Building traditional Japanese boats

The taraibune, or tub boat

In the intervening years I have traveled to Japan twelve times. During my first visit I was introduced to a boatbuilder on Sado Island. Koichi Fujii was one of only two men still building the taraibune, or tub boat. These unique boats are still used in six small fishing villages on Sado, where men and women gather shellfish and seaweed. With each successive trip to Japan I traveled the coastline looking for boatbuilders, photographing traditional boats wherever I could find them. Initially I relied on Nobu and other friends to interpret for me while I interviewed craftsmen. On my first three trips I went to Sado Island and met with Fujii, and at the end of my third trip in 1995 he invited me to be his apprentice. An islander told me that Fujii was saying in the village that he wouldn't retire until he had taught the crazy American, as I was called by other islanders. I did not hesitate to accept his offer.

Tarai - The tub boat that the author built with his first teacher in 1996.

In 1996 my girlfriend (now wife) and I arrived on Sado Island. By this time Fujii was the last craftsman left building these boats and I was his first apprentice. We lived with Fujii and his wife in their traditional farmhouse and he and I built one tub boat. Fujii's teaching was my first surprise: he expected me to watch him work in silence for hours and then I was asked to work. Fujii would not even watch me; he took those periods to nap or smoke a cigarette. He would return, critique my work and leave. Strange as they seemed, his methods were completely in keeping with tradition; in Japan observation and imitation are valued above discussion. We spent our evenings sitting on the floor around the Fujii's low table eating, drinking and trying to communicate. The Fujiis had infinite patience with us, and we were happy in the evenings to sit and watch Mr. Fujii quietly write poetry with his brush and ink. We also fished together and spent one backbreaking day bringing in their rice harvest. Soon after returning I published a feature article, The Tub Boats of Sado Island, in WoodenBoat magazine.

I would never see my teacher again. In September, 1999, a friend from Sado wrote to tell me that Fujii had died in an accident. While corresponding with his widow I learned that he had begun building a tub boat before he died. She expressed her worry as to how she would get the boat finished, so I offered to come and complete it. In March of 2000 I arrived in a late winter blizzard, my fifth trip to Sado. I stayed for a week and managed to get the boat done. Twice a day Mrs. Fujii would bring a kettle of coals into the boatshop and insist I stop working and have tea with her. Most of what she said I could not understand - Sado dialect is difficult even for Japanese - but I did understand her detailed criticisms of my work. Get that hoop a little lower, she would say, before disappearing into the snow.

A fisherman in a taraibune, or tub boat, now used only on Sado Island, Japan.

While I was in Japan finishing my teacher's last boat, the Kodo Cultural Foundation approached me. Kodo is Japan's most famous taiko (drumming) group and they are based on Sado Island and they wanted to do something to preserve the tub boat. I suggested that we develop a project where I would train a craftsman on Sado and also publish a book based on my research, offering a step-by-step description of how these boats are built. Japan's last generation of boatbuilders have no apprentices, and because these men rarely wrote anything down -boat dimensions are usually memorized as trade secrets -an entire craft is on the brink of being lost. Although I had interviewed many boatbuilders by that point, an interview was a poor setting to record techniques. What my experiences with Fujii and Udagawa had taught me was that the craft has to be recorded from the inside -only by working directly with a boatbuilder can an accurate record of their techniques be made.

In the spring of 2002 I went back to Japan to build tub boats with Taka Higuchi, a carpenter from Sado. With the help of the Kodo Cultural Foundation I was also able to survey all the remaining tub boats in use (about 200) and interview fishermen and other craftsmen. In 2003 my book, The Tub Boats of Sado Island: A Japanese Craftsman's Methods, was published in English and Japanese. To order copies of this book from outside Japan contact the author at From inside Japan order the book from Kodo's website

Introduction :: Tokyo :: Gallery

Douglas Brooks ( is a boatbuilder, writer and researcher specializing in the construction of traditional wooden boats for museums and private clients. He lives with his wife Catherine in Vergennes, Vermont.

© Copyright 2005 by Douglas Brooks

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