School of Hard Knots

It takes patience and cunning to learn the traditional way of Japanese boats.

HUMANITIES, May/June 2013, Volume 34, Number 3

The typical apprenticeship with a Japanese traditional boatbuilder lasts six years, during which an apprentice can expect to spend a lot of time sweeping the shop floor and sharpening tools while watching the master ply his trade. Work is conducted in silence, questions are answered elliptically, if at all, and, by the end, the master will have withheld key pieces of knowledge that the apprentice is expected to acquire through guile or outright theft.

Even in Japan, where traditional crafts are revered, this system is too grueling, too much at odds with modern life, to survive. It is no wonder, then, that as a generation of Japanese boatwrights has retired, their knowledge has retired with them. Vermont boatbuilder Douglas Brooks is trying to ensure that the centuries-old designs for fishing boats and water taxis don’t follow these craftsmen to the grave.

For more than two decades, Brooks has researched traditional boatmaking in Japan, and has done short, nontraditional apprenticeships to record boat designs. Ordinarily, no Westerner would have a hope of learning in a few weeks what usually takes years of patient observation to acquire.

“They’re willing to teach me because they realize what’s about to be lost,” Brooks says.

The challenge of preserving this art is largely pedagogical, and that’s the subject of “Ways of Learning,” a slide talk Brooks gives through the Vermont Humanities Council’s speakers bureau. Through his talk, Brooks has stimulated a debate about how traditional crafts are handed down. His American audiences expect collegiality and dialog between student and teacher and are often shocked to hear about the Japanese method.

“Japanese craftspeople do not teach in a way that’s familiar to us as Westerners,” Brooks says. In part, that’s because the apprentice is meant to develop a set of values as well as a set of skills. They must learn how to observe, and they must learn patience and cunning.

Of the five masters Brooks has learned from, only two had drawings of their boat designs, and even those were incomplete. Unless an apprentice was the master’s son, he could expect to have to steal essential pieces of knowledge from the master, either by sneaking into the shop to take measurements or by some other subterfuge. One master told Brooks of how he had plied his own master with sake to unlock his secrets.

When Brooks learned to braid the hoops that hold together a taraibune, the traditional tub boat still used for gathering shellfish and seaweed off Japan’s Sado Island, his teacher, then the last man still making the boats, gave him the long bamboo strands and walked away.

“I remember the hairs going up on the back of my neck when my teacher dropped those strips in my lap and said ‘braid,’” Brooks says. It was, he adds, “the most focused, concentrated moment of my life.”

Traditional apprentices developed a thorough understanding of the task at hand, typically the construction of a single type of boat. “The people who come through this kind of process possess just extraordinary skills. That’s the result of those six years.” They would talk about their craft with a commitment and a sense of identity that you never hear in the West, he says.

But there’s also something to be said for the ease of the American way of transmitting knowledge. “We just water down everything, but we sure are plucky and democratic about it,” Brooks said. He once taught a student in a more Western way how to braid the taraibune hoops “and in twenty minutes he was braiding hoops.”  Brooks also has written a book on how to make a taraibune.

The Japanese view of traditional crafts, ranging from boatbuilding to pottery and papermaking, is changing, slowly. In the past decade, Brooks says he has started to see craft schools opening up. “A man who spent six years of his life in an apprenticeship learning a craft does not believe it can be put in the pages of a book,” a stance Brooks largely agrees with.  But the future of these crafts hangs in the balance.