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Report on the talk ‘Ways of Learning: An Apprentice Boatbuilder in Japan’

It was a pleasure to attend a lecture by Douglas Brooks on the history and future of Japanese traditional wooden boats. Brooks, an enthusiastic writer and researcher, has dedicated significant time to studying the craft from Japanese masters, providing unique insights into this ancient tradition.

Before attending this lecture, my knowledge of Japanese wooden boat craftsmanship was limited to the Heian period’s yakatabune (屋形船)—large boats with traditional Japanese interiors used to entertain aristocracy and their guests. Today, these boats, adorned with colorful and shining decorations, continue to entertain tourists in Tokyo Bay near Odaiba. However, Brooks introduced us to a broader spectrum of traditional wooden boats, each with its own unique history and cultural significance (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Yakatabune boats near Odaiba. Photo taken by Ksenia Basmanova, 2024

One particularly intriguing revelation was about the wooden vehicle in which Chihiro escapes in the animated film “Spirited Away.” Contrary to my assumption that it was a creation of Hayao Miyazaki’s vivid imagination, Brooks revealed it as a taraibune, a type of wooden tub boat used widely in Japan by women divers known as ama (Fig. 2). This small, round boat is a testament to the ingenuity and practicality of traditional Japanese boat design. The existence of such boats highlights how traditional practices were seamlessly integrated into daily life and how they continue to inspire modern storytelling and art.

File:Taraibune1.JPG” by Opqr is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The lecture also covered the sabani, a traditional Okinawan wooden boat used during the Ryukyu Kingdom period. Although the sabani craftsmanship culture was believed to have disappeared, it is now being revived by numerous Okinawan cultural activists. These efforts aim to embrace local culture and pass it on to future generations, despite the increasing difficulty of doing so. The recent rise in reimagining and reconsidering Okinawan culture could potentially bring more attention to this unique boat craftsmanship culture, fostering a renewed appreciation and support for it.

A part of the lecture was dedicated to discussing the modern challenges faced by traditional crafts in Japan. The Western concept of craft schools is relatively new to Japan, where traditional techniques were historically kept secret and passed down through generations within families. This secrecy raises a critical question: who will inherit these techniques as fewer young Japanese people enter the craft? While initiatives like Starbucks’ Jimoto Made collection, which features edokiriko glass (江戸切子) from Tokyo’s Sumida district, help raise awareness, they are insufficient to solve the current problem (Fig. 3). The future of these crafts depends heavily on finding sustainable ways to engage younger generations and integrate traditional methods with contemporary practices.

Fig. 3. Edokiriko glass (Starbucks Jimoto Made project)

Brooks’ study suggests a potential solution to this dilemma: the involvement of foreign researchers and enthusiasts. These individuals could play a crucial role in preserving and continuing Japanese traditions by engaging as apprentices and learning the craft firsthand. This approach could bridge the gap between the dwindling number of traditional craftsmen and the need to preserve these skills for future generations. The cross-cultural exchange of knowledge and skills can enrich both Japanese crafts and the global appreciation for these unique art forms.

During the lecture, Brooks also highlighted the unique Japanese pedagogy of traditional arts. The only way to document these crafts is through hands-on involvement, making education values-based rather than fact-based and efficiency-driven. Values-based education focuses on the ethics and mindset of the craftsman, which is critical in maintaining the integrity and quality of traditional craftsmanship. This holistic approach ensures that the essence of the craft is preserved, not just the techniques.

In conclusion, Douglas Brooks’ lecture offered profound insights into the world of Japanese traditional wooden boats. It highlighted the challenges and potential solutions for preserving these ancient crafts, emphasizing the importance of values-based education and ethical considerations in craftsmanship. By engaging both local and international enthusiasts, there is hope for the continuation and revitalization of these invaluable cultural traditions. The lecture underscored the need for a concerted effort to keep these crafts alive, ensuring that they continue to inspire and enrich our world.

Ksenia Basmanova
Keio University