Brooks to give talk about Japanese boat-building education

FERRISBURGH — The Ferrisburgh Historical Society will host master boatbuilder Douglas Brooks on Sunday, April 14, at 2 p.m., at the Ferrisburgh Town Offices and Community Center, 3279 Route 7. The event is being hosted in conjunction with the Vermont Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau Series.
Brooks, a boatbuilder, writer, and researcher from Vergennes, will give the talk “Ways of Learning; An Apprentice Boatbuilding in Japan.”
When people think about Japan, they usually have in their minds images of manga and anime, busy urban centers, and an economy based on innovations in electronics. Most people do not know that there is also a “second Japan,” wherein lies a rich history of traditional arts and crafts, many of which are fast disappearing.
Photo Courtesy Douglas Brooks
Douglas Brooks has apprenticed with seven boatbuilders in Japan since 1996, building over a dozen types of traditional boats. In this slide talk he will share his experiences with traditional crafts drawn from twenty-two trips to Japan since 1990. Brooks’ research in Japan focuses on the techniques and design secrets of the craft. These techniques have been passed from master to apprentice with almost no written record. His most recent book, “Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding” is the first comprehensive survey of the craft, spanning his first five apprenticeships and including a chapter on Japan’s last traditional shipwright.
Brooks will also talk about the nature of craft education in Japan; an ethic that is largely at odds with our notions of teaching in the West. The apprentice system produced craftspeople with incomparable skills, yet it required an intense devotion and seriousness from participants. Brooks has experienced first-hand what it is like to learn when the apprentice is forbidden from speaking. At the core of this process is the belief that one learns by observation and perseverance.
In 2017 Brooks apprenticed in Gifu, Japan, where he built a 42-foot cormorant fishing boat working alongside an 85-year old boatbuilder. These boats are still used by a handful of fishermen who continue a thousand-year-old tradition of fishing with cormorants. In 2015, Brooks apprenticed with the last boatbuilder active in the region struck by the 2011 tsunami. There he documented the most common small wooden fishing boat of the Tohoku region, and area that saw 90 percent of all boats destroyed in the disaster.
ATTENTION TO DETAIL and precision craftsmanship are the mark of Japanese boatbuilding.
Photo Douglas Brooks
Japan’s last generation of traditional boatbuilders has almost disappeared. Brooks’ teachers were all in their seventies and eighties when he worked with them, and he is the sole apprentice for six of his seven teachers. In a 2003 nationwide study sponsored by the Nippon Foundation, Brooks was listed as the sole foreigner capable of building wasen, or traditional Japanese boats. The average age of the 300 boatbuilders listed in the survey in 2003 was sixty-nine. His first book, “The Tub Boats of Sado Island; A Japanese Craftsman’s Methods,” was honored by the Japanese Ministry of Culture for its contribution to maritime preservation.
Locally, Brooks has taught a Middlebury College Winter Term class entitled Building the Japanese Boat in 2015, 2016, and 2018. Currently two of his class’ boats are on display in the Davis Library at the College. He also teaches boatbuilding in the Advanced Engineering class at Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury as part of a research project on Lake Champlain boats in partnership with the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History.
Brooks specializes in the construction of traditional wooden boats for museums and private clients. He worked in the Small Boat Shop at the National Maritime Museum in San Francisco from 1985-1990 and has since built boats at museums in Japan and across the United States. He teaches classes in boat building and has written regularly for magazines like “WoodenBoat,” “Classic Boat” (UK) and “KAZI” (Japan). Brooks attended the Williams Mystic Seaport Program in American Maritime History, and he is a 1982 graduate of Trinity College and a 2002 graduate of the Middlebury College Language School (Japanese). In 2014 he was awarded the American Craft Council’s Rare Craft Fellowship Award. He lives with his wife Catherine in Vergennes, Vermont.

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