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Carpenter Eiichiro Amakasu

by Judit Kawaguchi

Eiichiro Amakasu, 70, is a carpenter who designs and builds traditional Japanese homes and their surrounding gardens. He is an expert of sukiya, a residential architectural style that is typically associated with Japanese tea houses. He is also a master of the kanna, the Japanese plane, which is one of the trade’s most important woodworking tools. Since 1997, Amakasu has been one of the organizers of Kezurou-kai, a yearly Japanese-planing event that attracts hundreds of carpenters from around Japan as well as some from abroad. The carpenters attending the event bring their own tools and wood, and they demonstrate various carving techniques. Amakasu’s kanna skills always draw crowds, and he garners the respect of his peers as he slides off the thinnest, longest and widest shavings from the boards. A single shaving can be a few meters long and as thin as 0.003 mm, the diameter of human hair. Though he is famous for his kanna skills, he also well known for being shy, and yet still keen to teach others the magic of woodworking. He was also the inspiration for the Edo Period carpenter character in Shuichi Sae’s novel, “Edo Shokunin Kitan.”

Be picky about the type of work you accept! Sure, you might not get rich that way but you will improve your skills and develop a reputation for excellent taste and professionalism. The only jobs I accept are the ones that start with nothing or something great. I used to get offers to renovate family homes that were built 10 to 20 years previously. I refused those jobs because the only way to fix such buildings would be to demolish them and start from scratch, and that’s not what the owners had in mind. For a long time, I had no income for six or more months each year. But I did not change my philosophy.

If you bring the women to your side, you’ll be OK! Wives decide everything in Japan, so as long as we get along with them, the job is easy.

Tools are family. I keep them for life. When my blades get very small, just a few centimeters wide, I put them neatly in boxes and keep them at home as my treasures. At night, I open those boxes and look at my old blades. This is my healing time. It’s better than TV! If I get a headache, I take out my box and once I see the little blades, my pain is goes away.

Wonderful assignments are worth waiting for. In 2009, I was invited to create a traditional Japanese chashitsu (teahouse) at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford. We built the whole structure in Japan, then we took it apart, shipped it to Oxford and put it back together there. This way of working is usual, even in Japan, but it was my first experience rebuilding one abroad.

Unless we keep polishing our skills and techniques, they get lost. Ise Jingu, our most sacred Shinto shrine complex, which is in Mie Prefecture, was established 2,000 years ago, and records show that it has been rebuilt every 20 years for the past 1,300 years. Some people may wonder why its buildings and bridge must be rebuilt so often. One reason is that the notion of renewal is central to Shintoism. The other is that this is the only way to ensure that the engineering, woodworking and art techniques needed are passed onto the next generation of artisans. This is what has been keeping Japanese art and carpentry alive.

If home life is good, the job goes well. When a wife is always in a good mood and maintains a peaceful home, the husband will be happy and can concentrate on his mission. He will definitely succeed. Since we met 40 years ago, my wife has been such a woman. She is my everything. She even prepares the best bento (lunch box) for me every day.

Don’t stand out; leave that for your work. I never liked to stick out. I prefer to work quietly in the background. But when I use my kanna, people gather around me. That’s the only time I can stand attention, because I am happy to share my technique.

My wife made me into the man I am. That is what women do: they raise their men. She is seven years older than me but doesn’t even look more than 50. Beautiful! And she is always laughing, always positive. That is what turned me from a morose carpenter into a man that usually has a smile on his face. Her words always ring in my ear: ” Be kind. Smile at people. Just relax. Stay calm. All is OK.” Guess what? It is. Thanks to her.

If you do a good job, you don’t need to advertise. Your work becomes the ad. Every home I have built was requested by someone who had seen my previous buildings or had heard of me from others.

Being bad at business should be seen as a positive thing. That’s me. I always stick to my beliefs, and I don’t do anything just for money. I work for beauty, this is why I only accept amazing commissions. They might be very expensive homes, but I will use the budget for materials that no one else would dare order. I want a masterpiece, and I want to be proud of my work. This is why all my clients turn into lifelong friends.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “journeys in japan” Learn more at: juditfan.blog58.fc2.com. Twitter: @judittokyo