Mistakes Happen (Sometimes Intentionally)

Nothing is perfect and we should embrace mistakes and imperfections.

Mistaken Mistakes

Persian carpets (aka Iranian carpets) come in a diversity of designs and sizes, but they frequently contain repeating symmetrical patterns. One alleged feature in handmade Persian carpets is a mistake in the design pattern (not in the construction) included intentionally. This “Persian flaw” serves as a reminder that only Allah is perfect. The flaw would be something small only noticed by the keenest of observers. It’s also been said that the Amish have a similar practice, that they include an intentional flaw (a “humility block”) in their quilts as a reminder that only God is perfect … but it isn’t true.

Lancaster curator Wendell Zercher has quoted Amish quilt makers as saying “… no one has to remind us that we’re not perfect.” As for Persian flaws, most accounts of this idea come from Western sources and is probably an example of orientalism. While both of these are nice stories that probably help to sell imperfect rugs & quilts, we have little to no evidence to support them. If anything, to intentionally make just one mistake out of humility would prove the opposite, bragging that you have the ability to make a perfect creation (but choose not to).

Actual “Mistakes”

There are however some cultures that really do include intentional imperfections in their work. Women in the Punjab region between India & Pakistan create Phulkari shawls of intricate designs. In these designs they sometimes include “mistakes” which are momentary changes in the overall design pattern. These changes are included to mark important events during the creation of the shawl (births, weddings, deaths, etc). Sometimes the symmetrical pattern is disrupted as spiritual protection from the evil eye.

On the left is a phulkari shawl with intentional changes to the pattern. To the right is a Navajo weaving featuring a “spirit line”.

Some Navajo also include imperfections in their weavings for spiritual reasons. The ch’ihónít’i (aka the “spirit line” or the “weaver’s path”) is a single line leading out of the middle of a design to the edge of the weaving. The spirit line is thought to give the weaver’s soul a way to exit the weaving so as to not get trapped in the design.

Embrace Imperfections

Of course if you accept that nothing is perfect then you have no need to add imperfections because everything is imperfect. The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi is the Zen view that everything is imperfect, impermanent, vulnerable. Unlike Western design ideas which frequently strive for idealized perfection, wabi-sabi celebrates the imperfections that make everything (and everyone) unique.

Kintsugi repaired ceramics, using gold & lacquer to feature (rather than hide) the imperfections.

Building off of wabi-sabi, kintsugi is the practice of repairing broken pottery with bits of valuable metals & lacquer that, rather than trying to seamlessly hide the repaired cracks, highlights them. Kintsugi honors the history of the object and celebrates its imperfections. Nothing lasts forever and we should recognize the beauty of imperfect vessels.

A crash course on the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.

Ugly Fruits & Vegetables

In the West this embrace of the imperfect has recently manifested itself in ugly fruits & vegetables. Imperfect looking produce has traditionally gone unsold and makes up 40% of total food waste. Producers throw away food because they don’t think retailers will want it (it doesn’t meet “quality standards”) and then retail stores throw away the unsold odd looking food that customers won’t buy. This is all despite the fact that the taste and nutritional content of this “ugly” food may be identical to “normal” looking produce.

The European Union declared 2014 the European Year Against Food Waste. The French supermarket chain Intermarché began their “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” marketing campaign that celebrated ugly looking produce, gave them their own section in the store, and sold them at a discount. It proved so successful that other stores began their own campaigns as customers began to accept the wabi-wabi nature of produce.

The Intermarché marketing campaign to help reduce food waste was a huge success.

Uchi & Soto

The concept of in-groups and out-groups that shapes Japanese culture at all levels.

Uchi & soto is the Japanese cultural concept that people can be (and are) sorted into one of two groups: your in-group (uchi) or your out-group (soto). Is the person you are interacting with part of your inner-circle? Based on which group someone is in dictates how you should behave.

Uchi (内) means “inside” – it’s the familiar, the home, the groups you belong to. Soto (外) means “outside” – it’s the unknown, strangers, foreigners, the groups you aren’t a part of. People in your family, your coworkers, can be thought of as part of your inner circle, your uchi. Non-family members however, or your boss, can be considered soto. To add more complexity, these categorizations are fluid. While your boss is ordinarily considered soto, if the two of you are meeting with a customer then you’re unified in representing the company and so your manager is now considered uchi while the customer is soto. When you get back to the office however your manager goes back to being soto.

Shifting categories

People are constantly moving between social circles based on the situation, creating a shifting web of relationships. The status of who you are interacting with, whether they are uchi or soto, influences how you behave. Soto people are shown respect and honor. This is done using keigo (“respectful language”), sometimes gifts are given, and as you honor soto people you humble yourself and members of your uchi. Foreign tourists are very much soto and as such will probably receive very polite honorable treatment.

To some degree however this honoring come with tatemae (建前, “a façade”). A person’s true feelings, their honne (本音) is reserved only for members of their uchi. So a tourist may receive great service but really getting to know people can be difficult.

We can see uchi & soto played out in architecture as well. Traditional home design has a wall surrounding the property. These walls serve more as mental barriers than physical ones. The walls form a line of demarcation between the uchi and the soto. Where the uchi and soto meet in the house is the genkan which is the entryway where you remove your outside shoes before putting on your inside slippers – physical separations to match the mental separations.

Nobita from Japan explains the concept of uchi & soto.

Norwegian Salmon Sushi

Japanese sushi didn’t contain salmon until a deal with Norway in 1992.

Like many of the oldest things in Japan, sushi originally came from China. Its earliest form was fish stored in fermented rice. The rice was used as a preservative and wasn’t eaten. Through a series of culinary improvements over the centuries the dish eventually became raw fish served with rice (to be eaten, not thrown out), which is how we know it today.

Norwegian salmon

Of the fish used to make sushi, salmon was not usually one of them. Pacific salmon tend to have parasites, making it unsafe to eat raw and needing to be cooked. Enter the Norwegians. Bjorn Eirik Olsen was part of a delegation to Japan in 1985 trying to sell Norwegian salmon to the Japanese. Norway had begun farming salmon in the 1970s and by the 1980s had an excessive amount of fish they needed to find buyers for. At the same time Japan had overfished their waters and were looking to diversify their supply of fish.

Selling salmon to the Japanese public for use in sushi was a difficult proposition because Japanese salmon wasn’t safe to eat raw. A marketing campaign couldn’t say that Norwegian salmon was parasite-free since that would only make people think of parasites, which wouldn’t help sales. It took a few years but by 1992 Olsen got Japanese frozen food producer Nichirei to purchase 5,000 tons of salmon at a heavily discounted price but on the condition that they sell it in grocery stores as raw salmon specifically for sushi. They also labeled their parasite-free Atlantic Norwegian salmon as ‘sāmon’ instead of the Japanese word for salmon ‘sake’, to help differentiate the two types. This was followed by a marketing campaign where they had chefs on Japanese TV demonstrate using salmon. It was a success.

In the years that followed salmon’s popularity took off. Salmon sushi started in the cheap sushi restaurants but eventually spread to restaurants of all levels in Japan and around the world.