Douglas Brooks is a man on a mission. A boat builder and craftsman originally from Connecticut, Brooks is committed to helping keep afloat the dying craft of traditional boat building in Japan.
Hailing from the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, maritime connections have gradually taken over his life.
Brooks began researching traditional Japanese boat building in 1990 and has since been to Japan more than a dozen times, visiting fishing villages throughout the nation in his quest for boat-building traditions in danger of being lost.
He has worked on building and documenting boats in Tokyo and Niigata as well as Aomori and Okinawa. In all, he has studied with five boat builders making six types of traditional boats.
His most recent trip, from late 2009 to early 2010, took him to Okinawa to learn the art of constructing a sabani — the traditional Okinawan fishing boat that once flourished around the southwestern prefecture.
“I was very intrigued by the sabani because it represented a different kind of technology than any of the Japanese boats I had yet tried to build,” said the 50-year-old Brooks, who now lives in Vermont.
However, like many traditional Japanese boats, sabani have fallen out of favor and on hard times since the mid-20th century. The shrinking of the fishing industry and the introduction of fiberglass boats are two factors that have driven the precipitous decline in demand for wooden boats.
Against this background, Brooks has been racing against the clock to chronicle the traditions of Japanese boat making before they are irretrievably lost to history.
“I come at this research as an experienced boat builder. I can work with these craftsmen side by side and understand what they are doing,” he said, adding, “There are many people — curators, historians and otaku – in Japan who care about the craft. They might visit boat builders and take a zillion photos, but they don’t know how to build a boat. But I don’t know anybody else in Japan doing what I am doing.”
Admittedly a far cry from his undergraduate studies in philosophy, Brooks says his career trajectory was effectively set after a one-year college program on maritime studies. After earning his degree, he worked as a carpenter and teacher, ending up at the San Francisco Maritime Museum, where he researched and made replicas of traditional American boats as museum visitors watched.
When he left the museum, his former college roommate from Hiroshima sent him a plane ticket and note telling him that without a job he had no excuse not to visit Japan. Brooks grabbed the opportunity and his fascination with Japanese boat building hasn’t waned since.
With many of the traditional boat builders advanced in age, and many even too old now to still build boats, Brooks worries that if these skills are not recorded, then the treasures of Japanese boat building that have been accumulated over the centuries will be lost to history within one or two generations.
The sabani is a prime example of this phenomenon.
The sabani was the sixth boat documented in Brooks’ odyssey to record the traditional boat-building methods. Others include the taraibune (Japanese tub boat), bekabune (seaweed-gathering boat mainly used in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture), tenmasen (river cargo boat), chokkibune (a water taxi popular during the Edo Period and named for the tusk, or chokki, of the wild boar, which the bow is said to resemble), and the shimaihagi (an inshore fishing boat from Aomori).
“There are books about sabani, but there is no definitive manual on how to make them,” says Brooks. “My goal was to thoroughly document the design and construction methods.”
The sabani intrigued Brooks because the vessel represents an evolution from original dugout canoes to a composite method in which large timbers are fastened together, then carved with planks subsequently added to the structure. But there was more.
“Perhaps the greatest fascination for me as a boat builder is that sabani builders make these exquisite boats using no nails whatsoever. Instead they use hardwood butterfly key fastenings that are known in the local dialect as huundu, ” he said.
Sabani are classified as a semidugout boat. To make them, a large piece of timber is carved to form the bottom, then plank sides are added. The plank sides are set up upside down and the timber bottom is positioned on top. The dovetail key fastenings (or huundu) are added to connect the side planks to the timber that forms the bottom, as well as at the bow and stern. Bamboo nails are also used in the construction.
Despite his strong interest in such features, Brooks initially had no idea how long it would actually take for this opportunity to become a reality.
The sabani-making experience was years in the making. Brooks’ desire to learn the traditional techniques of huundu initially had him focused on Niigata, where the traditional riverboats of the Agano River used similar fastenings locally known as chigiri. However, the Niigata boat builder with which he had hoped to study was too old to teach him.
Next he turned his attention to Okinawa. Brooks had no contacts, but knew that Okinawa was the last place that huundu work was still done. As he tried to raise funds for the project, he also used intermediaries to get in touch with prospective boat builders.
One promising option led him to Ishigaki Island around 2006, but just as he got his hopes up, the boat builder there fell ill.
It is generally accepted, says Brooks, that there are only three men — all elderly — who can build traditional sabani. There are younger boat makers that make sabani, but many use modern tools and techniques. Brooks was intent on gleaning how to make a sabani the old-school way.
Enter Ryujin Shimojo, who was nothing if not old-school in his approach. Brooks had previously sounded out Shimojo, who lives on Iejima Island, a small island off the west coast of Okinawa, about an apprenticeship, but was refused. At the time, little did Brooks know that it was because Shimojo had suffered a stroke.
He learned later that it was Shimojo’s wife, a spirited woman known to help Shimojo in his work after an injury in a car accident in his 40s, who had convinced her husband to take on Brooks, telling him that it was his chance to show the world how to make a sabani.
After ironing out the details, the research commenced in 2009. The research was conducted with a grant from the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle, the Asian Cultural Council of New York and the Nippon Foundation commissioning the sabani through the Museum of Maritime Science.
The project was not easy. Indeed, Brooks describes Shimojo’s efforts as “Herculean.”
“Nearly half paralyzed by a stroke just three years earlier, his entire left side was essentially useless. He walks with a cane, and could only work with one hand. Working beside him, it was one of the most unbelievable things I have ever seen,” Brooks said.
Brooks and Shimojo’s son did a lot of the heavy work, but Shimojo — already over 80 — was still in the workshop working hard, seven days a week without a word of complaint.
“It was one of the bravest and most inspiring things I have ever seen. If there is one man who epitomized the spirit of gaman (perseverance) that I have seen countless examples of in the rural countryside of Japan, it is Shimojo-san,” Brooks said.
In the workshop, Brooks was in his element, busying himself taking pictures, scribbling notes and making sketches trying to capture the sabani-making process in its entirety.
After 48 days of work spread across three months and the New Year of 2010, the eight-meter sabani saw the light of day. The boat has since been on display in Tokyo at the Museum of Maritime Science in Odaiba.
Meanwhile, Brooks’ “how-to” sabani book is almost ready for publication in Japanese, while a comprehensive book in English covering all of his work in Japan is to be published, possibly within the year. The book on Brooks’ work is being funded by the United States-Japan Foundation, and published by Floating World Editions.
Today there is a glimmer of hope: sabani have enjoyed a spike in interest in recent years, finding a fan base among sabani boat racing enthusiasts. A number of races are organized all the time, with the biggest competition — an open water race from Zamami Island to Naha in Okinawa — generally held in July.
There is an active contingent of sabani boat fans in the Tokyo area as well.
Brooks sees this phenomenon — a traditional boat being rediscovered as a pleasure boat — as the first real opportunity to revive traditional boats in Japan, something he has witnessed firsthand overseas.
For his own encore, Brooks is seeking funding to interview as many remaining boat builders as possible. He is currently awaiting word on a grant request to document traditional boat builders in Tohoku affected by the March 11 tsunami. Following the quake, he has confirmed that three boat builders he knows are safe and is anxious to spend time chronicling their techniques.
Clearly Brooks’ impassioned mission to chronicle the methods, ratios, designs and secrets underpinning traditional Japanese boat making is a labor of love. And while not an entirely thankless task, it could be that one day in the future Brooks’ work will be appreciated as a major reason that Japanese traditional boats have not vanished entirely from the waters of the world.