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A Living Tradition

Posted May 26, 2015

From ax to chainsaw, ryoba saw to circular saw, Murakami-san quickly switches between old and new. He doesn’t hesitate to go over a plank with an electric plane and then finish it up with a wooden kanna (Japanese plane). His pragmatism and efficiency are evidence of a living tradition: techniques that have evolved with the available technology and demands of the market.  

Murakami's Japanese handsaws and chisels.

When he first started building boats with his father over 50 years ago, he only used hand tools. However in the mid-1960s, with the introduction of electricity to his neck of the woods (Hirota-hanto), he slowly started acquiring power tools. Where they had once meticulously joined plank edges with specialized handmade ripsaws (a technique known as suriawase), they saved hours by instead using circular saws and glue. Although not as technical of a feat, it’s still watertight. Since they are making working boats for local fisherman, functionality and affordability were key determinants in their process and design. 

Murakami using a chainsaw to rough out the stem. Note the footwear.

Once fiberglass boats hit the scene in the 1970s, it was particularly crucial that Murakami-san kept his boats at a competitive price. Remarkably, he currently sells his 19’ inshore boats for only $5,000, while the fiberglass equivalents go for over $7,000.

That said, design and aesthetics were not left behind at the sliding door. He uses beautiful and clever traditional joints for installing the beams tightly in place, and today carved a sculptural stem while balancing on the bow with an adze in hand. Although it is clear that he’s a little self-conscious about his non-traditional techniques, (he’ll say “you can stop taking pictures now” when he starts spreading glue or picks up a circular saw), his speed, accuracy and improvisational abilities also reveal the deep commitment and pride he has for this adaptive and rooted tradition.

Carving the stem with a chouna.