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.