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Japan's Manufacturing Clusters - Our Interview with Professor Shuichi Matsumura

Architecture Design Furniture Interior Japan Tableware

Last month OOKKUU had the privilege to hold an interview with renowned University of Tokyo professor and Doctor of Engineering, Professor Shuichi Matsumura. With Professor Matsumura’s in-depth knowledge and eloquent narrative, we enjoyed learning about Japan’s unique history of Mono-zukuri (the art of making things) and Ba-zukuri (the art of making places).

We hope you enjoy the dialogue and intriguing tales of how Japan developed its exceptional quality and precision in regard to the products they deliver. In this installment, we will focus on the first topic of “How Japan excels in the art of making things.”


How Japan excels in the art of making things - Japan's Manufacturing Clusters 


OOKKKU:  Thank you very much for your time today. We are honored to be here to learn some of the interesting aspects of, and your insights into, Japanese Mono-zukuri and Ba-zukuri, and to get a glimpse of how Japanese design has evolved.


Professor Matsumura: It is my pleasure. First of all, I’d like to mention that what OOKKUU is striving to achieve, by promoting Mono-zukuri in a new market (mainly in North America) is quite significant in the stagnant Japanese craft/design industry of today. At present, we are facing the problem of a disparity between current lifestyles and traditional offerings, resulting in a substantial decline in the demand for such products, as well as a lack of successors with those same amazing artisanal skills. I believe and hope that OOKKUU’s mission will help encourage and make the best use of such incredible talent and ability and give meaning to a new era.                        

                                                                                                                                                                                Our Suzumo Lanterns by Suzumo, made in Ibaraki, Japan

OOKKKU:  Thank you very much for your kinds words, Matsumura-sensei. Our objective at OOKKUU is to provide our clients with high-quality products made with the utmost care and precision representing the Japanese Mono-zukuri culture. While selecting Japanese furniture and interior products, we observed that there seem to be some clusters of manufacturers depending on region and material, such as wood, stone, etc.

                            Our Lacquered bowls by Studio Gala, made in Ibaraki, Japan


Professor Matsumura: Yes, as you pointed out, Japanese Mono-zukuri is enriched with a wide variety of regional characteristics, all of which are based on common traditional concepts. Design schemes, skills, and materials are often unique to each region, and such distinctions are still strongly present.


OOKKUU: Why is there such unique regional distinction in the first place?


Professor Matsumura: This tendency is based on the Japanese feudal law system,
where the feudal families from across the country used to compete with each other in a variety of ways. Here we are talking about the Edo period (17th century – mid 19th century), where people’s lives stayed relatively calm and peaceful under the roughly 300 years of the Tokugawa reign. With no civil wars nor wars with foreign countries, presumably due to the national isolation policy of the time, people in Japan were able to lead steady lives and enjoy enhancing their lifestyles, and this historical fact greatly helped Japanese culture evolve with little influence from the outside world. 

     Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa reign (Image: Wikipedia)







                                  "Dejima" (Exit Island), an artificial island built in the bay of Nagasaki during the so-called "Sakoku" (closed country) Period. During this period of self-imposed national isolation, Dutch merchants were the only foreigners allowed to cross this point. (Image: Wikipedia)


There were more than 100 feudal families all over Japan called “Han (藩),” and for each Han there was a feudal lord called the “Daimyo” (大名) who governed their own area. It is a bit like the current system where each prefecture (state) has a governor. There were strong boundaries between the Hans, and they developed their own cultures firmly based on their Daimyo’s tastes and interests.

 From the Mono-zukuri perspective, in each Han, the members developed their skills in those closed cultural spheres with the goal of excelling the offerings from other families. From architecture to carpentry, artisans would work closely with their Daimyo to fulfill their orders and specific requests, using the materials available in the region. In order to meet their Daimyo’s demands, the artisans developed their skills, worked with a high degree of pride, and kept their skills within the Han. The result was the creation of first-class, quality products, as well as large gaps in style throughout the country, all dependent on the tastes and hobbies of the Daimyos.

OOKKUU: Could you please give us some examples of Han regions that are still present today?



Professor Matsumura: For example, the region of Kaga, the present Greater Kanazawa area in the Hokuriku District of Japan, used to be governed by a feudal family called the Maeda. This region’s unique culture, including traditional crafts such as Kutani porcelain, Wajima lacquer-ware, and Kaga Yuzen (kimono), was developed under the influence of the Daimyo Maeda and his family. One of the Maeda Daimyos, Toshiharu Maeda, was a trained tea master himself, and this is said to be a major factor in the development of the Kutani porcelain style of the region.



                                                                                                     Kanazawa at night (Image: Kanazawa Kankoukyoukai) 


                                      (Left to Right) Kutani Bowl (Image: Kutaniyaki Art Museum), Wajima Lacquer-ware (Image: www.wajimanuri.jp), Kaga Yuzen Kimono (Image: kagayuzen.or.jp)


Such distinct regional characteristics are also found in food. When you travel around Japan, you tend to come across a variety of culinary delights specific to the area. For instance, in Kanazawa there is a dish that is a specialty of the region called “Jibu-ni” (治部煮), which consists of simmered duck and vegetables in fish broth. This was apparently one of Daimyo Maeda’s favorite dishes. Over time, Jibu-ni started to also be enjoyed by his family members and the townspeople, and hence became the typical dish of the region that is still enjoyed even today.                    

Jibu-ni (治部煮) (Image: Wikipedia)



OOKKUU: Did these Hans influence each other in some way, or copy each other’s skills?


Professor Matsumura: Usually, the Hans facing next to each other resented one another, so I would say it was unlikely to be influenced by the Hans in their vicinity.


OOKKUU: Just like Italy and France, who are in close proximity but have developed distinct styles, for example?


Professor Matsumura: Yes, you could say that. But it was quite possible that Hans could get inspiration from other distant Hans. There were some occasions where feudal families could witness what other Hans from around the country were offering, especially during the “Daimyo Gyoretsu” (大名行列), the feudal lord’s processions to Edo. Here I have to explain quickly about this interesting system called “Sankin-Kotai” (参勤交代), or “alternate attendance,” which was enforced by one of the Tokugawa shoguns in order to maintain control over the Daimyos. Basically, the Tokugawa kept the Daimyo’s wives, children and other family members in the Edo area (the capital, present day Tokyo) as hostages and forced the Daimyos to travel between their Han and Edo periodically. Interestingly enough, where we are sitting now in the University of Tokyo used to be the property of the aforementioned Maeda family, where their wives and heirs lived in a lavish feudal mansion. This way, the Tokugawa were able to put financial strains on the Daimyos to prevent them from rebelling and starting a war against them. The system was quite effective, which was one of the reasons why the Tokugawa reign lasted over 300 years. As such, Daimyo Gyoretsu took place all over the country, and provided an opportunity for a number of different Han groups to communicate, socialize and exchange ideas, while showing off their own wealth, skills and culture along the way. They could stop in different places along their routes to and from Edo to observe what other regions had to offer in terms of building styles, carpentry technique, crafts, clothing, food, etc. In this manner, they could gain knowledge and skills from different regions and reflect on their creations back home. They often copied or incorporated other Han’s skills, and sometimes just created something from scratch with the inspiration they got from other Han’s offerings and techniques.


                                       Scene from a Daimyo Gyoretsu, feudal lord's procession (Image: Wikipedia)


OOKKUU: Are there any products whose style is quite similar throughout Japan?


Professor Matsumura: Of course, there were exceptions to the regional distinctions, especially in regard to particular techniques found in carpentry and other crafts, as well as skills for making special tools, such as swords. The demand for these items within one Han was not great enough to support these artisans, so they were forced to move around to different areas when greater demand arose. They were called “Watari-Shokunin” (渡り職人), traveling artisans/craftsmen who spread their mastery and expertise throughout the country as they moved from one Han to another. The basic, required skills of high-quality carpentry and other crafts were passed on throughout Japan by these Watari-Shokunin, and then applied and altered by local artisans to fit their regional specialties.


                          (Left to right) The Sola Chair by Nissin, the Kisaragi Dining Chair by Hida Sangyo, and the TWW Kura Windsor Cafe Chair by Kashiwa, all made around Takayama, Japan, an area famous for its woodworking and architecture.


OOKKUU: Is that why the regional characteristics were more distinct for items that were more hobby related such as tableware and home décor?


Professor Matsumura: In a way, yes, because the hobby items were commonly influenced by each Daimyo’s taste. In addition, regional differences could also be observed in regard to living essentials such as daily food, daily clothing, and building materials: items which could be produced with materials and techniques available locally to minimize cost.


OOKKUU: So, how is this influencing design today?


Professor Matsumura: The culture of regional distinction remained as part of the legacy of the Edo period, even after the Han system was abolished following the Meiji Restoration. The traditional skills and the pride of each feudal family were preserved. After World War II, people who had formerly been high-ranking in the pre-war period, abandoned the family hierarchy system in order to continue producing traditional items with outstanding quality, using skills that they then passed on to the following generation. However, the traditional craft industry faced a decline after the war, especially as the American civilization and culture stimulated industrialized production of items in Japan. The common people, with their changing, increasingly westernized lifestyles, started to place less importance on traditional items. Hence, Japanese design couldn’t help but gradually shift towards a more modern, simplified style.


                            A scene from the Meiji Era (Image: http://oryouridaisuki.at.webry.info/201604/article_30.html) 


OOKKUU: Could you give us more insight into the weakening of the traditional industries in Japan?


Professor Matsumura: Talking about my field of architecture, for instance, there used to be around 900,000 carpenters across Japan in the 1980’s, according to government statistics. As we all know, a carpenter is the most important profession when it comes to supporting the construction industry, but in the last 30 years, the number has decreased from 900,000 to 300,000. That is a significant decline in such a short period of time. Moreover, the majority of those carpenters are older, and there are not many young carpenters who could succeed them and carry on the exceptional skills that have accumulated over hundreds of years.


OOKKUU: The number declined by two-thirds in 30 years? That is a huge fall, and it is such a shame as Japanese carpentry has so much to offer.


Professor Matsumura: Well, the same thing can be said for the craft/design industry. The market demands have shrunk significantly because the traditional items are expensive, and do not readily fit into the lifestyles of regular consumers today. In fact, there are less people today who can truly evaluate and appreciate the worth of traditional products, and consumers have started to depend more on imports and industrially produced items which are more easily accessible.


OOKKUU: The problem seems to be more serious than we expected.


Professor Matsumura: Distancing ourselves from tradition has downsized the market for traditional items considerably over the years. It is not the type of industry that young people can enter with much hope for the future. There are a limited number of people in the younger generation who could succeed the existing skills. These great traditions could die out and eventually disappear if this goes on.


OOKKUU: So, what can be done?


Professor Matsumura: With the help of external design advisors, the regional manufacturers and suppliers have been striving to revive the industry, by simplifying the traditional approach and adapting the design and style to a modern, westernized lifestyle, while preserving the high-quality techniques and precision of the Japanese tradition. As I mentioned earlier, OOKKUU’s business model provides a new possibility; the possibility to link the recent efforts in the Japanese traditional industries with a new overseas market with a wider variety of users. You can hopefully find more people who can truly appreciate the value in Japanese design, and can help give a boost to the traditional industries of Japan.


OOKKUU: That is a mission we are glad to undertake. Speaking with you today reminded us of not only the beautiful products, but the history that will be lost if we do not support traditional crafts. We are happy to play a role in preserving these traditions for future generations. Thank you again for your time today, Professor Matsumura!



Shuichi Matsumura

Professor, Dr. Eng. | Professor, The University of Tokyo

Prof Shuichi Matsumura


  • 1957    Born in Kobe
  • 1980    Graduated from Department of Architecture, Faculty of Engineering, the University of Tokyo
  • 1985    Completion of doctoral course, Department of Architecture, School of Engineering, the University of Tokyo, Doctor of Engineering (Thesis: System Design Methodology in Detached Housing)
  • 1986    Lecturer of Department of Architecture, Faculty of Engineering, the University of Tokyo
  • 1990    Associate Professor of Department of Architecture, School of Engineering, the University of Tokyo
  • 1992    Visiting Professor of University of Rome (Italy)
  • 1996    Visiting Professor of University of Trento (Italy)
  • 2004    Visiting Professor of Nanjing University (China)
  • 2005    Visiting Professor of Dalian University of Technology (China)
  • 2006    Professor of Department of Architecture, School of Engineering, the University of Tokyo 


  • Awarded the Architectural Institute of Japan Prize in 2005 for “Research on industrialization of housing production”
  • Research on prefabricated house (1981-)
  • Research on local builder and component-based wooden post and beam construction method (1983-)
  • Research on the interface of design-construction (1983-)
  • Research on urban housing production system (1985-)
  • Research on the renovation methods of existing multi-family dwellings (1994-)
  • Research on the production system of flexible architectural components (1994-)
  • Research of international comparison history on the industrialized building construction and the conventional building construction
  • Research on the coordination methods of owners’ interests in the management of dwelling environment (1998-)
  • Research on the development of infill for home care (1999-)
  • Research on the conversion of the building for effective use of urban space (2001-) 

PUBLICATIONS (since 2001)


  • 2016    3D Zukai ni Yoru Kenchiku Kouhou  Dai Ni Han (Building Construction with 3D Drawings, 2nd Edition) , Ichigaya Shuppansha Publishing Co.
  • 2016  Hirakareru Kenchiku (Architecture towards Democratization), Chikuma Shobou Publishing Co.
  • 2016    Renovation Plus, Yu Books Publishing Co.
  • 2016  Kenchiku Saisei Gaku (Theory and Practice of Architectural Renovation), Ichigaya Shuppansha Publishing Co.
  • 2015    Keichiku Saisei no Susumekata (Revitalization of Existing Buildings) (in Chinese), Dalian Institute of Technology Press,
  • 2015    Sumai no Bouken (Adventure of Dwellings – to Make the Place for Life), Houshunsha Publishing Co.
  • 2014    2025nen no Kenchiku – Nanatsu no Yogen (Architecture in 2025 – Seven Predictions), Nikkei BP Publishing Co.
  • 2014    Ba no Sangyo Jissen Ron (Practice of Place-Making Industry), Shokokusha Publishing Co.
  • 2014    3D Zukai ni Yoru Kenchiku Kouhou (Building Construction with 3D Drawings) , Ichigaya Shuppansha Publishing Co.
  • 2013    Kenchiku- Atarashii Shigoto no Katachi (New Type of Professional Work – From Box Delivery Industry towards Place-Making Industry), Shokokusha Publishing Co. 
  • 2013    Hako no Sangyo (Box Delivery Industry- The Oral History of Prefabricated Houses), Shokokusha Publishing Co.
  • 2010 Management and Organization of the Building Process 2nd Ed., Ichigaya Shuppansha Publishing Co.
  • 2010 Sumai no Risutora (Restructuring of Housing), Toyo Shoten Co.
  • 2009 Gendai Juutaku Kennkyuu no Hensen to Tenbou (Transition and Scope of Contemporary Housing Research), Housing Research Fundation
  • 2008 Kenchiku Daihyakkajiten (Encyclopedia of Architecture), Asakura Publishing Co.
  • 2008 Rehabilitation of Housing Estates (in Chinese), China Machine Press
  • 2007 Keichiku Saisei no Susumekata (Revitalization of Existing Buildings), Ichigaya Shuppansha Publishing Co.
  • 2006 Jyuu ni Matsuwaru Kenchiku no Yume (Architectural Dreams of Housing), Toyo Shoten Publishing Co.
  • 2005 Kenchiku to Mono Sekai wo Tsunagu (Connection between Architecture and Industry), Shokokusha Publishing Co.
  • 2004 Management and Organization of the Building Process, Ichigaya Shuppansha Publishing Co.
  • 2004 Conversion Design & Planning Manual, X Knowledge Publishing Co.
  • 2004 Conversion ga Chiiki wo Kaeru Toshi wo Saiseisuru (Conversion Will      Change the Region and Regenerate the City), Nikkan Kensetsu Tsuushin Shinbunsha Publishing Co.
  • 2003 Kenchiku no Mukougawa (Beyond Architecture), Toto Publishing Co.
  • 2003 Kenchiku no Kyokasho (The Textbook of Atchitecture), Shokokusha Publishing Co.
  • 2002 Conversion ni Yoru Toshi Saisei (Urban Regeneration by Conversion), Nikkan Kensetsu Tsushin Shinbunsha Publising Co.
  • 2001 Danchi Saisei (Rehabilitation of Housing Estates) , Shokokusha        
  • Publishing Co.
  • 2001 21 Seiki Gata Jutaku No Sugata (Real Image of 21th Century Houses), Toyo  Keizai Sinpousha Publishing Co.

PAPERS (in English and including co-authored papers)

  • Effects in an Attempt of Regional Revitalization Project through the "Renovation School", 40th IAHS World Congress on Housing Sustainable Housing Construction, ITeCons, Portugal, 2014
  • A Labeling System for the Renovation of Existing Houses in Japan, International Scientific Conference People, Buildings and Environment 2014, Czech, 2014
  • Research and Development on the Database for Visualizing Invisible Parts of Wooden House in Japan, Advanced Materials Research Vol. 778, Trans Tech Publications, 2013
  • Development of Prefabricated Steel-frame Housing in Japan, Steel Construction Today & Tomorrow, The Japan Iron and Steel Federation, 2012
  • Historical Review on the Concepts' Evolution of Open Building Systems in Japan  Part 1 : The Theory and Implementation of Components Building by Katsuhiko Ohno, The Proceedings of Long Lasting Building in Urban Transformation, Hong Kong University, China, 2012
  • What Can Make Effective Use of Vacant Buildings Happen in the Market?- New Context of Japanese House Building Industry, "Architecture in the Fourth Dimension" Proceedings of the Joint Conference of CIB W104 and W110, CIB, USA, 2011
  • Overview of Rehabilitation and Intervention Strategies of Existing Building in Japan, Keynote Speech, Protection of Historical Buildings, PROHITECH 09, Taylor & Francis Group, Italy, 2009
  • The Way How to Combine Creativity on Use with the Improvement of Built Environment, Keynote Speech, The 3rd International Conference on Construction Engineering and Management, Korean Institute of Construction Engineering and Management, Korea, 2009
  • Prefabricated House-Building Systems in Japan, “International Holzbau-Forum”, Germany, 2004
  • Development of Reusable Infill Systems for Elderly People’s Living, “Proceedings of the 10th International Conference of CIB W104 Open Building Implementation”, France, 2004
  • Environmental Contributions of Conversion, “Proceedings of the 10th International Conference of CIB W104 Open Building Implementation”, France, 2004
  • Development of the Renovation Technology of the Existing Residence for Elderly People, “Proceedings of the 27th IAHS World Congress”, Italy, 2004
  • An Analysis of Vacant Offices for Converting into Flats in Tokyo, “Proceedings of the 27th IAHS World Congress”, Italy, 2004
  • Transformation of the Living Environment Managed by a Housing Cooperative, “Proceedings of the 27th IAHS World Congress”, Italy, 2004
  • A Historical Study on the Development of RC Building Construction Adapting to the Climate in Taiwan, “Proceedings of the 27th IAHS World Congress”, Italy, 2004
  • Simulation of the Contribution of Conversion Activity in Tokyo, “Proceedings of the 27th IAHS World Congress”, Italy, 2004
  • Analysis of Façade Engineering in Japan, “Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering”, Vol.2, No.2, 2003
  • Perspectives on Component-based Design in Japanese Construction, “Construction Management and Economics”,2001
  • Infill System Development in the House Japan Project, “Open House International”,2001


  • 2016 The Prize of Association of Urban Housing Science (Publication) by “Kenchiku – Atarashii Shigoto no Katachi (New Type of Professional Work – From Box Delivery Industry towards Place-Making Industry)” and “Ba no Sangyo Jissenn Ron (Place-making Industry)”
  • 2016 The Prize of Architectural Institute of Japan (Education Division) by AUSMIP (Architecture and Urbanism Student Mobility Program)
  • 2016 The Prize of Japan Facility Management Association (Publication) by “Kenchiku- Atarashii Shigoto no Katachi (New Type of Professional Work – From Box Delivery Industry towards Place-Making Industry)”
  • 2015 The Prize of Association of Urban Housing Science (Publication) by “Hako no Sangyo (Box Delivery Industry- The Oral History of Prefabricated Houses)”
  • 2015 The Prize of Architectural Institute of Japan (Book Division) by “Hako no Sangyo (Box Delivery Industry- The Oral History of Prefabricated Houses)”
  • 2008 The Prize of Association of Urban Housing Science (Publication) by “Keichiku Saisei no Susumekata (Revitalization of Existing Buildings)”
  • 2005 The Prize of Architectural Institute of Japan (Research Theses Division) by “Research on industrialization of housing production”


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