Nissan Goes on About Inspiration: I’m Skeptical, but Kyoto Craftsmen Are Still Great Artisans

Nissan Go On Artisans naias 2018

Nissan introduced the Xmotion (pronounced Cross Motion) CUV concept at the NAIAS in Detroit the other day. The company says the Xmotion is inspired by the Yokahama-based automaker’s Japanese heritage, particularly the practice of traditional Japanese crafts.  The crossover is said to connect “traditional and modern Japanese craftsmanship and technologies.” Artisanal techniques such as weaving, metalsmithing, and woodworking were used to craft the interior of the Xmotion.

To emphasize that connection, master shokunins from Kyoto’s GO ON consortium of traditional Japanese artisans were brought to Detroit to demonstrate their skills to assembled media and the general public after the big auto show officially opened later in the week.

I’m a born skeptic about PR hype, so I’m not sure if Nissan design chief Alfonso Albaisa visited with the GO ON artisans before or after the Xmotion was already designed. Still, I was raised by a father who taught me to value working with one’s hands and to respect those who did so for a living. He was a veterinary surgeon whose hobby was refinishing and building wooden furniture at a professional level. So, rather than trudge to yet another press conference reveal of yet another crossover, I watched the craftsmen make copper tea tins and wooden buckets.

Sitting on the floor in the lotus position as they worked, the men were clearly in their elements, and from the grins on their faces you can tell that they love their jobs. The companies that make up GO ON are multi-generation firms where skills have been passed down by family members. The metalsmith from the Kaikado company was using his grandfather’s hammers to make air-tight tea caddies his ancestor designed 130 years ago. He spoke some English so I joked with him about “grandfather’s axe.”

Go On Artisans Nissan 2018 NAIAS

Shuji Nakagawa‘s own grandfather spent 40 years becoming a master maker of okes (wooden pails or buckets) and barrels. I suppose that in English we’d call Nakagawa a cooper. He was hand-shaving staves, using draw knives and a well-worn wooden fixture strapped to his chest. Smiling broadly, he offered me some shavings, gesturing for me to smell the fresh cedar. Considering that wood has been used in cars since the early days of the industry, I’m surprised no automaker has yet taken advantage of the aromatic qualities of cedar.

It was probably too difficult to ship and set up a loom, so to represent the textile weavers of Kyoto, the display was decorated with panels woven by Hosoo, a company founded 330 years ago. A kimono-clad weaver was on hand to answer any questions if you happen to be fluent in Japanese.

A few years ago, Bentley brought a couple of craftsmen from Crewe to Detroit for NAIAS. The men spent the show hand-sewing leather steering wheel covers and doing intricate inlays and marquetry with fine woods. In Bentley’s case, it demonstrated the craftsmanship that actually goes into the construction of its cars, whereas the Kyoto craftsmen are said to be inspirations for Nissan’s work.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I get a kick out of demonstrations like the one Nissan brought to Detroit. It reminds us of the human element in the creation of our tools and toys. At a time when the automobile industry is rushing headlong into developing autonomous vehicles that won’t require human input to control them, and after spending a generation building assembly plants with fewer workers and more robots, it’s nice to be reminded of that human element.

[Images: Ronnie Schreiber]


Nissan Go On Artisans naias 2018

Go On Artisans Nissan 2018 NAIAS

Go On Artisans Nissan 2018 NAIAS