In 1989, Toyota launched the Lexus nameplate with the Lexus LS400. Here was a luxury car that tried to ‘out-luxury’ the German nameplates by spending more engineering hours, adding more performance, building a quieter cabin and offering better aerodynamics than any of the traditional competitors. While many believe that the original LS400 did indeed outperform the Germans on the traditional metrics of a luxury car, they also believed that Lexus tried too hard to be the same, but better and that it did not have a soul of its own.
In support of this theory, luxury vehicle enthusiasts pointed to the slight BMW-esque Hoffmeister kink in the C-pillar or the slow fold of the metal in the shoulder line, a typical Mercedes-Benz trait. Toyota, many felt, was trying to do the same with the Lexus as it did with its Toyota range – to emulate and improve on the incumbent brands. In other words, to see what the other brands did well and to do it better. This practice seems to have continued with the Lexus LS model, in particular, and also with Lexus in general until the turn of the century. By then, the brand was well-established as one of the dominant luxury brands in markets such as the Middle East and North America, and globally it had passed Jaguar, Volvo and other minor luxury brands to be counted as one of the big 4.
It was during this time that the company made a radical change to recover its Japanese soul. Again, the LS led the way with a daring new spindle grille, and inside the cabin, the group moved away from typical luxury accoutrements to more unique and definitely more Asian-inspired designs. Along with these changes, which are certainly best showcased in the fifth generation LS range, we learned the term “takumi” or master craftspeople. By employing takumi and allowing them to focus on traditional Japanese craftsmanship, Lexus suddenly wowed the world with a hundred-layer lacquered wood steering wheel made in the age-old Shimamoku tradition and origami-folded leather pockets detailing on its door inserts. Gone were the days of trying to be a better German than the Germans; they were being the best Japanese that they could be.
Takumi will only be recognised as a master of his craft after 60 000 hours of dedicated practice
A takumi is a craftsperson who has devoted his or her life to mastering a specific craft, be it woodworking, metal crafting, leatherwork, paper cutting or sword making, to name but a few. In the most traditional application of this term, a takumi will only be recognised as a master of his craft after 60 000 hours of dedicated practice. That’s more than 20 years of dedicated 8-hour days before being considered a takumi!
While Lexus has certainly popularised the term and the work of these master craftsmen, it is certainly not unique to them. In Yokohama, where Nissan builds the hallowed GT-R, only four engine-engineers, out of the thousands of people who work at the plant, are considered takumi.
Each of the Nissan GT-R takumi is responsible for building a complete VR38 Nissan GT-R engine from start to finish. They pick each part, torque each nut and bolt and finally stand by the test bench while the engine is run in and tested. It is said that a Nissan takumi will place his hand on a running VR38 engine to feel if it is “right” and that they have the power to reject a complete engine based on their touch, even if the test bench turns out perfect scores.
This practice of “feeling” a GT-R engine underscores the uncommon emphasis that Japanese takumi place on the sense of touch and on all five senses in general. The craftsperson’s individual skill and training are held in such high regard, that they are given the final say, regardless of what the measurement or quality control computers say.
This highlights another unique aspect of the Japanese takumi. While they often hone their craft in traditional ways that are thousands of years old, they are very comfortable with technology. A woodworking takumi will, for instance, use his eyes and hands to select the perfect piece of wood for a multi-layered Shimamoku steering wheel on a Lexus LS, but will then use modern cutting robots to cut each paper thin layer, which he will stack to create a beautiful and unique sedimented wood grain.
Equally, Mazda tells of its interior design takumi who will use robot-accentuated touch pads to measure people’s reaction to different tactile environments, but they then leave the final decision on fit and trim to the Mazda takumi, a small handful of craftspeople among their thousands of workers whose opinion hold sway, thanks to their traditional training and specialised skill.
For fans of Japanese cars and culture, the rise of traditional Japanese craft and of the takumi is particularly exciting. Just recently, Lexus unveiled a cut glass door insert that marries new ultra-robust manufacturing technologies with the free-flow design of a Japanese cut glass takumi.
Lexus, like Nissan, Mazda and others, are finally charting their own course and providing a fresh and unique alternative to the traditional engineering and design practices found in other vehicles. And it is all thanks to the age-old tradition of the takumi.