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Author Rescues Time-Honored Traditions of Japanese Boatbuilding

Fearing that the techniques, designs, and secrets of the specialized trade of Japanese boatbuilding might disappear within one or two generations, craftsman and Japanese boat specialist Douglas Brooks embarked on a quest spanning two decades to preserve and document these time-honored traditions.

In the Japan Society Talks+ program An Apprentice Boat Builder in Japan, Brooks, author of the comprehensive survey Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding (Floating World Editions, 2015), shares what he discovered on his journey to fishing villages around Japan, where he interviewed the country's elderly master boatbuilders and, in six instances, became their final apprentice. Moderated by Dane Owen, founder and owner of Shibui Japanese Antiques and Furniture, the talk takes place Wednesday, May 10, 6:30 pm at Japan Society and is followed by a book signing reception.

Japan's hand-crafted wooden boats, admired for their timeless beauty and precise construction, have a long and rich history in the island nation. Many Japanese wooden boatbuilding techniques have been closely guarded secrets of the craftsmen, who learned them only through apprenticeship and who pass them on the same way. There are very few written documents that entirely detail the intricacies of this craft, and boatbuilders have often left out essential details from their drawings, to further safeguard their designs.

"Brooks has been racing against the clock to chronicle the traditions of Japanese boat making before they are irretrievably lost to history," wrote The Japan Times in 2011. "[His] work will be appreciated as a major reason that Japanese traditional boats have not vanished entirely from the waters of the world."

From the publisher's description: " Over the course of 17 trips to Japan Douglas Brooks traveled over 30,000 miles to seek out and interview Japan's elderly master boatbuilders; he built boats with five men, all in their seventies and eighties, between 1996 and 2010, from Tohoku in the far north to the southernmost islands of Okinawa. He was the sole apprentice for each, and worked under a time-honored system in which apprentices first swept floors and sharpened tools, learning chiefly by observation with only limited direct instruction. Eventually Brooks managed to win the trust of these extraordinary craftsmen, who realized that sharing their secrets and techniques with this eager American would mean their heritage might be saved."

"My first apprenticeship I barely spoke any Japanese," Brooks told Vermont Public Radio about his experience. "And it didn't matter. Because my teacher didn't say anything to me. It was all about, I had to watch him, and watch him and watch him."

Douglas Brooks is a boatbuilder, writer, and researcher specializing in the construction of traditional wooden boats for museums and private clients. Since 1990 he has been researching traditional Japanese boatbuilding, focusing on the techniques and design secrets of the craft. The boats he and his teachers built have been exhibited at the Urayasu Folk History Museum, the Niigata Prefectural Museum of History, the Michinoku Traditional Wooden Boat Museum, the Museum of Maritime Science, and elsewhere. Brooks is the sole non-Japanese listed in a 2003 Nippon Foundation survey of craftsmen capable of building traditional Japanese boats. In 2014, Brooks received the Rare Craft Fellowship Award from the American Craft Council. In 2015 he was named an Arts in Action-Japan Fellow by the Asian Cultural Council. More at

Dane Owen, owner and founder of Shibui Japanese Antiques and Furniture, grew up in a home filled with thoughtful beauty. His father was a goldsmith and his mother studied and practiced ikebana, and during his youth Owen worked at his father's jewelry store. His appreciation of beauty matured into a lasting fascination with Asian arts, and he began collecting Japanese antiques. Owen studied the classics at St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. During his junior year he first began putting Asian art on the market, planting the seeds for Shibui. Since graduating, he has worked exclusively to develop Shibui and make it accessible to people around the world. He continues to study and increase his familiarity with things Shibui, and strives to acquire one-of-a-kind merchandise that can transform and enrich any setting.

Japan Society's Talks+ Program examines vital issues and themes in modern Japanese art, culture and design. Programming is designed to inform and to provide a gateway through which Americans can appreciate the powerful global influence of Japan's culture and its many trend-defining artisans. Programs bring together experts and practitioners for provocative discussions on diverse topics including aesthetics, consumer culture and cuisine. More at

Founded in 1907, Japan Society is a multidisciplinary hub for global leaders, artists, scholars, educators, and English and Japanese-speaking audiences. At the Society, more than 100 events each year feature sophisticated, topically relevant presentations of Japanese art and culture and open, critical dialogue on issues of vital importance to the U.S., Japan and East Asia. An American nonprofit, nonpolitical organization, the Society cultivates a constructive, resonant and dynamic relationship between the people of the U.S. and Japan.

An Apprentice Boat Builder in Japan takes place Wednesday, May 10, at 6:30 pm. Japan Society is located at 333 East 47th Street between First and Second avenues (accessible by the 4/5/6 and 7 subway at Grand Central or the E and M subway at Lexington Avenue). Tickets are $13/$10 Japan Society members, seniors and students, and may be purchased in person at Japan Society, by visiting, or by calling the box office at 212-715-1258. For more information, call 212-832-1155 or visit the website.

An Apprentice Boat Builder in Japan is funded, in part, by a generous grant from The Omomuki Foundation. Talks+ Programs at Japan Society are generously sponsored by Delta Air Lines and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG). Additional support is provided by Chris A. Wachenheim, the Sandy Heck Lecture Fund, and Hiroko Onoyama.

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