Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Ainu Itaomachip

The Ainu people of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost large island, are culturally distinct from the Japanese. (See earlier post.) Frequently depicted as a primitive, hunting/gathering culture, the Ainu actually maintained a sophisticated trading economy prior to the 19th century.

The Ainu conducted trade with mainland Asia, especially with ports on the lower Amur River (now the border between northeastern China and Russia), as well as with Korea and with other parts of Japan. They used sewn-plank boats called itaomachip, built on an expanded dugout base and powered by both oars and sails as shown below. Some of the boats, at least, were about 50 feet long.
(Click to enlarge)
In this ca. 1798 illustration of an itaomachip, the rowers are Ainu and the passengers are Japanese merchants. Note the woven mat sail on an interesting double-mast rig. The masts can apparently be moved freely, tilting them forward or aft, relocating their bases forward or aft, and possibly even port to starboard. This might create a great deal of flexibility in the set of a very simple rig, ranging from squaresail to something approximating a fore-and-aft sail in a number of configurations.
Taking advantage of a law that banned almost all Japanese nationals from engaging in foreign trade, the Ainu exported their own products (furs, marine products), and acted as middlemen for Japanese merchants, exporting Japanese manufactured goods like pottery and ironware, and importing silk, glass and metal products, which the merchants sold for huge markups. But in 1809, this semi-black-market trade ended when the shogun decided to take over Japanese import/export activities for itself. It was then that the Ainu were forced into a life of subsistence foraging.

In 1989, after a gap of almost 200 years, three Ainu men built a 45-foot long itaomachip. Team leader Tokuhei Akibe initiated the project in 1988 as a means of reviving Ainu cultural heritage, enlisting the assistance of the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka. The design was derived from old illustrations like the two shown here.
The plank stitches are clearer in this illustration. Note the elaborate decorations at both ends.
One of the first difficulties encountered was the acquisition of a katsura tree large enough to form the boat's dugout base, requiring intense negotiations with the management of an experimental forest -- the only place in Hokkaido with a tree of the necessary 3' diameter. Hollowing the dugout, by alternately burning and chopping, took a full month. "Expanding" it by filling it with water, and then heating the water with hot rocks, was described as the most difficult part of the project. The sides were then raised with 16"-wide pine boards and sewn with 325 feet of hemp rope. (The two processes of expanding and extending the hull are common to many other dugout boats worldwide.) Sea trials confirmed the good handling and seaworthiness of the type.

The 1989 reproduction boat, looking mighty fine under sail. (It seems to be much smaller than the 45' LOA reported in the article cited here.) As of 1999, it was on display at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka.
Illustrations, photo, and information are from "Itaomachip: Reviving a Boat-Building and Trading Tradition," by Kazuyoshi Ohtsuka, in

Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People. Many thanks to Yoram Meroz for this article and his insights.


  1. Bob, any way you can find more, and more recent, photos of the reconstruction? I've long been fascinated with the Ainu, and the boat is compelling. Thanks.

  2. Tom - I've been unable to find other photos, but if I come across any, I'll post them. Thanks for your interest.