East Asian and European guilds

After finishing my new work “A Study of the Eastern Sword” I realized that the subject of difference between the organization of East Asian (say, Japanese) and European (which in Arms and Armor tends to mean German or North Italian) manufacturing requires further elaboration. While it can easily evolve into a book of its own, one point needs to be clarified in particular, regarding why in Japanese scholarship transmission of craft is assumed to be strictly from father to son, with no other option given serious consideration.

In Japan a typical arrangement in a reasonably successful industry would be about 10 apprentices working for a Master. Each would aspire to become eventually an independent Master on their own, and would study roughly the same profession, but with a strict age and experience based hierarchy – freshmen doing cleaning, cooking and restocking of supplies, and those with more years of experience taking upon themselves more and more responsibilities for the product itself. In a sense this functions as a large family business, with “older” and “younger” siblings leaving, eating and working together, yet with a clearly defined concept of seniority. Similar structure would also be found in various schools, martial arts dojos and other organizations. But at the same time the Master was not particularly interested in created a competition for himself from his former students. As such, his secret techniques – key ingredients or the details of the key technological process would be bestowed in great secrecy only on his chosen successor, i.e. his biological or adopted son. The rest might attempt to “steal them” by spying on their teacher, even at the risk of being killed, but in general only the son would gain the full level of instruction and be expected to inherit the Craft.

In European system, there were many similar things, but the overall trend was quite different. Production was typically done on larger scale, and with a substantial distribution of labor. Even 14th century craftsmen would typically specialize nn a specific technology or item – one would hammer armored gloves, another – large breast plates, another supervise the heat treatment and yet another do the inlaying in gold. The relationship between them was not family like, but more independent and contractual – gold inlayer being paid per piece of work and largely isolated from the rest of the group. Essentially there is a narrow specialization and contractual employment. Surprisingly or not, this leads to another three profound differences from the Japanese model. First, there is a growing segregation of educational process from employment per se. Japanese craftsmen generally would not consider at all publishing their techniques in a book or manual. But a German master, could on the contrary see this as source of additional income and advertisement of his expertise. While improved quality of education might threaten the income of his children, the immediate effect would be to the master’s benefit, improving his employability and standing in the community. Thus education slowly becomes more formally defined and book based. Second, with growing differentiation in jobs and education, feeds stronger class hierarchy. If in Japan all craftsmen would first send their children to the same basic school, to learn the same basic skills, and then they would apprentice under formally the same basic conditions, in Europe someone would be schooled with an intention of being a general manager, others – as specialized craftsmen, and yet others will remain basically unskilled laborers. The age and bloodline hierarchy of Japan, and its relative class egalitarianism, thus stand in sharp contrast with greater personal independence, but more significant class segregation in a European system. Third difference is that narrow specialization allows for much more straightforward replacement by technology. A Japanese Master, with his extensive knowledge of almost every single operation could produce very complex and labor intensive items, but would be less interested in utilizing power tools. Their use would typically replace his precise and unique techniques by faster, yet less distinctive craftsmanship. In a European workshop, replacing a skilled artisan working with chisels by a lathe and a semi-skilled employee would be very straightforward by comparison.

Surprisingly or not, both systems survive today, even in the West. Academia apprenticeship (Graduate School), as many Academic matters, tends to gravitate towards the Asian model, while industry and business tends to follow traditional European patterns.

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