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I was able to experience a variety of work-days whilst travelling in Japan, both the closest and the furthest away to my working life were in the factories of Tsubame Sanjo. Often I was a visitor for part of the day but in three places; Gyokusendo, Suwada and Tadafusa I was there for full working days, allowing me to experience the full routine. Life in Tsubame and Sanjo felt familiar as, for the 2 weeks I was there, I was visiting metal workshops and studios, a large proportion of that was time spent with Gyokusendo. My workshop set-up in the UK is quite similar to the artisans’ workshops I met and lots of the tools felt very familiar.

There are differences in that much of the workshop work in Japan is conducted from a floor-seated position and the raising method (hammering metal to create volumetric forms) is done the opposite way to how we work in Europe. With those slight differences said, I felt very at home, in no small part down to the wonderful hospitality I was offered. Even more so, in some ways seeing some of the ‘normal’ methods of metalworking in Japan cast my idiosyncrasies in new light; my care for tools, my energy when I am working, working without shoes as much as possible and sitting low down all felt very fluid and natural in Japan whereas sometimes I can be a bit of an oddity in the UK! So I felt very close to home here, amongst people who work with and love metal. But it was also where I felt furthest away too, in the best possible way.

There are daily working practices here that I witnessed and took part in that I found so inspiring and some have incorporated into my daily life now I’m back home.  These might seem like small things but, like most things in Japan, it is the intention behind them that offered lots for me to think about.

Morning Cleaning

First up is the communal cleaning; where I visited this was probably the most common event. At the start of the day, all employees would conduct a short period of tidying of the workshop or factory floor. This could be anything from sweeping dead leaves from around the garden (like I did at Gyokusendo) or cleaning swarf from the floor by the milling machine (like at Suwada).

One thing to note is that the factories I visited were very tidy even to start with, at the end of the day tools are oiled and packed away, benches tidied and materials returned to store. I am of course judging this by my standards, from the workshops and studios I have worked in and universities I teach in. I am generally considered (at work) to be extremely tidy, so I feel like my standards are quite high to begin with so in Japan I was soothed! So there is something about this communal tidying that steps away from necessity and into ritual, staff from all parts and levels of the company working together to make the space ready for a productive day working together. At Gyokusendo the cleaning extended to the external areas and small garden which I found interesting, starting the very top of the day caring and thinking about the visitors (friends, artisans and customers) and taking time to make it as positive as possible. Back in 2010 I took part in a residency and exhibition with the British Council in South Korea which we called ‘Happiness for Daily Life’ I often thought of that phrase whilst I was at Gyokusendo.  It was a great introduction to the feeling of being a group that is very much part of my experiences of the working culture in Japan.

Tamagawa-san at Gyokusendo

“Cleaning, for me, is just like putting on my shirt; its a normal start to the day and helps me prepare for the day.”

Morning Huddle

All 3 workshops I visited for full days operated a daily morning meeting where all employees, regardless of standing in the company would meet and share information about the daily plans. The morning meeting was also where I had to introduce myself in Japanese to the factory workers who were all very kind in taking the general gist of what I was trying to say.

Each meeting style was unique to the company; at Tadafusa the information was shared by the floor manager so everyone knew what they were doing and if there were any changes to the days normal routine, in the case when I was there, it was explained that I was a visitor and would be around all day.  At Suwada after the information sharing, there was 5-10min presentation given in turn by each employee on a subject of their choosing; maybe an author they like, an exhibition they’ve seen or a new hobby. So the staff can get to know each other better.  Gyokusendo conduct a seated morning meeting with all staff where all staff members and the resident dog sit on the workshop tatami mats to share information.

Morning Exercise

No information about a Japanese working day is complete without Rajio Taisō. Rajio Taisō is a popular callisthenics routine broadcast 4x per day on radio station NHK. Although there are two standard routines (with the second slightly more challenging than the first) they are generally short, fluid movement routines designed to get the body moving and the blood flowing. In Tsubame my elderly neighbours did the 6:30 am routine together each day and so the opening bars of the music became my wake-up call.

In both Tadafusa and Gyokusendo, there were exercise routines that started each day, Tadafusa had a CD player which played a Rajio Taisō routine for staff. With limited Japanese, I watched the others and tried to copy. I felt wonderfully ridiculous trying to keep-up, one step behind and badly trying to keep in rhythm as I swept out my arms, bend my knees and bounced up and down to the sound of an encouraging radio voice gently giving directions over plinky-plonky piano music.

At Gyokusendo there is an optional exercise routine for staff given by the director Mr Tamagawa. Many staff do take part as its really helpful for the staff that are sitting hammering all day to stretch their back and arms before starting work.