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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Douglas Brooks on Sabanis

Douglas Brooks, an American boatbuilder and boat researcher who often works in Japan (and whom I've written about previously, especially here), is back there now, apprenticed to a builder of sabanis (about which I've also blogged before). Doug sent the following report:

I am in Iejima, Japan, a small island that is part of Okinawa, building an eight meter sabani, working with one of the last three builders of these indigenous fishing boats. This work is supported by the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle, the Asian Cultural Council in New York and the Nippon Foundation in Tokyo. This is my fifth apprenticeship building Japanese boats.

I will keep my comments below very general as the point is to get the reader to go through
my blog, where you will find more detail on history, culture, construction techniques, etc.

The sabani is what we would call a semi-dugout type, and in that respect it shares a story with many similar types around the world. As the Okinawans deforested these islands the timber required to make dugout canoes became increasingly difficult to find, hence the move toward a plank-built boat that still retains some of the characteristics of the dugout. So the boat we are building has a four inch thick bottom that we have shaped from three timbers, joined together with butterfly keys and bamboo nails.

Bob made a very interesting observation that sabani are built upside down, with the side planking first, and then the dugout bottom dropped on top. This is opposite of any semi-dugout traditions that either of us know, which start with the hollowed bottom and then add the side planks. It's also odd given that throughout the rest of Japan it's absolute law that boats are built right side up. I will try to ask my teacher what he thinks of this.

Most of the techniques are familiar to me from my other work in Japan, but I wanted to study sabani in part because of the fastening techniques. I already have several blog posts up about the huundu, or dovetail keys, so I won't belabor that here. There will be more postings to come as we continue to use these fastenings to assemble the boat. I am certain that they are a holdover from the days of dugouts, and iron fastenings would have initially been very expensive. I am also finding that while we install them using only hand tools, it is not a slow process, so it all makes good sense, even today.

There are other dugout and semi-dugout traditions in Japan, particularly in the far north, where some still survive. In the mid-90's I met the last dugout builder of Akita Prefecture. He was still fishing every day in a dugout he built in 1965 and he had just built his last dugout as part of a documentary project. On the coast of Akita, Aomori and in Hokkaido you can still find semi-dugout boats in small fishing ports. The first photo shows fishermen out on a winter day in 1965 in their hatahatabune. ("Hatahata" are a small fish, "bune" means boat.) You can just make out the dovetails keys in the bottom, which in a boat this size is six to nine inches thick [Bob here: note too the interesting handles on the oars.]

The next photo is an isobune which means inshore boat. These are still fairly common on the Aomori coast. The bottom is a single timber hollowed out, with a stem, transom, single frame and plank sides added. My teacher in Aomori told me that during his apprenticeship most of his work involved hollowing bottoms of isobune (he quit after three years of this unpaid work).

Finally, we have a bekabune, or seaweed gathering boat, that I built in the Urayasu Museum with Mr. Nobuji Udagawa in 2001. It shows the standard Japanese construction method, firmly fixing the bottom of the boat to low blocks on the shop floor braced overhead, then building the boat right side up. Props are used in lieu of clamps to hold the planking in place for fastening. The planks are edge-nailed to each other using special tools and nails. More information about Japanese boat building can be found at my website. Feel free to contact me via the website or to leave comments on my blog, The Sabini Project.

Back to Bob now.

I recommend Douglas's blog -- good photos and good writing, with interesting observations on the apprentice system and other aspects of culture in Japan.

A few more items that Douglas noted in our correspondence:

  • The side planks of the sabani shown under construction in his blog are not standard milled lumber. "Don't let those side planks fool you, they are CARVED. We started with 2+" thick planks and hollowed about half of the volume out of them on the inside, leaving material for thwart risers and left full thickness at the stem and transom."
  • On the dugout-style bottom: "My teacher has specifically talked about the thick bottoms as giving these boats their stability. I have roughly calculated that the bottom alone (it's long and very narrow) represents between 40-50% of the weight of the entire boat."
  • And regarding my earlier post on sabanis, which stated that the helmsman sits in the front of the boat: "I suspect is a mistake made by the Japanese writer. It just doesn't make any sense at all. And I have yet to see a sabani or harebune with a helmsman forward. By the way, those festival boats are not strictly speaking sabani, at least not today. They are plank built and considered different from sabani among the old-timers."

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