Attending a Japanese Wasen Meeting on Zoom

Last night, I had a very rare opportunity to attend a meeting of the wasen study group that normally meets periodically at Kanagawa University. I’ve been wanting to attend a meeting for more than a year, but getting to Japan is difficult these days. Even if I could make the trip, the odds that I’d be able to make the trip coincide with a meeting are very slim.

Having resigned myself to the fact that I’d probably never be able to attend, a strange thing then happened. The world COVID-19 pandemic hit, and nobody was meeting in person anywhere anymore. But, after a while, people started adjusting to the new reality and the Zoom meeting became common. And, when I saw a notice on Facebook about the next Zoom meeting of the wasen study group, Wasen Kenkyuu Kai, I realized that a new opportunity had opened up.

I contacted the person who handles the posts on Facebook, and made arrangements to attend the meeting. I had an initial pre-meeting with the new contact Mr. Shinya Tominaga, and we had a really great conversation in english, with some Japanese exchange. Tominaga-san is, by the way, a member of the group Wasen Tomo no Kai, which operates several small boats to teach the public the experience of the traditional use of the ro, or sculling oar.

When the actual study group meeting took place, I was a bit nervous. For one thing, I’d never attended any Zoom meetings with more than one other person. Including myself, there were 16 people present. Of course, it was all in Japanese.

My Japanese speaking skill is maybe worse than my reading comprehension, if that’s possible. Who was speaking to who? And when someone said my name, I felt like a deer in the headlights, as everyone got quiet, waiting for me to reply. Since everyone looks at the screen, there’s no other indication that people are waiting for you, except when you’re sure you heard your name. Well, I managed, more or less.

I did hold back a bit, as I was embarrassed that I didn’t understand more, and I may have disappointed the organizer, who I think may have believed I was going to speak more Japanese and participate more. But, my one contribution was to share a drawing that was given to me by Douglas Brooks, and my desire to find out if the boat in the drawing was recognizable.

The drawing of the mystery wasen

It did prompt a little discussion of the reverse sheer of the bow, which curves downward. This is called a nomeri-type. Professor Kon referenced some material about this type of bow, which was a feature found in the Kanto area, which is the area around Tokyo.

Also, another gentleman, who’s name I couldn’t get as most were shown only in kanji, seemed to know a lot about the nomeri type. I asked as best I could if this was a feature for sea boats. And, if I said it correctly and understood his reply, this is apparently the case.

Tominaga-san also showed a page that cataloged the boats used by the Wasen Tomo no Kai, which included the boat that I thought the drawing might represent. But, that boat was too short at less than 8 meters in length. The above boat is clearly more than 9 meters long. So, I’m not really any closer to knowing this specific answer. But, I did have something to contribute.

Actually, I did have a set of slides put together that showed most of my wasen models, but I felt too self conscious to take over the meeting to show them. Also, when people start talking about you and your work, and you don’t know what they’re saying, it’s a bit strange. So, I figured I’d hold off. I can alway show it at a future meeting, if I follow up on this one.

The meeting moved on from wasen models to the topic of chikiri, which are wooden dovetail fasteners used in Japanese woodworking, including Japanese boatbuilding. 

The meeting lasted about 4 hours, beginning at 1:30pm, Tokyo time, which means that it started for me at 9:30pm and didn’t get done until 1:30am. But, perhaps because of my nervousness and my desire to learn, I didn’t feel very tired, even after many hours had passed.

I’m glad I was able to attend. I learned some and it was a great experience to sit in with these knowledgeable wasen enthusiasts.


Kezurou-Kai 2017 Follow Up

The 2017 Kezurou-Kai USA event is over and I had a very long day manning a book selling table for Douglas Brooks. It was a lot of fun meeting and talking with enthusiasts of Japanese carpentry. Many were local, but a number of people had flown in the the East Coast and elsewhere. I only worked the second day of this 2-day event, but I did manage to sell some copies of Douglas’s book, Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding.

My makeshift book sales table with my models on display.

It was nice to be able to talk to people about Douglas Brooks and Japanese wooden boats, as well as about the pair of models I brought. They were supposed to attract attention, which they did.

Continue reading

Kezurou-Kai in Oakland, Oct 20-22

While it doesn’t relate directly to modeling wasen, there is an event of coming up in Oakland, California this weekend, the annual gathering of Kezurou-Kai USA. This is a 2-day event of enthusiasts of Japanese carpentry.

I don’t really know much about the group except for what I’ve heard from others in past months. And, the only reason I know about it now is really because of Douglas Brooks, who apparently gave a talk at the Kezurou-Kai event, which I believe was in New York last year, from what I recall.

Well, Douglas asked me if I would be willing to spend a day at the event to sell his book Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding. Of course, I welcome any opportunity to pay him back for all the help and information he has given me, so I agreed to run a vendor table on the Sunday of the event.

Here’s a copy of the event schedule that I copied from their website.

Continue reading

The Rope: Article on the Funakagami and Historical Japanese Boats

Continuing with a string of posts about the Japanese ship model society, The Rope, here’s a short, but very interesting article describing a talk given by the curatorial director of the Tokyo Museum of Maritime Science. In this talk, Mr. Iinuma describes Japanese historical boats and the role of the book, Funakagami. I posted about this earlier in the year, along with a link to a downloadable pdf copy of the book. This article in The Rope News is a better discussion of the book that mine, and it’s a very short summary.


Cover of the Funakagami

I read this and, learned a few key things that I didn’t know about. One in particular was why the stem (the term bowsprit is mistakenly used here) on many yakatabune shown in wood block prints, look incomplete. I’ll let you read that answer for yourself. You can read the article online or download a copy:

And, here is a link to my own blog post on the Funakagami where you can download a copy directly from the Tokyo Museum of Maritime Science:


The Rope: Photo Gallery of Japanese Sailing Ships and Boats

I only just discovered that there is a page on the website of the Japanese ship model society The Rope that features models of Japanese ships. These include some modern era ships, but several Edo period ships are represented. This group does some really beautiful work, which I recommend checking out.

Here’s a link to the page, which is on the English language section of their website:


Speaking at the 2016 NRG Conference

Having been involved in Ship Modeling for more than 20 years, I’ve been a big admirer of the Nautical Research Guild and the work of its impressive membership. There have been so many great modelers involved in the Guild, I feel honored to be speaking together in a combined talk with boatbuilder Douglas Brooks at the opening talk of this year’s conference in San Diego. Douglas Brooks will be reprising his talk at last year’s conference on Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding, while I’ll be adding the element of modeling them.


Douglas Brooks speaking at the 2015 NRG Conference in Mystic, CT.

Granted, my portion of the talk will the shorter segment. In the 15 minutes or so that I’ll have, I’ll only be able to scratch the surface of the subject, mostly talking about resources available to those who are interested in building a traditional Japanese boat. Pretty much, just enough to give folks a nudge toward attempting one.

The other part of my participation at the conference came as something of a surprise as I was told just last month that I was scheduled to do one of the round table sessions. These are 20-minute sessions that takes place simultaneously with 4 other sessions. People attend the session of their choice, and after 20 minutes, people then switch to another table. So, basically, I have a 20-minute demo, repeated a total of 4 times (with one 20-minute break).

Having no idea what I was expected to do, I’d considered a couple possibilities. The first thing that actually came to mind that I thought would work out, was to demo some of the details of paper modeling. Having completed only 1 paper model made it seem a bit odd, but I don’t think anyone else has done it, and I actually did have some interesting techniques to show.

But, talking with Kurt Van Dahm, the NRG Chairman, and others, it seemed that the idea was to give me more time to talk about modeling Japanese boats. So, I’ll be talking a mix of building Japanese kits and building from scratch. It seems a bit odd to me, as talking about kits seems a bit like a sales pitch. The only thing preventing it from being a complete conflict of interest, seeing as how I’ve done some work for Ages of Sail, is that Ages of Sail doesn’t currently carry any of the kits I’ll be talking about. And, my most highly recommended kit, the Tosa Wasen, will only be available direct from the manufacturer.

Bekabune model gifted to me from the Urayasu Museum.

Bekabune model given to me by the curator of the Urayasu Museum.

In any case, I’ll bring my in-progress Urayasu Bekabune models and a small supply of Japanese woods for people to sample themselves, giving them a chance to sand, cut and bend them. Show a couple in-progress kits, talk about how to read the Japanese language plans, etc. A 20-minute discussion should go by pretty quick, then repeat it three more times.

I really hope it won’t end up being the lamest NRG round table discussion in history, and people will find it interesting and useful. Wish me luck!

Speaking at the Northern California Japanese Sword Club

On Sunday, June 19th, I was at the monthly meeting of the Northern California Japanese Sword Club as a guest speaker, talking about Japanese boats, their construction and history. Their meetings take place at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, which is located in San Francisco’s Japantown.

Now, I’m not a particularly comfortable speaker, but it’s something I’d like to be better at doing, and this seemed like a really good opportunity. Now, I’m no expert on the topic of Japanese boats, and even less so on their history. But, the subject is one that I’m very interested in, and have been spending a lot of time actively studying  this past year, so I wasn’t totally unprepared for it.

The speaking engagement came about as a direct result of my Japanese boat models displays that I set up in the window of the Union Bank Community Room in the Japan Center Mall. Their member who organizes the themes for each meeting saw the display and thought the club members would enjoy a talk on the subject.

In all honesty, I was a bit worried about what I could talk about that a group of sword collectors would want to hear about. My knowledge of Japanese history is limited, particularly about the early use of boats by warring armies or about the warships of the Sengoku period. But, I agreed to do it, with assurances from Tom that the group would enjoy the talk regardless.

I ended up delaying my participation for a bit to brush up on my Japanese history and did some intensive study on the development of Japanese boats. Most of the available material was in Japanese, so it took a bit of an effort. But, I managed a basic level of competency in the subject.

In the end, the talk went swimmingly, and I really had a great time talking to the club about Japanese boats. I started off by talking about the four models I brought and then using that to lead into how boats developed over time, how they were constructed, talked about how they were used in battle and about purpose-built war vessels.

It helped that I was really familiar with the meeting place, having met there on many occasions with my shamisen teach, who also happened to be in the room next door giving lessons, which we could hear during the meeting.

But, most importantly, the members of this group were some of the nicest people I’ve met. They were a very receptive, very appreciative, and a very supportive group. I couldn’t have asked for a better audience!

I can’t imagine how the next talk I give could go any better than this one, but at least I’m better prepared for it now. Ω