Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding book

320 pp, 8.5 x 11 / Hardcover
378 Color photos, 36 Drawings
Map, Notes, Bibliography, Glossary-Index of boatbuilding terms & regional usages
Boatbuilding / Woodworking / Japanese crafts
ISBN 978-1-891640-63-6
$75 + $10 postage to the continental USA

Available July 2015

Only copies sold from this site are signed by the author *

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Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding

This is the story of my apprenticeships with Japanese masters to build five unique and endangered traditional boats. It is part ethnography, part instruction, and part my personal reflections on preserving a craft tradition on the brink of extinction. Over the course of 17 trips to Japan, I have travelled over 30,000 miles to seek out and interview Japan’s elderly master boat builders; I built boats with five of them, all in their seventies and eighties, between 1996 and 2010. For most of them, I was their sole and last apprentice.

Part I introduces significant aspects of traditional Japanese boat building: design, workshop and tools, wood and materials, joinery and fastenings, propulsion, ceremonies, and the apprenticeship system.

Part II details each of my five apprenticeships, concluding with a poignant chapter on Japan’s sole remaining traditional shipwright. This book, the first comprehensive treatment of the subject, fills a large and long standing gap in the literature on Japanese crafts, and will be of interest to boat builders, woodworkers, and all those impressed with the marvels of Japanese design and workmanship.

* Please note:

Orders for signed copies from outside the US will have postal charges in excess of $25 USD. Please contact Douglas Brooks for a rate quote to your home country. Within Japan unsigned books can be ordered (10,000 Yen, postage included) through a Japanese agent, but books must be paid by depositing the full amount to a Japan post office account.


This is a magnificent study. It's minuteness and clarity of detail will fascinate not only wooden boat builders, but anyone interested in the craftsmanship and culture of an earlier Japan.

James F. English Jr.
Former President of Trinity College and former Director of Mystic Seaport Museum

This entrancing book reveals a world of sleek, practical forms perfected over centuries, of dedicated craftsmanship practised today by just a few. Douglas Brooks's precious record of that world is is dense with information, beautifully designed, highly readable.

Louise Cort
Curator, Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

You have produced a bible of the small wooden boat evolution. Yes, the book is about Japanese boatbuilding but you have shown how every human culture began boatbuilding by use of the creative and analytic parts of their brain. Did I say I like “Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding” and that it is fabulous? It should be a Best Seller.

Dick Wagner
Founder, Center for Wooden Boats, Seattle

Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding is the superb result of Douglas Brooks’ deep devotion to the remaining builders of wooden boats in Japan, and the traditions they’ve kept alive. It’s a thoroughly researched and beautifully documented book, written from a deeply personal point of view.

Martin Puryear
Sculptor and MacArthur Fellow

An invaluable record of vanishing watercraft and the ways in which they are made, and a compelling record of a personal journey of discovery. Lavishly illustrated and lovingly wrought, it belongs on the shelf of anyone with more than a passing interest in the craft of wooden boat building.

John Summers
WoodenBoat magazine, December 2015

Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding will effortlessly find a welcome place in so many diverse bookshelves for a delightfully wide ranging list of reasons. At its heart, JWB is unquestionably a must-have for that small cadre of Japanese traditional small craft devotees. Beyond this exclusive audience, wooden boat builders of all stripes, woodworkers, furniture makers, professional and amateur Japanologists — whether focused on the art, architecture, culture, crafts, history, or language of Japan — all will find ample rewards among its pages. Moreover, JWB stands on its own as an engaging narrative as well, proving that author Douglas Brooks has mastered two challenging and elusive crafts: writing in English and boat building in Japanese. On a par with the classic Japanese Country Style, Yoshihiro Takishita’s adoring treatise on restoring traditional minka farmhouses, Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding is an insightful and enchanting window into the remarkable macrocosm of Japan and its boatbuilding traditions.

Tom Morse
Writer, Ocean Navigator

There is a second book inside.
This is a superb book. It is the definitive study of a very narrow subject. These unique vessels, and the supportive technology, is on the cusp of being lost forever. Mr. Brooks has made a huge effort to ensure that doesn't happen. As a former boatbuilder, and using the drawings, photographs and methods described in the book, I could build a reasonable facsimile of one of the boats described here. I commend the author for this careful and remarkably thorough book.
However, there is another, deeper, book hidden within. On the surface, this could be another beautifully illustrated volume on an obscure subject that will grace numerous coffee tables and never be read. Inside it is a man's journey into a nearly impenetrable culture which alternately baffles and rewards. So much of this inner book is unwritten...the way a gift is given or a cup of tea passed speak more than prose can convey. There is a poignancy of aged boat builders remembering how they spoke to their fathers or offering a silent farewell from the dock. Hemingway said, "If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water." Douglas Brooks knows what he is writing about, and this book has majestic dignity. Buy it. Read it.


Andrew Davis
Naval Architect, Tri-Coastal Marine, Inc.

This is a beautifully formatted and written book. From the front-cover, wealth of information about a functional art form—Japanese boat building—to the intriguing inner story of relationships. I read it, revisited pages and pictures, and let Douglas’ Brooks story unfold. Anyone interested in apprenticeship learning, and the magic that occurs when we listen—regardless of the context—will find this book fascinating. I did.

Roger Marum, PhD.

The arrival of your book is an occasion for wonder and delight. As the retired acquisitions librarian at the Middlebury College Library, I have seen a lot of fine books. This tome compares favourably with any of them. It is outstanding in every way — thoughtfully designed, carefully composed and exquisitely executed. The subject is engrossing, and your exposition magisterial and inspiring. The book is a treasure of the bookman’s craft ad the author’s art, a suitable reflection of your status as a living treasure in the Japanese style.

Bill Warren

His Majesty asked me to thank you for your letter and your book on traditional Japanese boat, which you sent Him. As you mentioned in your letter, His Majesty enjoys sculling wasen with Her Majesty, which He first started seventy years as a child on Lake Yunoko in the mountains of Nikko. He had evacuated to Nikko from Tokyo because of World War II. He has many fond memories of wasen and was delighted to hear that there are people interested in these traditional Japanese boats in the United States as well.

With His Majesty’s warm wishes,
Yutaka Kawashima
Special Advisor to the Board of Chamberlains
Imperial Household, Japan

Congratulations on the publication of your excellent book on Japanese woodworking and boatbuilding! It is a major contribution to boatbuilding and craftsmanship internationally. You will be quoted as a reference for many years to come. It is unusual to have an academic researcher/writer who is also a true, hands-on craftsman. Being able to talk and do is a rare talent.
Your description of suriawase brought back fond memories of doing home carpentry with my father in law. We would do the same thing to fit pieces together. His father was a Japanese carpenter who was hired by one of the sugar plantations here in Hawaii, and he used old Japanese tools and methods. I also remember the old generations (Issei) using terms such as shaku.
I can also relate well to the Japanese teaching/training method. I have been practicing Aikido for a number of years and many of the methods you described are also seen in the martial arts: few verbal instructions, learn by feeling/doing, don’t question the sensei, expected patience and hard work, humility, absolute loyalty, etc., and stealing secrets from the master.
You are one of a handful of westerners who have been able to learn a Japanese art by being immersed in the art. Your must be a very special person to have gained the respect and trust of the Japanese masters.


Hiroshi Kato Emeritus Dean, Windward Community College

In a way, your book and related ongoing research is a race against time. The generation of Japanese boatbuilders you document have been so protective of their trade secrets, tremendous amounts of intellectual property is on the verge of extinction. Japan is generally quite reverent of traditional crafts, having an award for “living national treasures” (人間国宝 Ningen Kokuhō), but boatbuilders seem to have been overlooked. Perhaps it is because Japanese boatbuilding saw boats built to very specific regional needs, and as a result, the boats take dramatically different form despite the universal function. They are artists working in extreme isolation. The author has done the nearly impossible by capturing the engineering, the personal stories of the builders, the craftsmanship and the folklore in one approachable source. I am still just digging in.

Toby Rhodes
Board Member, Japan Society of Boston

A Sherpa friend told me, “there are two countries an American should travel to: India and Japan.”
Yes, an expensive book... but, exceptionally well constructed, beautiful photography, top quality paper and a rarely seen durable dust jacket. Like quality tools, worth the investment.
Although I’ve built a few wooden boats, I don’t have a deep interest in Japanese boats, in particular. The apprenticeship element of the book was what drove me to press buy. I have facilitated adventures in a high school for 25+ years, as a side job.
This year has been a challenging one, with students consistently refusing to gain deeper insight through their own studies. We cancelled a month long trip to Lake Powell because I would not be able to lecture them through a difficult situation. Douglas Brooks description of having apprenticed and mentored others, in a shrinking industry (wooden boatbuilding) has given me a fresh perspective of another way to pass on what we have learned, so the next generation can go farther than we could. This book is a striking success, from every perspective. Well written, illustrated and produced. The Japanese approach to boatbuilding and passing on knowledge has me looking at how I do things from new directions, which is what the goal of travel should be.


Andy Politz
Mountain Climber and Educator

This is one of the best books written about traditional Japanese craft techniques. I would give it a quarter-star less for his prejudice against scholars (I mean the ones he does mention are clearly ivory tower types, but there are those who are not). Still, it is well written, nicely illustrated, easy for non-Japanese readers to follow, and even for non-carpenters (as a social portrait of Japan, it is also a great work). This is one of the few $75 books I feel really is worth the money. It must have cost a lot to publish, not to mention the years of work Mr. Brooks put into it. Just a great achievement.

Chou Kung

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