Wood: Culture and Carpentry

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Kazuyoshi Fumoto

    Main guest (Culture)

    Kazuyoshi Fumoto is a professor at the Nagoya Institute of Technology’s college and graduate school. His specialties are the history of Japanese architecture and the repair and preservation of cultural properties. Fumoto believes that seeing and interacting with exceptional works of architecture is essential to studying their history and culture. He is conducting studies on the construction of cultural properties within Japan. By analyzing detailed measurements of the buildings and structures, he hopes to gain an insight into designers’ intentions and historical backgrounds.

  • Kenzo Akao

    Main guest (Carpentry)

    Kenzo Akao is the director of the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum in Kobe. He worked as an architect for the Takenaka Corporation, one of Japan’s largest construction firms and the founder of the museum, before being selected for his current position. Akao considers it his mission to pass on the disappearing knowledge of Japanese carpentry tools and techniques to people both inside and outside Japan. To that end, he is actively engaged in giving lectures and presentations. In his personal life, Akao established an NPO and built a school in Nepal in 2003. The school building that he designed with his colleagues won an International Stone Architecture Award in 2009.

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March 12, 2019

Wood: Culture and Carpentry

*You will leave the NHK website.

*Wood: Culture (#105) was broadcast on Mar. 5, 2019. 
 Wood: Carpentry (#106) was broadcast on Mar. 12, 2019.

Despite Japan’s fame as an industrial power, 70% of the country is covered in forests and woods. As such, it is no surprise that trees, and the products that can be made from them, have been an integral part of Japanese life since olden times. Until fairly recently, wood was the most common building material in Japan; it was used to construct everything from temples and shrines to furniture and everyday utensils. This time on Japanology Plus, our theme is wood and its cultural significance.

Thanks to the skills of traditional artisans, wooden buildings that were meticulously constructed hundreds of years ago still stand strong today. While we learn on the show that the main buildings of Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture are reconstructed every 20 years, other structures are built to last through the ages. Traditionally, careful attention was paid to designing buildings that could withstand mold, insects, earthquakes, and typhoons. Additionally, careful thought was given to the way the different pieces of a building should fit together. Key parts were often not hidden inside walls, but left exposed and considered part of the design aesthetic. This contributed to the distinct look of Japan’s wooden buildings.

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Traditional houses are wonderful displays of Japanese craft skills.

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Carpenters carefully select the parts of the wood they want to show off.

Many high-quality examples still exist today. It is possible to see wonderful examples of old-fashioned Japanese architecture with your own eyes, something that expert guest Kazuyoshi Fumoto enthusiastically encourages. One of the most famous examples is Nara’s Horyuji Temple. Built in the 7th century, it is home to the oldest wooden buildings in the world, and it was the first site in Japan to be added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Another well-known example is Zenkoji Temple in Nagano, which was first constructed about 1,400 years ago. The buildings there have burned down on various occasions, but the present main hall nevertheless dates back to 1707. It is one of the biggest wooden buildings in Japan and was designated a Japanese National Treasure in 1908.

One factor contributing to the long life of wooden buildings is the care with which the materials are selected. As we see on the program, raising perfect trees for timber is very much a hands-on process. One way to prevent knots from forming is to climb a young tree and carefully remove its branches. After trees are felled, the ways in which they are cut are also highly specialized.

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A hands-on display at the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum lets visitors get a feel for different cuts of wood. 

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Peter Barakan brings his senses to bear as he learns about different trees.

Each piece of wood chosen for a project must not only be functional, but beautiful as well, because the naked wood may well be visible. Japanese carpenters always keep the wood’s keshomen, or decorative face, in mind. The keshomen is determined by the way the planks of wood are cut. The cut that produces an arched pattern (or figure) is called itame. Cutting a log this way produces the least amount of waste, but is not considered as elegant as other forms. A cypress bathtub is typically crafted from masame, or quartersawn wood. This is produced by quartering a log and then sawing the quarters into planks in which the grain runs straight along the cut face. The finished product is beautiful, but expensive, because more of the wood goes to waste this way.

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Matt Alt learns how to make a tenon and mortise joint on Plus One.

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A tokonoma, a decorative alcove for displaying art or flowers.

While some of these concepts may seem foreign, there are plenty of opportunities to appreciate Japan’s deep-rooted connection to wood. Featured on the program, Kobe’s Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum currently has over 32,000 materials in its collection, and it offers hands-on exhibitions that allow visitors to engage their senses as they learn about Japanese wood. For a less strictly educational option, visiting a Japanese teahouse or staying in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, are great ways to experience Japanese carpentry techniques up-close. Next time you find yourself face-to-face with a traditional Japanese building, try paying particular attention to details that you may have overlooked before. An appreciation for the skill it takes to craft such structures is key to enabling this aspect of Japanese culture to keep thriving in the future.

Also appearing (Carpentry)

Akinori Abo

Akinori Abo was born in Aomori Prefecture in 1956. He wanted to be a carpenter ever since he was in elementary school. After graduating from middle school, Abo started studying carpentry, and he is currently the president of Koubokusha, a construction and architecture company dedicated to preserving Japan’s wood-related cultural customs. Abo established Koubokusha in 2000, after becoming apprehensive about modern construction methods that focus on working with new synthetic building materials and don’t require traditional carpentry skills. The company specializes in using Japan’s time-honored carpentry methods to design and construct wooden houses suitable for the modern age. Abo’s furniture pieces are also highly regarded, and he currently spends time constructing both houses and furniture.

*You will leave the NHK website.