With Japan’s unprecedented modernization in the last century, the demand for traditional boats (wasen) faded, leaving the last generation of boatbuilders with no one to teach. This is the story of the author’s apprenticeships with Japanese masters to build five unique and endangered traditional boats. It is part ethnography, part instruction, and part the personal story of a wooden boatbuilder fueled by a passion to preserve a craft tradition on the brink of extinction.
Over the course of 17 trips to Japan Douglas Brooks traveled over 30,000 miles to seek out and interview Japan’s elderly master boatbuilders; he built boats with five men, all in their seventies and eighties, between 1996 and 2010, from Tohoku in the far north to the southernmost islands of Okinawa. He was the sole apprentice for each, and worked under a timehonored system in which apprentices first swept floors and sharpened tools, learning chiefly by observation with only limited direct instruction. Eventually Brooks managed to win the trust of these extraordinary craftsmen, who realized that sharing their secrets and techniques with this eager American would mean their heritage might be saved.
Here Brooks tells the story of those apprenticeships, and the techniques and secrets they revealed. Part I introduces significant aspects of traditional Japanese boatbuilding: design, workshop and tools, wood and materials, joinery and fastenings, propulsion, ceremonies, and the apprenticeship system. Part II details each of his five apprenticeships, concluding with a poignant chapter on Japan’s sole remaining traditional shipwright. This fascinating book fills a large and long-standing gap in the literature on Japanese crafts, and will be of interest to boatbuilders, woodworkers, and all those impressed with the marvels of Japanese design and workmanship.