With traditional gender roles in Japan slowly evolving, carpentry remains an overwhelmingly male profession. Combine this with a dwindling number of carpenters (down from 1 million in the 1980’s to less than 200k in 2020), the future for traditional Japanese woodcraft is arguably bleak.
Bucking this trend and inspiring a new generation of young, female woodworkers is Lin Horiuchi. At 25 years old, Lin is apprentice to Master Carpenter Makoto Fukada of Seyseysha, a Tokyo-based firm designing and building traditional wooden houses.
We had the chance to meet and interview Lin on our research trip to Japan earlier this year.
JWA: As one of only a few female apprentice woodworkers in Japan, have you faced any prejudice or stigma?
Lin: Since I’ve become an apprentice carpenter I’ve not faced any negativity. However, prior to starting out, when I said I wanted to be a carpenter to my parents and friends they didn’t understand. They could not grasp the relationship between a woman who graduated from university and a carpenter. They told me “you should aim to be an architect instead of a carpenter”. But for me, it’s important to make buildings from wood. Also, initially, when I asked a construction company to hire me as a carpenter, they refused because they’ve never hired a female carpenter.
JWA: How can the Japanese government / education system and / or society increase the number of female woodworkers in Japan?
Lin: There’s three points to this. The first, is to appreciate Japanese traditional architecture. Nowadays, it’s difficult to find traditional wooden buildings around us. The majority are now built by concrete and other modern materials, so there’s an increasing lack of knowledge about traditional architecture. The government should re-consider the value of traditional wooden architecture – it should be taught in school.
Next, is to know that a woman can be a carpenter. Most people imagine a carpenter as a man. Until fairly recently, a carpenter needed to carry bulk wood around, but now we can use a crane or forklift. So, technology has helped women become carpenters. On the flip side, our societal system makes it difficult for women to return to a job after pregnance. I hope this gets better in the future.
Finally, it’s good to have an experience in living a traditional house constructed from wood. Many people haven’t experienced living in the comfort of traditional ‘Kominka’ (old Japanese folk houses). I believe when you are comfortable, you want this to continue for your children as well. People who discover the value of a traditional house don’t want it to die out. I really want everyone to have an experience living there. I’m sure they’ll feel something special.
JWA: Describe your favourite tool – what it is, it’s history and why you love it so much.
Lin: My favorite tool is ‘Mentori-ganna’. This plane is for chamfering. I like it because it’s the first tool my boss (Makoto) allowed me to use! After working with it, I feel satisfaction. It teaches me that if you want to do a perfect job, you need to prepare the perfect tool.
JWA: What advice would you give female woodworkers in the UK wanting to learn more about Japanese woodcraft?
Lin: If there are female woodworkers in the UK who want to learn Japanese traditional woodwork, I appreciate it very much! Often in Japan, we can’t recognize the value of our culture before foreigners discover it.
I’ve been an apprentice carpenter for only 8 months now so I can’t really offer any technical advice. Instead, I want to ask fellow woodworkers how do you think about wood in the UK? How does it feel to you? How do you take care of it? In our culture, nature was God. Wood held God. With a belief in ‘animism*’, ancient Japanese people treated wood respectfully. They listened to the voice of wood and followed it to make various forms and complex joints naturally. It all makes sense. How about in the UK? I’d love to know!
JWA Note: *Animism is the religious belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence.
JWA: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Japanese woodcraft? What concerns do you have, if any? Are you confident the tools, traditions and techniques are safe in the hands of your generation?
Lin: I’m optimistic, because I believe that true work, which is good for both nature and human beings, is never lost. Even if it disappears, it will revive again in future. Japanese traditional architecture and the skills necessary to make them are genuine. Although small in numbers, there are many people who love the tradition and want to preserve it for the next generation. I think the space created by a traditional wooden building is the best for Japanese life and we can be ourselves in there. That’s why I believe Japanese traditional architecture and the skills will never die out.
Our generation is taught that you should enter a famous university and secure a job with high salary. That’s success and your happiness. However, some people worry whether the job is right for them. The salary might be high and they can buy anything they want, but they somehow feel unsatisfied. It’s only then that some people start to move towards doing something they love.
JWA: Apart from Makoto (of course!) who is your inspiration in woodwork?
Lin: I admire the late Mr. Nishioka Tsunekazu. He was a carpenter specializing in building temples and shrines. I’ve read some books about him and his work. He could place the right wood in the right place. I want to be like him.
JWA NOTE: Read more about Nishioka Tsunekazu on our Masters profile page.
JWA: Can you recommend any useful websites or online resources that UK woodworkers can look at to learn about Japanese woodwork? (Preferably with English translation!).
Lin: I tried to find some, but I’m sorry, I couldn’t! I think what you’re doing with the Japan Woodcraft Association is unique. Generally speaking, Japanese woodworkers aren’t good at marketing and PR, as skills are instructed verbally. If you can take the role of sharing our knowledge it will be really helpful. I’m going to do as much as I can of course!
JWA: Thanks so much for your time Lin, fingers crossed we can help bring you and Makoto over to the UK to demonstrate your skills in 2020!
JWA NOTE: Learn more about Lin’s day to day work as an apprentice constructing traditional Japanese houses in our Traditional Architecture section.