KAWABE, Wakayama Pref. — As the biggest battleship the world had ever seen, the Yamato is still remembered by many Japanese even half a century after it was sunk off Cape Bo-no-Misaki in Kagoshima Prefecture.
And that is the reason why Keiichi Yamamoto, 71, chose to transform a chunk of ancient camphor into a magnificently detailed working model of the legendary Japanese dreadnought.
As a 30-year veteran of radio-controlled boat racing, Yamamoto had a basic idea of how to make a miniature motor-driven boat, but what he completed is probably unprecedented in the annals of Yamato model-making, he said.
Yamamoto’s version of the warship is 1.55 meters long and made entirely of wood from the 300-year-old tree. Although the tree, like the battleship, met a violent fate, Yamamoto wanted both of their legacies preserved.
“I did not want to waste the last piece of my tree, which was cut down for the sake of road work,” the retired tangerine farmer said. “So I thought it would be best used to make a model ship.”
The ship had to be the Yamato. And it had to steam.
“It had to be powered with a steam engine because a ship has its beauty when it sails in water, and only the sound and the steam can give the Yamato its real character,” he said.
To begin with, Yamamoto photocopied the upper deck of a 1/400-scale plastic model, enlarging it to 1/170 scale so the engine could be fitted in.
Then, dividing the hull into four layers, Yamamoto analyzed the ship in three dimensions, piling up and planing wooden pieces from the uppermost deck to the bottom.
Since he had never seen the ship, Yamamoto said some imagination was required to complete the task.
“When making the hull, you have to have your own image of the ship. In Yamato’s case, the most important and difficult part was its round-shaped lower prow,” he said.
Apart from the top layer, the other three layers were shaped with Yamamoto’s sense and inspiration, gleaned from the details of the plastic model.
To make the ship symmetrical, he could not rely on any tools.
“The process of creating what I imagined was a large part of my enjoyment in making the Yamato. Its colors are as much the product of my imagination as the shape was,” Yamamoto said.
World War II ended before he could be conscripted, and his knowledge of the vessel at the time was a rumor that a large battleship called the Yamato might have existed.
Thanks to the steam engine, the model, sails as if it were a real battleship with steam streaming from its stack. But making it move properly was not easy.
“First, I had to make many small holes to take in enough air for an alcohol burner. But despite having enough air, the engine didn’t produce enough output. That was because the steam from the exhaust was disturbing the alcohol burner,” Yamamoto said. He solved the problem with a special exhaust pipe.
Even the superstructure is made of wood. To make the guns, he used brass pipes, which cannot be broken as easily as wood.
One thing he could not reproduce was the Imperial crest that was to be attached atop the prow. As fate would have it, he happened to find a crest in just the right size in a location he never expected: a buckle he received as a souvenir of Tokyo.
Yamamoto cut it out and put it in place.
“A battleship must have it,” he said.
The model of the Yamato was completed this spring after about 11/2 years of work, and although he did not intend to show it off, there was much talk about the model among his neighbors, with local media putting him in the spotlight.
“When I was a child, I was not given any toys, but I made whatever I wanted to play with by myself. Children these days would not make a toy, not to mention a battleship,” Yamamoto said as he worked on a glass display case for the replica.
He said he would not donate the battleship to a nearby school because it may be taken as a militaristic gesture. “I will probably keep it at home as an ornament,” he said.