An American traditional Japanese boatbuilding apprentice at Jan. 15 Chats

Sat, 01/05/2019 - 7:00am

On Tuesday, Jan. 15 at 10 a.m., Skidompha Library and Chats with Champions welcomes Douglas Brooks, an award-winning wooden boat builder and craftsman speaking about “Ways of Learning: An Apprentice Boatbuilder in Japan.” He will be spending a week at the Carpenter’s Boat Shop in Pemaquid working with this year’s apprentices on the art of wooden boatbuilding. The presentation will be in the Library’s Porter Meeting Hall. Please allow time for parking.

When people think about Japan, they usually have in their minds images of manga and anime, busy urban centers, and an economy based on innovations in electronics. Most people do not know that there is also a “second Japan” wherein lies a rich history of traditional arts and crafts, many of which are fast disappearing.

Brooks has apprenticed with seven boatbuilders in Japan since 1996, building over a dozen types of traditional boats. In his illustrated talk he will share his experiences with traditional craft drawn from 22 trips to Japan since 1990. Brooks’ research in Japan focuses on the techniques and design secrets of the craft. These techniques have been passed from master to apprentice with almost no written record. His most recent book, “Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding” (Floating World Editions, 2015) is the first comprehensive survey of the craft, spanning his first five apprenticeships and including a chapter on Japan’s last traditional shipwright.

Brooks will also talk about the nature of craft education in Japan; an ethic that is largely at odds with our notions of teaching in the West. The apprentice system produced craftspeople with incomparable skills, yet it required an intense devotion and seriousness from participants. Brooks has experienced first-hand what it is like to learn when the apprentice is forbidden from speaking. At the core of this process is the belief that one learns by observation and perseverance.

Last year Brooks apprenticed in Gifu, Japan, where he built a 42-foot cormorant fishing boat working alongside an 85-year-old boatbuilder. These boats are still used by a handful of fishermen who continue a thousand-year-old tradition of fishing with cormorants. In 2015 Brooks apprenticed with the last boatbuilder active in the region struck by the 2011 tsunami. There he documented the most common small wooden fishing boat of the Tohoku region an area that saw 90% of all boats destroyed in the disaster.

Japan’s last generation of traditional boatbuilders has almost disappeared. Brooks’ teachers were all in their seventies and eighties when he worked with them. He is the sole apprentice for six of his seven teachers. In a 2003 nationwide study sponsored by the Nippon Foundation, Brooks was listed as the sole foreigner capable of building wasen, or traditional Japanese boats. The average age of the 300 boatbuilders listed in the survey in 2003 was 69. His first book, “The Tub Boats of Sado Island; A Japanese Craftsman’s Methods,” was honored by the Japanese Ministry of Culture for its contribution to maritime preservation.

Brooks is a boatbuilder, writer, and researcher who specializes in the construction of traditional wooden boats for museums and private clients. He worked in the Small Boat Shop at the National Maritime Museum in San Francisco from 1985-1990 and has since built boats at museums in Japan and across the United States. He teaches classes in boat building and has written regularly for magazines like WoodenBoat, Classic Boat (UK), and KAZI (Japan). Brooks attended the Williams Mystic Seaport Program in American Maritime History, and he is a 1982 graduate of Trinity College (B.A. Philosophy) and a 2002 graduate of the Middlebury College Language School (Japanese). In 2014 he was awarded the American Craft Council’s Rare Craft Fellowship Award. He lives with his wife Catherine in Vergennes, Vermont.

Chats with Champions is a free community offering from your national award-winning Skidompha Library and is sponsored by Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop. Recordings of many previous Chats are available on Skidompha Library's page. For more information call 563-5513 or online at