Researching Wasen Remotely

Today was one of those days where I am reminded of how much work it takes to research wasen, or traditional Japanese boats, from here in the U.S.

There are many connections, many resources available in my research. Besides following and communicating regularly with boatbuilder Douglas Brooks, who continues to study traditional Japanese boatbuilding, my contacts at Woody Joe and my friend at have also been able to provide me with some basic help.

I also have a couple ship modeling friends in Japan, one in particular who has been very helpful, operating occasionally as my eyes and ears in Japan, as well as liaison to local experts. In late 2016, between the two of them, they investigated a local museum’s model collection in storage, based on some information I found and forwarded to them, and even arranged with the staff to take photos of them. They’ve spoken to museum curators and visited exhibitions and shared the information with me.

Models in storage at the Ota Ward museum, photographed by shipmodeler friends in Japan

In the world of full-sized wasen are some enthusiasts who have networked, including a couple that have studied and built their own boats, and there are a few small organization that are dedicated to the preservation of their culture and traditions, and I have been fortunate to be able to get their help.

There is a Japanese email ring I belong to called the Wasen Network, which links enthusiasts together. On Facebook, there are groups, like the Tosa Traditional Japanese Boat Society (土佐和船友の会) and the Traditional Japanese Boat Research Group (和船研究会) disseminating information, as well as a number of individuals posting information (If you are on Facebook, I highly recommend following these pages, particularly the Tosa Traditional Japanese Boat Society).

But, at times there is so much information circulating that it’s difficult to take it all in, to understand what’s what and to process and organize all the information, especially when dealing with separate pieces of information that are similar, but may or may not be related. Actually, it often seems that way, and today was definitely one of those days.

Recently, there have been some individual posts on Facebook about some boats from the southwestern end of the island of Kyūshū, Japan. Different terms are used by different people and the boats I have seen photos of look similar, but also have their differences. It becomes difficult to understand if these are variation of the same boat type, perhaps because they were made by different boatbuilders, or if there are features that make them particularly unique.

Photo of a replica Satsuma-type boat at the Toba Seafolk Museum

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the boat type in this post, because this is mostly about the work it takes to do this kind of research, particularly when you don’t have mastery of the language. Something that a lot of ship modelers and enthusiasts around me here in the U.S. should be able to relate to.

Today, it seems that I spent the entire morning just following links, copying, saving and translating text and images, emailing or otherwise messaging questions, checking websites, etc. Then, later in the day, while dealing with other emails, I’m searching through my notes and discovered related information and photos, looked up terms, did some more translations, and some Japanese text input –  I don’t think I’ve had more than a couple hours away from my computer between 9am and 9pm today, and my brain feels like mush.

On the upside, I made a bit of a breakthrough late in the afternoon and made some information connections and think I have a handle on what I’ve been digging up. But, today it’s been pretty much a full-time job and I’m really beat. I still have to analyze and organize this info into something useful, but I have other things I need to attend to now. Unfortunately, this kind of work doesn’t pay any bills, so I can’t do as much as I’d like.

But, the gain of knowledge and understanding, the process of discovery and working with my connections is a very good experience, and I should be able to pass along what I learn here. Ω


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