First some background. As of this writing I have studied with seven different boatbuilders in Japan since 1996, building eight types of traditional boats. I have built another eight designs based on my own research. I am the sole apprentice for six of my seven teachers, all men in their 70s and 80s when I worked with them. “Apprentice” is a misnomer of sorts, because I worked with my teachers for just the construction of a single boat (and in one case, two boats). These time frames ranged from just two weeks to seven months. Given the nature of craft training in Japan, however, there was no other word to describe me but deshi, or “apprentice.”
The typical boatbuilding apprenticeship in Japan lasted six years. I interviewed one boatbuilder who told me he started working with his master at age ten and did not graduate until he was twenty. The system took young people who had absolutely no experience, and often apprentices spent their early years cleaning the shop or performing other basic tasks. Many were unpaid but most received at least room and board from their masters.
I also came into my apprenticeships with boatbuilding experience. I had worked in the Small Boat Shop of the maritime museum in San Francisco, and had gone on to do restoration work and build boats for private clients and museums in the US. My early teachers in Japan discounted this experience because I hadn't built Japanese boats or used Japanese tools, but in fact my previous experience was useful. I remember two of my teachers commenting that I seemed to learn very quickly, but they were mistaken in assuming my previous experience didn't transfer to their work.
I first went to Japan in 1990 and during that first trip I met Mr. Koichi Fujii, the last builder of tub boats on Sado Island. I was captivated by the boats he built and also shocked to discover that he’d never had an apprentice and that he worked largely from memory and there was no documentation of how these boats were built. I came back in 1992 and 1994 and took an interpreter with me to Sado specifically to interview Fuji. I learned about his life and background but when it came to boatbuilding he would fall silent and just demonstrate different techniques. On my third trip he braided the bamboo hoops that hold these boats together. He worked quickly and silently and there was no way I could understand how it was done. It was at that point I realized the only way to document the craft was to work alongside a master. Luckily right before I left Sado Fujii invited me back to work with him.
In 2001 I received a letter from the director of the Urayasu Museum saying the new museum had a boat shop and for the opening Mr. Udagawa had agreed to build a boat in front of the public. However, he told the museum director he insisted on teaching me. With just three weeks notice I flew to Japan and built a traditional seaweed boat under his direction. Udagawa could not have been more welcoming, engaging and concerned about my training. I couldn’t reconcile his support with our first meeting, but a few years later he told me I had shown perseverance and that had convinced him to take me on as his apprentice. He told me, laughing, that when we were first introduced his initial thought was, Doko no uma no hone, or "Where is this horse bone from?"
Sometimes people contact me asking if I can “set up” an apprenticeship for them in Japan. Instead I tell people the only realistic way to get an apprenticeship is to meet a craftsperson and start to form a relationship with them. Once a sense of trust has been established, and the apprentice has demonstrated their commitment, then a working relationship might be possible. Furthermore I’ve spent decades now meeting and getting to know boatbuilders throughout Japan. It is a peculiarity of Japanese culture, but if I recommend a stranger to one of my contacts in Japan, I am responsible for their behavior. I admit it might be hard for westerners to understand this, but its this sense of responsibility which explains the reticence of Japanese with regard to strangers. Face-to-face meetings are crucial to the Japanese, particularly the older generation. For over twenty-five years I have sent cold letters and emails to curators, boatbuilders, and others and the rate of reply is well under 5%. But if I show up in person they'll happily say, "Oh yes, I remember you well. I got your letter ten years ago!"
While Japan's younger generation is known for its trend-setting, craftspersons in Japan are from a very different generation, one steeped in formalities layered in ways even I probably don't fully understand. I am well aware of how my foreign-ness allowed me to circumvent some social rules, but I do not see how anyone is going to come into a working relationship with a craftsperson without meeting them in person. This isn't something you sign up for online and show up on the appointed day.
As for boatbuilding, there are now very few craftsmen left who have any work. As mentioned above, most of my experiences have come via foundation-sponsored projects where we commissioned the boats, in two cases bringing my teachers out of retirement so I could work alongside them (the resulting boats were donated to non-profits). In all but two cases, however, I had known my teachers for years before they agreed to work with me. In fact, at the outset of my most recent apprenticeship in the spring of 2017, my teacher pointed out we had known each other almost twenty years! Actually it was fifteen, and I had regularly visited him over those years and always expressed my interest in studying with him. He always said no, until late 2016. At the outset of our project a friend showed me an interview with him published in 2006 in which he said, "Someday I have to teach Douglas Brooks." At that very same time he was telling me he couldn't work with me. Its a strange journey...
I do not want to dissuade anyone from studying crafts in Japan, but I will say boatbuilding may be one of the more difficult crafts at this point to find a teacher. I now try to include students in my projects as often as possible and I am always seeking venues to teach Japanese boatbuilding. Looking ahead, I believe what Japan needs is a boatbuilding school, and this is something I am working toward. As a step toward that goal I am hoping to partner with a non-profit and try to raise funds to take protective students to Japan to study boatbuilding.
Japanese, young and old, are also struggling with finding ways to learn traditional crafts. There are some very creative groups in Japan engaged in craft work. One good example is a yearly gathering of people dedicated to learning traditional coopering. I blogged about them here. There are also traditional apprenticeships here and there, but one should be prepared to commit to years of study for little or no pay. This cooper and this saw sharpener both have apprentices. There are also more and more school programs, workshops, and associations based on Western models of craft training, though the overall number of such schools is minuscule compared to the west.
Probably the most likely avenue for training in woodworking in Japan is in construction. Most westerners who have succeeded in apprenticing in Japan did so working for shrine, temple or house carpenters. These trades are very much alive yet their training is still conducted on a rigorous apprentice model.
As I mentioned at the outset I regularly receive emails from people who want to learn boatbuilding in Japan, and I consciously wrote this blog post so I could refer people to it and help them understand what I went through. I find many westerners, particularly the young, can't understand why they can't seem to find resources on Japanese apprenticeships. Trust me, the craftspeople I am describing are not linked via the Web, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, craft magazines, or clubs. It is our own western prejudice that makes us think they can be found that way.
The best advice I can give is to do as much research and soul-searching as you can and determine what particular craft you would like to study. Then use all the resources you can to try and locate as many practitioners of the craft as possible (I just read a great article in the Japan Times about one of the country's last makers of shamisen). Depending on the craft it will probably require going to Japan (it did in my case) and looking for them. Try to learn as much Japanese as you can and start practicing/studying tool use. It could take multiple meetings with a craftsperson to convince them you are serious. Again there are also more schools, workshops and volunteer associations trying to revive and maintain traditional crafts. Here in the US probably the largest and most active association of craftspeople working in the Japanese tradition is Kezurou Kai. I enjoyed tremendously attending one of their events last year in Brooklyn and I strongly urge readers to look into attending one of their meetings. Many of their members have studied in Japan and could offer advice and contacts I am not aware of.
I am happy to give what suggestions I can to readers and encourage them to study and perhaps build Japanese boats. More on boatbuilding can be found elsewhere in this blog and in my book, Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding.