the master: ‘I'm very good at wood carving. And if you take me in, I'm gonna be really good for you, because I can do a lot of work and I can be beneficial.

And the master says: ‘Okay, that sounds great. So can you do this?’ And it is something that is very basic. And this person who went to university for four years and got that degree, and he thinks he is a top dog. You know, he cannot do it. And the master laughed and say, ‘What did you learn for four years?’

So here's the thing, in a traditional university education system, you do many things. But in apprenticeship, you just do one thing. You work for your masters during the day, and you try to get better. And at night when you're not working, you make your own work.

Because if you don't make your own work, you're just working for masters and you cannot improve yourself as an artist, right? So since you are doing it all the time, there's a big discrepancy between people who go to university and people who do apprenticeship.

I’m not discrediting university education, but when it comes to learning a craft, apprenticeship is one of the best way to go about it.