Identifying a Japanese Boat from an Historical Photo

When studying wasen, particularly when you don’t live in Japan, about the only research you can do is either by studying books or using the Internet. In Japan, you can visit museums to find old boats, models, and photos, where some specialist has identified all the artfacts; You can travel out into the rural areas and maybe spot some old boats abandoned by a river; You might even be able to meet an old boat builder that can tell you a thing or two about the boats he worked with, though as time goes by, that option is quickly disappearing. But, outside Japan, you basically have books and the Internet.

I recently ran across this interesting photo on Flickr. There were a couple comments on it, but they were pretty old and didn’t really offer any information, just a couple observations.

The first thing noticeable in this photos is the cargo. Those are tawara, or rice bales, and they are pretty standard size at this point in time, anyway. Of course the exact time of the photo is hard to say for sure, but it’s a good quality hand-tinted photo, which was popular in Japan between the 1860 and 1900. And, there are some telegraph poles in the background.

In any case a rice bale is generally around 2.5 feet long. You can see two bales fitting end-to-end across the width of the boat in the foreground, giving us a width of 5 feet. Allowing for the hull planking and rail, say maybe 6 feet across.

The most important clue is the shape of the bow, and the run of the planks there. If you zoom in, you can just make out that the seams of the planks appear to be roughly parallel with the stem, or miyoshi. This is a style of bow planking that is unique to Lake Biwa.

Fortunately, I have a copy of the english language version of a book on marukobune, which is a well known boat type that sailed on Lake Biwa. Besides the marukobune, it has some small drawings and descriptions of many other types of boats in the Lake Biwa region.

I actually happened to already have an idea of what the boat in the photo was based on what it was carrying and the narrow canal it was on, so I knew what to look up. Sure enough, I found a boat type called a sosuibune, or canal boat.

Model in the Lake Biwa Museum.

The sosuibune were developed in the late 1800s, specifically to navigate the newly built canals that were constructed to carry fresh water and to provide a transportation link from Lake Biwa to the city of Kyōto. Sosuibune carried rice and firewook to Kyōto and apparently returned with finished good and material for kimonos.

The details on their size is a little bit limited in the marukobune book, but it does tell us that the boats were about 6-shaku wide, which is almost exactly 6 feet, and a depth of 2-shaku. From a very small drawing in the book, I was able to work out that the boats must have been about 35-shaku long. Again, that’s about 35 feet. The boats are described as having a carrying capacity of 30 koku, which apparently works out to 75 bales of rice.

As a model subject, it seems like a fairly simple boat, with the most interesting feature being the planked bow, which is called Heita style. This creates a more rounded bow, rather than the sharp pointed bow that is common to so many Japanese boats, and creates more interior capacity.

The only drawings are pretty fuzzy, and I’ve contacted the Lake Biwa Museum about finding other drawings, but they weren’t much help. However, the drawings in the book, with some careful image analysis and enhancement, should be able to result in a decent model. So, I may just make the attempt. Ω

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