In the carpentry trade, high-quality tools are essential whether it be for sawing through lumber, chiseling mortise-and-tenon joints, or planing grooves in the tracks for a shoji sliding door. In Japan, where forests cover more than two-thirds of the land area and natural resources other than wood are scarce, carpentry has evolved alongside the essential tools into a highly specialized craft that is more than merely technical.
“Five techniques to be mastered”: 1. Drafting, 2. Budgeting, 3. Practical skills, 4. Drawing, 5. Carving. JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO OF AN EXHIBIT AT THE TAKENAKA CARPENTRY TOOLS MUSEUM IN KOBE
In his book Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit, and Use (1984), Odate Toshio, a retired master carpenter, writes, “The Japanese word shokunin is defined … as ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan,’ but such a literal description does not express the deeper meaning. The Japanese apprentice is taught that ‘shokunin’ means not only having technical skills, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness.”
The master carpenter, in other words, has a “social obligation to work his best for the general welfare of the people,” Odate writes. “The relationship of a shokunin to his tools is therefore very close, for it is through the tools that the work of the shokunin is created. Each of the shokunin’s tools is his life and pride.”
Full-scale reproduction of the interlocking brackets of the Golden Hall at Toshodai-ji in Nara, built in the middle of the eighth century JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO OF AN EXHIBIT AT THE TAKENAKA CARPENTRY TOOLS MUSEUM IN KOBE
In Japan, the best carpentry toolmakers are held in the same high regard as the most revered of the carpenters. Like carpenters, toolmakers are repositories of wisdom and proprietary skills that must be passed down again if they are to survive. The toolmaker’s skills, too, in many cases, were inherited from katana sword makers—Edo-period blacksmiths able to turn the rare commodity in Japan that was iron into beautifully feathered, razor-sharp steel.
Nishioka Tsunekazu (1908–1995) devoted his life to passing down temple carpentry techniques—including the use of traditional tools—in the repair and restoration work he conducted at Horyu-ji and other important shrine and temple buildings. These techniques, many passed down through his master carpenter family, were first employed in the sixth century with the arrival in Japan of Buddhism. JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO OF AN EXHIBIT AT THE TAKENAKA CARPENTRY TOOLS MUSEUM IN KOBE
Chiyozuru Korehide (1874–1957), a master blacksmith and former katana sword maker, famed for the excellence of his carpentry tools JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO OF AN EXHIBIT AT THE TAKENAKA CARPENTRY TOOLS MUSEUM IN KOBE
Reproduction of the Tokyo workshop of Chiyozuru Korehide JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO OF AN EXHIBIT AT THE TAKENAKA CARPENTRY TOOLS MUSEUM IN KOBE
There are challenges when it comes to protecting carpentry tool traditions, however. One is that carpentry tools are made to be used, and with repeated sharpening, over time, the tools eventually disappear. Another is the electrification of carpentry, which has turned traditional tools, like samurai swords before them, into something of a niche market.
Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum opened in 1984 in Kobe in response to such challenges. The museum aims to collect and conserve traditional carpentry tools and thereby “convey the spirit of artisans in a world made increasingly efficient through industrial production and labor-saving measures.” Established by the construction firm Takenaka, the museum relocated in 2014 to new premises close to Shin-Kobe Station, with Takenaka’s own architects employing the traditional skills of carpenters, plasterers and tilers in the building’s ostensibly modern design.
Takeneka Carpentry Tools Museum JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO
The permanent exhibition at the museum showcases the breadth and abundance of the world of carpentry tools. Visitors learn not only about the history, variety, and mechanisms of the carpentry tools, but also discover their intrinsic beauty and feel the spirit behind their craftsmanship.
The photographs below may go some small way to capturing the humbling effect a trip to this museum is likely to have on the innocent visitor.
Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal
Note: This article first appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of the Japan Journal.
The two-man frame saw, introduced in around the fourteenth century, was a major innovation in lumber technology. To use the saw, one man stands on top, another below, and together they pull the saw up and down the timber to cut out planks. Note how the teeth change direction in the middle of the blade. As with all Japanese saws (and planes), the frame saw cuts on the pull stroke, rather than the push stroke as in the west. JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO OF AN EXHIBIT AT THE TAKENAKA CARPENTRY TOOLS MUSEUM IN KOBE
Display showing some of the variety of chisels needed to carve a kaerumata decorative strut JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO OF AN EXHIBIT AT THE TAKENAKA CARPENTRY TOOLS MUSEUM IN KOBE
The complete set of saws, chisels, hammers and planes (59 tools) used in the construction of Momoyama Tenmangu in Kyoto, donated to the shrine by the carpenter after its completion in 1841 JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO OF AN EXHIBIT AT THE TAKENAKA CARPENTRY TOOLS MUSEUM IN KOBE
Butt chisels by Chiyozuru Korehide JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO OF AN EXHIBIT AT THE TAKENAKA CARPENTRY TOOLS MUSEUM IN KOBE
A yateki (blowpipe) knife by Chiyozuru Korihide JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO OF AN EXHIBIT AT THE TAKENAKA CARPENTRY TOOLS MUSEUM IN KOBE
Striking chisels by Zensaku Matsubara (1889–1944), the second of three generations of Zensaku chisel making specialists. The chisel in the middle is inlaid with red lacquer. JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO OF AN EXHIBIT AT THE TAKENAKA CARPENTRY TOOLS MUSEUM IN KOBE
Full-scale model of the skeleton of a teahouse revealing the complex structure beneath the apparently simple design. A complete replica of the same three-mat teahouse (Itteki-an), along with two other tearooms inspired by architectural styles from antiquity, can be found within the old family teahouse on the grounds of the museum. JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO OF AN EXHIBIT AT THE TAKENAKA CARPENTRY TOOLS MUSEUM IN KOBE
A sliding door made using the kumiko technique of assembling wooden pieces in patterns without the use of nails. In the technique, which originated in the seventh century, thinly sliced wood is cut to form grooves, tenons and mortises, and then joined together. JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO OF AN EXHIBIT AT THE TAKENAKA CARPENTRY TOOLS MUSEUM IN KOBE