Building traditional Japanese boats


Before coming home I was introduced to two boatbuilders in Tokyo. Kazuyoshi Fujiwara was a third generation boatbuilder. He had built small fishing boats with his father until the 1970's, until developers bought the rights to the fishing grounds and filled them in for highrise projects. Nobuji Udagawa lived in Urayasu, which was once a small fishing village and now a sprawling suburb of Tokyo, well known to Japanese as the home of Tokyo Disneyland. Udagawa is one of the last boatbuilders of his community. A major chemical spill destroyed the fishing grounds in the early 1970's and land developers again began filling in the bay. Tokyo Disneyland now sits on the new edge of Tokyo Bay, over two miles from the original shoreline.

The bekabune, or seaweed gathering boat that the author built with Mr. Nobuji Udagawa in 2001.

In the spring of 2001, Udagawa invited me to join him in building a bekabune, the small boat used throughout Tokyo Bay for gathering seaweed. He had been asked to come out of retirement by the directors of the new Urayasu Folk History Museum. The museum featured a boatshop, the first of its kind in Japan, and Udagawa and I would build a bekabune during the first month of the museum's opening. Udagawa was as voluble as Fujii had been quiet. He was also, above all, fast. For each step of the boatbuilding process, Udagawa would demonstrate at amazing speed, then hand me the tools and step back. He could relax with visitors to the museum, telling anecdotes about his once sleepy fishing village, but once he touched a tool he worked at a furious pace. We used no power tools. I sawed all the parts of the boat with a handsaw, including the sixteen-foot long planking. I planed all surfaces with hand planes. I used a special chisel called a tsubanomi to make holes for the boat nails. When he wasn't talking to visitors Udagawa hovered over my work, correcting and encouraging.

Every day at lunch we rode bicycles to Udagawa's house (Udagawa had never learned to drive). There I learned more about his life as a boatbuilder in Urayasu. He had built over 300 bekabune in a twenty-year career, as well as dozens of larger fishing boats. In a shattered post-war Japan, Udagawa had eked out a living building boats with two younger brothers. A new bekabune in the 1950's cost as much as a bicycle and his only holidays were the first and the fifteenth of the month. They were one of six local boatbuilding "houses". At the urging of an uncle he bought an electric bandsaw, the first power tool in Urayasu. It was 1955.

Fujiwara - The chokkibune, an Edo-era water taxi, built by the author and Mr. Kazuyoshi Fujiwara in Tokyo in 2002.

In 2001 I was approached by the Freeman Foundation of Stowe, Vermont. The foundation has long supported educational projects related to Asia, and they asked how they could help me. The result was a year-long research project, in which I would build two traditional boats with Mr. Fujiwara in Tokyo and one boat with Mr. Seizo Ando in Aomori, the northern tip of the main island of Japan. The Tokyo boats were built in the fall and early winter of 2002, and the third boat built in the summer of 2003. In between the grant allowed me to lease a van and travel the coastline looking for boatbuilders. In the end my wife and I drove over 8,000 miles exploring parts of Japan I had never visited. This included mountain river valleys, where I found four boatbuilders. In all I met forty-two craftsmen who ranged in age from 65 to 93. Only a handful had taught apprentices and many told me that they worked with no drawings whatsoever. "Kan de," they would say, "by intuition."

Shimaihagi The author and Mr. Seizo Ando of Aomori Prefecture built this traditional fishing boat in 2003. Brooks has just completed a book on building this boat.

What's next in this odyssey? I am now seeking funding to continue working with boatbuilders in Japan. I would like to learn from more from these expert craftspeople, or at least conduct detailed interviews to document as much of the craft as possible. Thanks to a follow-up grant from the Freeman Foundation, I have just finished measured drawings of the five types of boats that I have built in Japan. As of this writing (early 2006) I have just completed my second book, a description of building a northern Japanese fishing boat, which is due to be published in Japan in 2007.

Introduction :: The tub boat :: 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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