Keeping tradition afloat

A U.S. boat builder strives to save Japan's skills


Outside, the air reeks of traffic fumes and it’s the usual hurly-burly of inner-city Tokyo. But inside, in a small workshop abutting the Koto Ward Office in Toyo, the sweet scent of cedar fills the room. Two men work together, planing, sawing and chiseling golden-brown timbers into the elegant lines of a wasen, or a traditional Japanese wooden boat.

Since mid-September, these two men — master Kazuyoshi Fujiwara and Douglas Brooks — have been working on a type of wasen called a tenmasen, a 6-meter-long river cargo boat whose name derives from tenma (an Edo Period pack horse) and sen (boat). And though Fujiwara, 74, speaks only Japanese, in which 41-year-old Brooks is far from fluent, language is no barrier to their shared love of transforming a sugi selected by the master from an Ibaraki forest into this thing of beauty and utility.

“Learning a craft is mostly about seeing how something is done and then practicing it,” says Brooks. As an experienced boat builder for U.S. museums, he says a lot of his master’s techniques make sense to him. Brooks closely observes how Fujiwara applies these boat-building techniques and uses his tools, then attempts to emulate him in the same way Fujiwara emulated his father, who, in turn, learned from his father before him.

This age-old Japanese process, by which traditional skills are passed from one generation to the next, has given Brooks his reason to be here. He first became aware of the Japanese tradition of nusumigeiko (stolen learning) when he met a boat builder in Shikoku’s Kochi Prefecture, nearly a decade ago. The craftsman showed him an obviously incomplete “blueprint” drawing of a boat, sketched on a piece of wood.

Brooks was surprised. “I said to him, ‘Where’s the rest of the information? I’m a boat builder and my drawings are complete, but this is incomplete.’ “

To Brooks’ amazement, the boat builder replied, “I know it’s incomplete. The rest of the information is my secret.” All the other ship builders Brooks met said the same thing — in other words, the only way that their wisdom can be preserved beyond their own lifetimes is for students or apprentices to “steal” it, by studying what the master does.

“If you lose one generation of deshi (student), and if the shisho (teacher) passes away, then potentially you lose the whole craft. And that’s very scary,” Brooks said.

A world apart

In fact, although Brooks met 17 boat builders in Japan, there were only three apprentices. The masters were all in their 60s, 70s and 80s — some of them have now passed away.

“I’m so afraid that so much could be lost, and actually a lot has already been lost,” says Brooks, who’s taking notes on everything he learns. He has also taken more than 500 photos, just one month into the project.

It all sounds a world apart from studying philosophy at a college in his home state of Connecticut, but Brooks explains that it was a yearlong college program on maritime studies that set him on this course, sparking an especially strong interest in traditional boats.

After graduating college, he worked as a carpenter and teacher, before getting a job at the San Francisco Maritime Museum as a researcher and boat builder. There, Brooks made replicas of traditional American boats as visitors watched. It was at that time, he says, that he came across a magazine with a picture of a Japanese woman in a wooden taraibune, an oval-shaped fishing boat modeled on the way barrels are constructed.

Fascinated, Brooks headed off to the place named in the caption — Ogi, Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture. This was his first trip to Japan, in 1990.

Once common along the coasts of Niigata and its neighboring prefectures, Brooks says taraibune are now used only in six fishing villages in Ogi. When the American boat builder arrived, there were only two taraibune builders left — when Brooks went back three years later, one of them had passed away.

On his first and subsequent visits, Brooks scoured the country for wasen builders. “I traveled the coastline and visited fishing villages,” he says, “and when I came across one with wooden boats, I would ask the village people, ‘Funadaiku, dokodesuka? (Where can I meet the boat builder?).’ If the boats [in a village] were made of FRP [fiberglass-reinforced plastic], I could see that they didn’t have any boat builders anymore in that village.”

The last craftsman

In a country that is surrounded by sea, boats have long been essential for fishing and as a means of transportation. However, Japanese boat-building is in steep decline. Boat builders, once essential to these fishing villages, are dwindling, and wooden boats have been replaced by FRP ones.

Brooks sensed an urgency to preserve this dying tradition. “My work is based on the belief that it’s not enough to preserve the boats. I believe you have to preserve the skills that built the boats,” Brooks said.

Brooks returned to Sado Island for the third time in 1996 at the invitation of the last taraibune builder, Koichi Fujii, to be his first-ever student. Brooks learned and recorded the master’s techniques as they worked together.

“I heard that Fujii-san told people around him, ‘I will not retire until I teach the American how to build the boat. I have to keep working until I teach him.’ As a craftsman, I understand that feeling,” Brooks said.

Brooks returned to Sado again in 2000, this time to complete the half-finished taraibune his master had been working on before he passed away the year before, at the age of 75.

As the last craftsman with the knowledge and skills to build taraibune, Brooks made one of his own the same year, in front of visitors at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. Last year, Brooks was able to pass on his taraibune knowhow to a young Sado Island boat-builder. He is currently working on a book on taraibune and its building techniques, to be published in Japan next year.

Meanwhile, Brooks’ current project with Fujiwara in Tokyo, funded by the Vermont-based Freeman Foundation, is to continue until January. When the two finish their tenmasen, they’ll start building an 8-meter chokkibune, an Edo Period water-taxi named for its bow, which resembles the tusk of a wild boar (chokki).

Fujiwara said he is honored to have been chosen as Brooks’ teacher, though he feels a great burden of responsibility. “This is his first time working on these boats, and so I’m constantly worried about whether I can teach him right. I also have to teach him what shouldn’t be done. I can’t just say it’s all fun,” said the veteran craftsman. “But he’s picking up many things, and I’m getting a bit relieved now. And I think we are speeding up.”

Historical tourism

After the two boats have been built and Brooks has completed drawing Western-style blueprints of them, the boats will be presented to Koto Ward, which has provided the boat-builders’ workshop space. Thereafter Brooks will visit Sado Island again, before moving on to Aomori Prefecture, where he will be apprenticed to another traditional boat builder.

Like wasen, traditional boats in the U.S. have also experienced a steep decline in both use and construction.

However, Brooks said that a growing interest in traditional crafts among younger people has fuelled a revival of the industry. In the U.S., the existence of written records of traditional boat-building supported a new field of historical tourism — replicas of these boats are now used to attract tourists. Brooks sees the scope for a similar movement in Japan — and for new uses for wasen.

“I would love to see the moat around the Imperial Palace filled with wasen! Tokyo is a city full of canals, and it’s like Venice. I think of wasen like gondolas in Venice. Why not have traditional wasen that people can use as tourists? We could still do it today if we had the willingness to.”