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THE TUB BOATS OF SADO ISLAND: A Japanese Craftsman’s Methods, by Douglas Brooks, with a historical essay by Toshio Sato. Sado: Kodo Cultural Foundation, 2003, 176 pp., 2,500 yen (paper).

As the tides of time erode history, the centuries-deep culture of traditional Japan slowly seeps away. Without anyone much noticing, something old and valuable disappears. We can all think of examples — the one I am thinking of is traditional craftsmanship, most pressingly the disappearance of conventional carpentry.

There are very few carpenters left who can build a purely Japanese house, even fewer oteradaiku who build temples and shrines, fewer yet funadaiku, builders of boats, and none at all for that specialized ship — the tub boat of Sado Island. This is a round boat, though occasionally an oblong one can be seen. Tourists line up to paddle around Ogi Bay and in the next cove it is still being used by fisher-folk since its shape and maneuverability are well suited to the wrinkled coast of this southern part of the island.

There are various accounts of its origins. One is that someone cut a big miso barrel in half and started using it as a boat. Indeed, the common name of the craft is hangiri or “half barrel,” though the proper name of the vessel is taraibune. Another is that a trough once floated away and the neighbors, seeing that it could navigate the furrowed coast, started using it as skiff. A legend has also been concocted: A love-struck local maiden rowed her little tub boat nightly to the mainland to be with her lover but one night was lost in a storm.

In any event all of these craft are similar in that they are stave built and may well have descended from the well-wrought buckets and tubs that used to be made all over northern Honshu. This tradition calls for expert carpentry, and coopers have always been held in high esteem on Sado.

When there were any. But now with all the conveniences and availability of cheaper alternatives, this craft has all but vanished. In the case of the tub boat, the last of the master builders has already passed away. Koichi Fujii during the 15 years before his death in 1999 made about one hundred taraibune, averaging six to seven a year.

With his departure also would have vanished the craft itself had not a single student, Douglas Brooks, a writer, researcher, and a boat-builder himself, decided to attempt to do something about it. His plan was to teach a new apprentice how to build these boats, something he himself had learned from Fujii, and to document the process.

The project grew, eventually involving the Niigata Prefectural Museum and the Kodo Cultural Foundation, with funding from the Nippon Foundation. The building was held in public and hundreds were able to watch the author and his student crafting their boat in the traditional manner. At the same time the process was also chronicled and the result is this book.

There were many difficulties. The measuring was by the old shaku system which few know any more — Fujii never used any kind of tape measure since his only devices were a stick and a knotted string. In addition craftsmen worked sitting on the floor, a position excruciating to both Brooks and his apprentice — they compromised by standing to work. Also Fujii, like many traditional craftsmen, gave little direct instruction. He would undo clumsy work for Brooks but never told him how to get it right. This he left for the learner himself to discover.

Brooks and his apprentice worked steadily, documenting each step, aiming toward the goal that was, as the author defines it, “to document as completely as possible the craft of building a taraibune.” Ideally, a competent wood worker will be able to read this book and successfully build one. Hence his work is not only bilingual but it also includes plans and pictures.

In addition the entire project offers a kind of solution to the pressing question of how to detain the vanishing traditional: Document it, duplicate it, save all this knowledge before it goes down the drain of time — then make it public.

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