An Apprentice Boatbuilder in Japan

Note from Brian Holcombe:  I would like to introduce a series that I am starting.  This series is a spotlight on makers who’ve taken up a unique devotion to their trades.  I meet and interact with many people in my travels and through my online conversations.  In doing so I’m introduced to the incredible efforts these folks have put forth.   I want to take this opportunity to now introduce these makers to my readers so you to can share in their stories and enjoy their craft.

The first of this series is Douglas Brooks, Mr. Brooks is a Boatbuilder who apprenticed in Japan and he has written an article describing his experiences.

Author’s note: This post is adapted from a December, 2015 article I wrote for Issue 84 of Kyoto Journal, a non-profit, volunteer-based quarterly on Japan. Please visit: http://www.kyotojournal.org

An Apprentice Boatbuilder in Japan copyright 2016 by Douglas Brooks

I grew up in a small town on the Connecticut River, and my family always had boats. My father was a house carpenter and a barn full of tools was an essential childhood playground. During college I attended the Williams College Mystic Seaport Program, a one semester undergraduate program at Mystic Seaport Museum, America’s largest maritime museum. There I had the opportunity to do an internship with one of the Seaport’s boatbuilders and I got my first taste of the craft. After graduation I would eventually return to boatbuilding as a career. Much of my work as a boatbuilder in the United States has involved collaborating with museums and municipalities, building replicas of traditional boats as public demonstrations. These projects involve researching traditional boat designs, teaching, as well as boatbuilding. I enjoy the varied aspects of this type of work, appreciating both working with my hands as well as engaging the public in a teaching role, and writing about my projects. I also build custom boats for clients and have been involved in restorations of wooden vessels from a Canadian skiff to a three-masted schooner.

The most significant turn in my professional life occurred in 1990 when I accepted the invitation of my college roommate to visit his native country of Japan. During that first trip I met several boatbuilders, and became exposed to a world of craft both mysterious and alluring. I met craftsmen who possessed extraordinary skills, yet also discovered the craft was only transmitted via an ancient apprentice system. I say “ancient” because the apprentice system exemplified in Japan had disappeared generations ago in the United States. Where I had access to hundreds of drawings of traditional boats of my own culture, in Japan the craft was only accessible via individual craftspeople, each jealously guarding what they knew.

I returned to Japan in 1993 and 1994, expressly to interview one of the boatbuilders I met on that first trip. Mr. Koichi Fujii was the last builder of taraibune, or tub boats, and with the help of an interpreter I did my best to begin documenting what he knew. Frustratingly, Fujii didn’t teach in any conventional sense that I was used to. Instead he worked in silence, demonstrating techniques while I struggled to follow along. Tub boats are essentially barrels, so I was learning Japanese coopering, a craft I was completely unfamiliar with. Fujii was also remarkably skilled and worked at what seemed like lightning speed, and it dawned on me that the only way to document the craft was to work alongside a master. Luckily, after my third visit Mr. Fujii invited me to be his student, and in 1996 he and I built a taraibune. I knew almost no Japanese at the time but ironically this was not an obstacle, because Fujii, like all of my subsequent teachers, forbade talking in the workshop. My next uncomfortable lesson was understanding that I had to learn by observation alone. After work there might be time set aside for questions, but there was no teaching method. Rather there was a learning method, one the apprentice bears total responsibility for.

In 1999 Mr. Fujii passed away and because I was his only apprentice, when a foundation approached me I proposed both training a local craftsman and publishing my research. This was, in essence, both the traditional and foreign reaction to the loss of this last great craftsman. In 2003 the Kodo Cultural Foundation, with funding from the Nippon Foundation, published my first book, The Tub Boats of Sado Island; A Japanese Craftsman’s Methods (Shokunin no Gihou; Sado no Taraibune) in English and Japanese. With a forward on the ethnology of these unique boats by Mr. Toshio Sato, my book is essentially a how-to primer.

My first apprenticeship was an extraordinary experience both personally and professionally, and I felt a compelling urge to continue to explore this craft and find more teachers. As of today I have made nineteen visits spanning twenty-five years and apprenticed with six boatbuilders: on Sado Island with Mr. Fujii, as well as Urayasu, Tokyo, Aomori, Okinawa, and Iwate. In addition I have traveled to forty-five of Japan’s forty-seven prefectures, meeting and interviewing over fifty boatbuilders. My teachers were in their seventies or eighties at the time I studied with them, and for each I was their sole apprentice.

The pattern of each apprenticeship was remarkably similar: all my teachers cautioned me there would be no speaking in the shop. Initially I was given menial tasks like cleaning and sharpening tools. It was assumed, however, that I would be paying strict attention to my master, because in each case when I was called forward to work on the boat I was expected to perform the techniques perfectly. Some of my teachers showed some patience with me, but others were absolutely strict about this point. Unlike traditional apprentices, I entered the workshop as an experienced boatbuilder, knowing how to use and sharpen the tools and shape wood, but I came to quickly appreciate why the average boatbuilding apprenticeship in Japan lasted six years. Some of that time was an exchange of cheap labor for the master, but most of the time would have been spent painstakingly observing the master’s work, inexorably gleaning the techniques of the trade. Much is made of the fact that Japanese saws and planes cut on the pull stroke, the opposite of western tools, but that was an easy adjustment for me compared to the unfamiliar stance of my teachers, who enthusiastically endorsed my desire to learn their craft, but made little direct effort to teach me.

Japanese boats are built so differently than western boats there were specific techniques which were completely new to me. One, a key component to this craft, is called suriawase, combining the verbs “to rub” and “to put together.” All the seams in a Japanese boat are fit by running a series of saws through the seams. Each pass cuts through the tight fitting areas and after many passes the two edges fit perfectly. I should add Japanese boats are built without any caulking; they are also expected to be watertight at launching. As several of my teachers stressed, any leaks at launch bring great shame upon the boatbuilder. My third teacher, Mr. Kazuyoshi Fujiwara of Tokyo, took great pains to teach me this technique. He stressed over and over that I could not call myself a boatbuilder without mastering it.

Over the years my language skills improved, particularly the vocabulary of boatbuilding. I consider myself an intermediate speaker of everyday Japanese, but in the boat shop I come closer to fluency. Many times native speakers who have been spectators to my discussions with boatbuilders have mentioned they didn’t understand a single word of my conversations with the craftsman.

I refer to the fifty-odd boatbuilders I have interviewed over the years as the last generation. The post-war era was a pivotal time for this craft: the devastation of World War II forced one more generation to assume the work of their fathers, but the rapid recovery and ascendance of the Japanese economy starting in the 1960’s pulled the sons of these men into the corporate jobs of a new Japan. In a single generation the apprentices the craft depended on disappeared. Preserving the techniques of boatbuilding, like many crafts, is made doubly difficult because the craft is shrouded in secrecy. Most of my teachers used no drawings whatsoever, working entirely from memory. Drawings, where they did exist, were left intentionally incomplete. The goal of my work has been to document as much as I can – essentially writing the secrets down – in an effort to preserve the designs and techniques of the craft. My teachers have been willing collaborators in this process, understanding better than anyone the knowledge about to be lost.

There is a well-known phrase in Japanese crafts: nusumi-geiko. It means “stolen lessons” and refers to a common practice where apprentices were forced to steal the most essential dimensions from the master. One of my teachers was taught by his father, but my four other teachers chafed under this system. Each found a way to connive the information they needed. Mr. Fujii told me he would sneak into his master’s workshop at night and study his layout by candlelight until he understood it. My second teacher said he proved himself as the best apprentice, but also plied his master with gifts of sake. In addition to patience, perseverance, and powers of observation, the apprentice also needed guile.

My latest research in Japan in 2015 was in the region struck by the 2011 tsunami, documenting the work of Mr. Hiroshi Murakami, one of the area’s last surviving boatbuilders. He built an isobune, the most common small fishing boat of this coast. Prior to 2011, this part of Japan (Sanriku) had the largest concentration of traditional watercraft that I have seen anywhere in Japan. Over ninety percent of the fishing fleet was destroyed or damaged in the disaster, meaning the last victim of the tsunami may be the region’s culture. Currently reconstruction projects are taking place throughout the region, with even the smallest fishing harbors receiving larger and higher seawalls. The infrastructure being put in place will hopefully bring this region’s important fishing industry back to full capacity.

Ironically, the tsunami put Murakami put him back in business. Since 2011 he built about twenty isobune, though this work tapered off. Just like my previous projects, I documented as thoroughly as possible Murakami’s design and dimensions, information that only he knew. It would be impossible to record this information without working directly with him. For instance, all the crucial bevels for various plank angles on the boat were written on the walls of the shop. None of these markings were labeled; only Murakami understood their meaning. As inaccessible as this information may seem, as a boatbuilder I am fascinated with how Japanese craftsmen used their creativity to simplify the layout (sumitsuke) of their designs, a necessity when one is trying to commit to memory all the various dimensions for a boat.

Japan’s last generation of boatbuilders worked through an era of incredible change and part of their genius was also an ability to adapt to the transformation of Japan in the post-War period. Mr. Murakami was a working boatbuilder until recently and as such he developed extremely innovative ways to use modern power tools to perform traditional techniques. The pressure to produce boats as efficiently as possible was constant throughout his career. Eventually his work succumbed to competition from mass produced fiberglass boats, yet in his techniques, particularly the use of power tools and glue, I see an opportunity to make this style of boatbuilding more accessible to amateurs.

I would like to see a revival of traditional boatbuilding in Japan, like we have seen in Europe and America, but the traditional apprentice system is not going to be able to save the craft. There is a need now to record a wider range of traditional boat designs, and offer opportunities for amateur boatbuilders to be exposed to these techniques. In the West this revival was spearheaded first by researchers who recorded traditional boat designs before the boats and craftspeople disappeared. Then maritime museums and government agencies began teaching workshops and sponsoring the construction of replica boats. Now one can find schools teaching these skills across North America, Europe and Australia.

In the last three years I have built boats in the Setouchi Art Festival in Takamatsu and at the Mizunoki Museum of Art in Kameoka. I taught apprentices for both projects. For the last two years I have taught Japanese boatbuilding to students at Middlebury College in Vermont. Earlier this year I built a replica of Mr. Murakami’s isobune at the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum in Kobe. I have also just published a major book on my first five apprenticeships: Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding (in English).

In my work I attempt to honor the generosity of my own teachers, the last generation of Japanese boatbuilders. I am heartened to see a burgeoning interest among Japanese, both young an old, to try and learn these skills. I feel that schools, NGOs, and museums will be vital to any effort to teach this craft. The remarkable skills of Japan’s last generation of boatbuilders should not intimidate us, but rather inspire us to find a way to preserve these traditions.

Excerpt below from the Introduction of Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding, published 2015 by Floating World Editions:

On my second trip to Japan in 1993, I met a boatbuilder in Kochi City. At that point, I had met about half a dozen boatbuilders. Mr. Hiromitsu was nearing retirement age and, despite having apprenticed with his father, like most traditional craftsmen, he had never taught an apprentice. As he showed me his drawings, all done on planks of wood, he began by sorting them, saying, “These are my grandfather’s drawings, and these are my father’s, and these are mine.” A Japanese maritime historian, who had brought me to Kochi to meet Hiromitsu, was whistling in amazement. I too was initially stunned by the wealth of documentation that was being spread out before us, but looking more closely I saw a problem: the drawings were incomplete. In fact, it was impossible to build a boat from any of them. The builder had recorded the profile of each boat, and a plan view (width) of the bottom plank, but that was all. The drawings did not record the plan view at the chine and sheer, nor the shape of the transom. I mentioned that the drawings shown were unusable without those crucial dimensions. After a pause, Mr. Hiromitsu looked at me and confirmed what I had said. I opened my notebook and asked him what the missing dimensions were. “I cannot tell you.” he said. “Those are my secrets.” Later, over tea at Mr. Hiromitsu’s home, I again broached the subject of his secrets. I explained to him that I was living in America and I could never be a threat to his work. In fact, probably no one could be a threat to him; he was the last boatbuilder of the region and his handful of customers were the few elderly fishermen still interested in owning wooden boats. As we talked, it seemed as though he was just then realizing that fact and its implications. Finally, he began to tell me some of the ratios he used in laying down the lines of his boats. More than once he paused, shook his head and said, “You don’t understand how hard this is. It is really unthinkable to tell you these things.”

Douglas Brooks is a boatbuilder, writer and researcher living in Vergennes, Vermont, USA. His website is: www.douglasbrooksboatbuilding.com http://www.douglasbrooksboatbuilding.com/index_j.html (日本語)

His new book, Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding, can be purchased from his website: http://www.douglasbrooksboatbuilding.com/japanese_wooden_boatbuilding.html

To purchase his book in Japan contact: ahmoore@hotmail.com

13 Comments

  1. Great post Brian! Thank you.

    There are so many skills and crafts being lost. While it is good that a lot of these are being documented, there is no substitute for first hand experience and apprenticeship learning. How many centuries old skills will cease to exist in just one more generation?

    Anyway, enjoyed the post and look forward to the next.

    1. My pleasure, glad that everyone is enjoying this post! It’s certainly true, event though the internet has come along way in keeping so many of those skills alive, nothing does quite match an apprenticeship. I worked in a machine shop when I was in my late teens and the experience of working under a master machinist really stuck with me and certainly still presents itself in my daily use of tools.

  2. Thanks for sharing this great story.
    I wonder how many young people of today that would accept being trained with a rule of silence imposed on the shop?

    I can see that by requiring silence you avoid having to discuss things like “why can’t we do it this way? or wouldn’t this be faster/better /easier/cheaper etc.
    So you will eventually end up with something very close to a clone of your own workman self.

    But it might also prevent someone from learning faster due to a lack of understanding that could have been taken care of with a little bit of talking about a subject, e.g. how long time does wood need to dry before it is suitable to use.

    Brgds
    Jonas

    1. I teach in both the US and Japan and I have to say the difference is stunning. Japanese just “get” the apprentice model because its embedded in their culture, and the most succinct way I can describe it is my Japanese students absolutely maximize the learning experience while in my classes in the US I invariably have to deal with students-created distractions, whether it be egos, frustrations, etc. Valuable time is lost in the latter and I come away feeling my students here at home get 50-75% of me at best. I try to use these principles when I teach my Japanese Boatbuilding classes at Middlebury College, replicating the apprentice model as closely as I can as we attempt to have a completely silent workshop. The students are confused at first but in the end most find it revelatory.

      I agree its less efficient (the average boatbuilding apprenticeship in Japan was six years) but the apprentice system does not value efficiency. Its our prejudice in the west to try and maximize efficiency. The Japanese system is a values-based education. My Japanese teachers could have explained and taught me in more efficient ways, but they all believed that would be an incomplete education. In their minds, until I honed my powers of observation and demonstrated my commitment and perseverance, there was no point in teaching me anything at all. Its a fascinating question and I am not doing it justice in a couple of paragraphs.

      Douglas Brooks

      1. Hi Douglas

        Thanks a lot for the explanation.
        I kind of like the value based idea.

        Since I mostly work in solitude, silence is fairly natural in my workshop. I haven’t got a radio there. I think it helps on improving the concentration on the task at hand, but my impression is that a lot of people can’t work without background noise/music.

        Brgds
        Jonas

  3. I have NEVER seen a radio in any workshop or on any job site in Japan but one: my Okinawan teacher loved traditional music from the islands, called minyo, and he had a pink, plastic, Hello Kitty radio that he turned on every weekday for a one-hour show in the afternoon. We worked seven days a week but on weekends we could hear his neighbor giving minyo lessons.

    He always worked full-time when he was building a boat, never taking any days off. I did notice there were no electric lights in the shop (he worked the first two decades of his career with no electricity at all) and when I asked he said if there were lights we would be inclined to work too hard! So we worked about 8-5 (he was 81 when I worked with him). I’ve talked to other boatbuilders in Japan who did not have lights in their shops and they said the waning light was a signal to quit for the day, that one would be mistake-prone doing layout in the half-light.

    1. It’s interesting that this has come up, I used to listen to music all the time and sometimes I do but so often if I start the day without it I usually move on through the day without even noticing that it is not on.

      Being especially focused on the work is rewarding.

      8-5 is a pretty good day, I notice that I start making more errors after 10 or so hours if I do not stop and have dinner before going back into the workshop.

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