Douglas Brooks is a boatbuilder, writer and researcher on a mission to preserve the wonderful yet dying tradition of Japanese wooden boatbuilding.
Over the course of last 3 decades, Douglas sought out and gained the trust of Japan’s last generation of elderly master boat builders, becoming their sole apprentice and confidant, building 8 types of traditional boats under their tutelage and watchful eye.
His insight and subsequent documenting of the traditions and techniques is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the wider world to learn about this ancient craft.
We’re delighted to bring you Douglas’s remarkable story with this revealing interview. We also urge you to read more about an often overlooked woodworking tradition through Douglas’s fantastic book, available to buy direct from him here.
JWA: What inspired you to travel to Japan in 1990 and begin your journey documenting Japanese boat building?
Douglas Brooks (DB): I was invited to Japan by my college roommate who is from Hiroshima. In the course of that first trip I happened to meet several boatbuilders and was immediately captivated by their work.
JWA: There’s a sense of duty and urgency about your work. Is it really a race against time to document all this knowledge before it’s lost?
DB: Absolutely. Japan’s last generation of craftspeople who built wooden boats is fast disappearing. In the fall of 2019 I built boats with two craftspeople, one in his late 70s and the other in his 80s, and they both had apprenticed building wooden boats with their fathers, but then transitioned to other materials (fiberglass and steel) for the remainder of their careers. At this point I know only a handful of boatbuilders who have worked solely with wood.
JWA: Traditional craftsmen such as furniture makers and temple carpenters are revered in Japan but boat builders seem to have been overlooked, why so?
DB: It is a good question but I think part of the answer is these craftspeople built fishing boats (pleasure boats represented only a tiny fraction) and this work is associated with hard, blue-collar labor. In the West we talk about boatbuilding as an “art” but no one in Japan would say that. I think there are many workaday crafts in Japan which have been overlooked and underappreciated because they are associated with farming and fishing.
JWA: Which design feature do you love the most about Japanese boats?
DB: I love the simplicity of the layout. Japanese boatbuilders often committed all the information to memory, and they simplified the design process no doubt in part to make it easier to remember.
JWA: What is the hardest part of Japanese boat building?
DB: The traditional apprenticeship was very hard. Certain techniques are unknown in the West. Working on the floor is a real challenge for those who have not worked this way.
JWA: Which types of wood are used for Japanese boats and why? Which substitutes do you use in North America?
DB: Japanese cedar (sugi) is the primary boatbuilding wood for planking, with cypress (hinoki) used for framing where denser materials are required. Regional differences abound but these two species probably account for 99% of the material used to build boats.
JWA: We assume there’s some specialised hand tools for boat-building, what are they and what’s the most unique you’ve seen?
DB: Please include some pictures for our readers. Boatbuilders use a special kind of handsaw to fit planking, but the chisel used to make holes for the flat steel nails is probably the most unique.
JWA: We’re fascinated and captivated by Japanese tub boats, why are they so unique and what’s the connection to coopering?
DB: They are very closely related to coopered vessels. The tub boats are a relatively recent invention (late 1800s) but they are inexpensive, durable, and perfect for maneuvering in their particular environment. The only major difference between a tub boat and a barrel is they are oval (though many oval coopered vessels exist in Japan) but the bottom is also slightly curved, which is unknown in traditional Japanese coopering to my knowledge.
JWA: If you were marooned on a desert island which boat would you build to escape it and why?
DB: It would depend on the materials available. In the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand there is a wicker frame for a coracle, a type of small, round Irish boat, that was made by a shipwrecked Irish sailor, which he covered with sail canvas and reached safety.
JWA: Why do you think that Japan’s last generation of boat builders are disappearing and so few have taught apprentices?
DB: Japan’s meteoric economic rise started a flight to the cities soon after the end of World War Two. With increased manufacturing came pressures on the market as fiberglass boats appeared. Over the decades demand for wooden boats fell and soon craftspeople were encouraging their children not to follow in the trade. I have studied with nine boatbuilders from across Japan and I am the sole apprentice for seven of them. Of the fifty or sixty boatbuilders I have met and interviewed probably less than ten taught an apprentice.
JWA: You’ve had a fascinating insight into the apprentice learning system. How did you manage to set up initial meetings with your teachers and ultimately gain their trust?
DB: In most cases I just walked into their shops. They were initially surprised to find a foreigner interested in their craft but in most cases were very eager to teach me. I met all my teachers when they were in their 70s and 80s and I think my timing was perfect, because at that point they all realized the amount of knowledge that was about to be lost. Had I come years earlier they might still have clung to their secrets. In fact in 2018 I interviewed a boatbuilder in Hiroshima who said exactly that. While we were talking he said had I come ten years earlier he would have thrown me out of his shop, but now, he said, it was time for someone to document his techniques. Sadly, by far the hardest thing about my work and research is finding the funding to undertake these projects and publish the results.
JWA: What do you think are good and bad points about this method of education?
DB: Apprentice education is slow, arduous and inefficient, but it produces craftspeople of remarkable skill. It is a very student-centered education: all the responsibility for learning rests on the apprentice. It is also very much a crucible. The apprentice is put in stressful situations and its understood this is part of the learning process. It is also a values-based education, versus a skills-based education; it very much believes that it takes a certain type of person to master a craft and it seeks to steer apprentices in that direction.
JWA: What was your most memorable moment as an apprentice in Japan?
DB: I have had too many to recount, from one teacher yelling at me for stealing his secrets, to another literally not saying a single word in the course of building a boat with me. All of my teachers made it clear there would be no speaking in the shop. This begs the question of how does one learn but in this context the apprentice learns by observation.
JWA: You’ve brought the silent workshop and ‘learning by observation’ approach to your Japanese boat-building classes. How has this gone down with your students?
DB: When I announce the silent classroom my students are both afraid and doubtful. In the end they absolutely love it. In fact I found in some classes students would put in earplugs at the start of class whether they were needed or not. They simply liked shutting out the world so they could concentrate on their work.
JWA: How much previous woodworking experience do you need to attend the Japanese boat building classes you run?
DB: I do not ask for any previous experience. This is in the spirit of apprenticeship. Apprentices typically begin as teenagers and have no experience.
JWA: What’s the future outlook for traditional Japanese boat building? Do you have any Japanese counterparts who are documenting these dying skills across Japan?
DB: I know of no other researchers engaged in working directly with craftspeople to document their techniques. There are a very few researchers who have watched boats being built and recorded what happened but none have engaged directly as an apprentice. As a result, much of the published work in Japan is not concerned with transmitting the skills and techniques, unfortunately.
JWA: What is your next challenge? Is there a style of boat-building in Japan you’d like to learn? A particular master you’d love to interview or apprentice with?
DB: There is a man building a particular type of cormorant fishing boat in Hiroshima I would like to build a boat with. The boats are beautiful. Another river boat builder in the mountains of Niigata makes a very interesting river boat I would love to document. I would really like to get a grant that would allow me to travel for several months in Japan just measuring old boats. These too are disappearing but there still remains a wealth of material culture out there that could be documented. I am also working with The Apprenticeshop, America’s oldest boatbuilding school, on the idea of creating an exchange program in Japan. We would bring student boatbuilders from the US to build and document boats. My hope would be to start a satellite boatbuilding school in Japan teaching these methods.
JWA: For those visiting Japan, which area/s would you recommend visiting to see traditional Japanese boats in use and/or being made?
DB: I would recommend visiting some of the larger maritime museum, including the Urayasu Museum in Chiba (near Tokyo), the Toba Sea Folk Museum outside of Ise, and the Seto Inland Sea Museum outside of Takamatsu. Many local museums have excellent collections as well. In Okinawa the traditional fishing boat, the sabani, has been rediscovered as a racing boat and throughout the summer there are regattas. There are actually a large number of wooden boats used in the tourist industry in Japan (a potential market I see helping support a boatbuilding school).
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