Word | William Phung
“The Japanese word shokunin is defined by both Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries as ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan,’ but such a literal description does not fully express the deeper meaning... shokunin means not only having technical skills, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness..." — Tasio Orate
Take the Shinkansen bullet train three hours north of Tokyo, and you’ll arrive in the Iwate Prefecture, a picturesque region of Japan famous for its sake and lacquer production. There in a quiet little city framed by mountains covered in dewy mist with a wide, fast-flowing river running straight through its heart, lies M.J. Bale’s tailoring atelier.
The workshop isn’t large by industrial standards. There are around 70 tailors in total, all of whom have an interesting heritage. There is the boss, Yano-san, a descendant of Japanese pirates, and former kimono-maker Yumi-san, whose family are from the Kanazawa clan of samurai. Then there is the head cutter Inari-san, who has been cutting fabric by hand for over 45 years. Inari-san is colloquially called shokunin by his co-workers. Shokunin translates as maestro, but on a deeper level describes how Inari-san spends every day of his life striving to improve himself.
M.J. Bale has been working with this workshop on our Custom and ready-to-wear Collection Made in Japan suits for more than a decade now. “I wanted to find the best makers in the world,” explains M.J. Bale Founder & CEO Matt Jensen. “Of course, Italy has fantastic makers. England has great makers. But the craft and the quality of workmanship here is second to none. Culturally the Japanese really explore that fine line between art and science. It’s that great combination of creativity, hard work, attention to detail and quality that is an enormous differentiator for Japanese craft. It was a real match to what we’re trying to do in terms of creating great products of integrity.”
Each M.J. Bale Custom and Collection suit is the result of over 50 hours of craftsmanship. The jackets alone go through over 200 separate stages of production, including a full-canvas construction and hand-sewn armholes, collars and cross-stitched buttons.
The construction process begins at the workshop with Inari-san, who traces with chalk the garment’s measurements on the fabric and then deftly cuts the cloth by hand (important when matching checked and striped fabrics that need to be aligned perfectly).
In another part of the workshop, a team of tailors brings the canvas to life. Here, this mix of natural fibres that ‘float’ inside the jacket to give it structure and shape, goes through an exhaustive preparation process. It is steamed in a tiny wooden box (like a mini sauna) for 30 minutes, sewn to the jacket fabric with small, looping stitches, then steamed again, and again, and again.
One of the great ironies of high-quality tailoring is that most of these details will remain unseen. And yet, much like Antoine De Saint Exupery’s maxim, “What is essential is invisible to the eye”, the wearer can immediately feel the difference. Highlights include the shoulder (reinforced with layers of thin canvas then hand-stitched to provide more flex and comfort), the armholes (initially sewn on machine and pressed together using hot steam, with a lining attached by hand), and a full-canvas construction that runs down the length of the body. The jacket collar alone involves 41 different stages.
This attention to detail and dedication to craft is in part due to the Japanese ethos of Bushido: a medieval code of conduct that stresses tenets of loyalty, honour, discipline and frugality. From the attitude of the tailors in Iwate to the cleaners on the trains, who bow to the passengers waiting on the platform before and after taking up their task, Bushido permeates every aspect of Japanese Culture.
For Matt Jensen, the relationship between M.J. Bale and our Japanese makers is a very human one, built on mutual respect and affection for Japanese Culture. “I like working with the best people in the world,” he says. “I like making products of integrity... products of worth that have a quality about them that means that they last for decades. That’s why we love working here.”