As of this writing I have studied with seven different boatbuilders in Japan since 1996, building eight types of traditional boats. I have built aother eight designs of 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 six months. Given the nature of craft training in Japan, however, there was no other word to describe me but deshi, or “apprentice.”
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 he told me I had shown perseverance and that had convinced him to take me on as his apprentice. Years later 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 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. Its this sense of responsibility which explains the reticence of Japanese with regards to strangers. Face-to-face meetings are crucial to the Japanese, particularly the older generation. For over twenty-five years I have been sending letters and emails to curators, boatbuilders, and others I find references to related to boatbuilding and the rate of reply is well under 5%. If I show up they'll happily say, "Oh yes, I got your letter ten years ago!"
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 so I could work alongside my teachers (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 a few months ago, my teacher pointed out we had known each other almost twenty years! I had regularly visited him over those years and always expressed my interest in studying with him. He always said no, until last year. 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." 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.
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 based on Western models of craft training.
I am happy to give advice to readers and do what I can to encourage them to study and perhaps build Japanese boats. More about all this subject can be found in my book, Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding.