Hunting for the Elusive Atakebune (安宅船)

Atakebune were the largest class of purpose built warships that were used by the Japanese clans during the Sengoku period, or the Warring States period. These ships ranged from around 30 to 50 meters in length, were equipped with a large, box-like structure. Inside were the oarsmen, foot soldiers and samurai, protected by the wooden walls. The structure had two or three levels, with the top level being the roof of the structure. Firing and viewing ports were cut out and may have been closable with a hinged cover.

Atakebune model at the Verkehr Museum in Shizuoka.

In addition to a single-bank of sculling oars, the ship carried a large square sail hung from a single mast, usually mounted near the center of the ship. In bad weather, or when otherwise not in use, the mast could be un-stepped and lowered across the top of the ship. Usually, the ships were equipped with three sets of supports that the masts laid across.

Some ships carried a heavily constructe deck cabin that sat of the roof level of the ship. At least one unusually large atakebune, referred to as an o-atakebune, carried a small castle-like structure atop.

Image courtesy of the University of Tokyo General Library – Atakemaru ship illustration / image edited

The topic of the atakebune came up recently, as some preople on the Internet have expressed an interest in building a model of one. Unfortunately, there are no serious atakebune kits available. One hope is that the Japanese wooden model manufacturer Wooy Joe might be convinced to add an atakebune to their traditional Japanese ship model kit liine up. I understand that they have actually looked into the possibility, but they have not been able to locate suitable plans of atakebune that are historically accurate enough.

So, Kazunori Morikawa, who owns and operates the Japanese online hobby shop, and I have been discussing the topic and we’ve been on the hunt to collect what information we can.

O-fasf model at the Nagoya Castle Museum.


Now, there are some published drawings of atakebune in the books of late Professor Kenji Ishii. I’ve looked over these closely, and they are very good drawings. However, they lack a scale, and they provide only a side profile with one station drawn in, showing the shape of the hull at that point. The problem is, it doesn’t identify the center line of the station, so there is no telling how wide it actually is. Also, only one station is not sufficient to recreate the shape of the ship. Add to that, a lack of a top or deck view, as well as the lack of any other specific details, and the drawing because just a way to compare rough hull types.

Illustrated History of Japanese Boats, by Kenji Ishii

Besides Professor Ishii’s books, there are other sources of information on atakebune on museum websites, individual blogs, and in other books on Japanese warships. One book that comes to mind because it is written in english, is the small paperback book Fighting Ships of the Far East (2): Japan and Korea AD 612-1639, written by historian Stephen Turnbull.

Now this book is handy and its got nice artwork and some description of the different Japanese fighting ships. It also gives an excellent summary of the history and use of them. But, I think the books small form factor leads to a great generalization of the type, Of course, considering it’s just about the only english language introduction to the subject, it’s an important work.

Given the limited published resources, what can one do if they are interested in building a model of an atakebune, or any other Japanese warship type? Clearly, museum have models of these ships – what plans are these models based on. Do sufficient drawings exist? Morikawa-san first brought up the question and I came in later with the prompting of a third person who really wants to build a model of an atakebune.

Internet Resources

As I mentioned before, there are various Internet resources on the subject, most of which refer back to Professor Ishii’s work, but some include information that has been published by some museums in Japan.

One that I found particularly useful was this one in Japanese that gives a nice overview of the history of Japanese ships: If I understand correctly, the father of the site’s owner worked for Professor Kenji Ishii. If you visit the site, and you’re interested in atakebune, check out volumes 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13, on pages 6 through 8. Of course, this isn’t original source information. But, that just means it’s easier to follow and understand, and there’s a lot of interesting material there.

Regarding real source material, I was directed to a website that I had visited before and somehow managed to completely forget about – probably having run across it at 2 a.m. or  something. The site is the University of Tokyo’s digital library, and it has a ton of old drawings and texts that have been scanned and are available to access for free. It is again in Japanese, but if you can navigate it, there is a lot of interest material there.

Here’s a link to top level of the Tokyo University library system, which can be accessed in english: The collection of interest, however, is accessed in Japanese. It is called the Komaba Library Dai Nihon Kaishi Hensan Shiryo (大日本海志編纂資料), and here’s the link:

The link actually takes you to a search. To just browse everything, leave the search box empty and click the magnifying glass search button to the right of it. Before I found this particular collection, I’d been digging through another collection, which turned up some drawings that Professor Ishii had obviously used in his books. But, this was the first time I actually saw completed and detailed images of the familiar atakebune. And, I noticed that some of the images actually had numbers on them, indicating measurements, so I knew this was an ideal find. That, plus the fact that all the drawings I’ve found seem to be in scale.

It was when I was looking more closely at the measurements, that I realized that the numbers didn’t quite make sense to me. Then, it struck me that these aren’t measurements of the actual ship, these are apparently model measurements. These atakebune drawings were actually model drawings. And, it looks to me that these were the same ones used to build some of the models we see today. Either that, or these were used to record the measures of some existing models. The problem at the moment is that I’m not sure of the ages of these drawings. But, so far, this is the closest I’ve found to usable model plans for arakebune.

Since these are model plans, the search continues for actual atakebune drawings with enough information to model from. But, in the meantime, this is a very positive find that I’m very happy about. I’ll post again about the search. Morikawa-san is now following a lead on a very rare book, and I’m going to be posing some questions to the wasen study group, headed by Professor Kon of Kanagawa University. Ω

Explore Inside Japan – Sengoku Period Warship Models

Today, I just ran across a website called Explore Inside Japan. It’s an english language blog site that appears to have begun in late 2016, and has had regular postings about once a month since then. There is no explanation on the site that I’ve found as to who the blogger is, but it’s nicely written and interesting.

I specifically ran across a post about some sights in Shizuoka city, Japan, and there was a good write up about Sunpu castle, this is the castle built for the first Tokugawa Shōgun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. The article explained nicely about the different types of castle layouts, which I never knew, and had a lot of detail about this castle.

But, the next post, remembering that blogs post newest entries first, described a trip to the Verkehr Museum (verkehn is German for transportation), also in Shizuoka city. This small museum I’ve mentioned in a previous post. It happens to house a number of models of old Japanese ships, including the warships of the Sengoku period.

Photo from Explore Inside Japan’s website.

As I said, I’ve posted about the Verkehr museum before and included photos of the ship models there, but this site has many more. So if you’re interested in reading about Atakebune, Sekibune, and Kobaya, check out this blog site:

Also, if you’re interested specifically in Japanese warships, there’s an interesting post about a visit to the Wasen Research Institute’s exhibition room at Kanagawa University, and the decline of the large wooden warships.

Again, this is an interesting website and I highly recommend checking it out. Ω


丸子船 – Marukobune Model by Mr. Masami Sekiguchi

When I visited Japan in 2016, I had the pleasure of having dinner with a couple Japanese ship modelers in Tokyo. One of these gentlemen is Mr. Masami Sekiguchi of the Yokohama  Sailing Ship Modelers Club. We’ve been regularly in touch via email as he has helped to answer questions for me on Japanese traditional boats, architecture, and anything else I need help with from Japan.

Mr. Masami Sekiguchi, left, visiting a display of wasen models built by Mr. Yukio Nakayama, right.

It was he and the other gentleman I had dinner with in Tokyo, Mr. Norio Uriu, who went and investigated a collection of models at the regional museum in the Ota ward, that I discovered when researching a spreadsheet I found online regarding wasen model dispositions. They took many dozens of photos documenting the models, which were in storage at the museum.

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とやまの和船 – Book on Traditional Japanese Boats of Toyama Prefecture

The first treasure of my recent Japanese book buying binge arrived late last week. The book is in Japanese and is called Toyama no Wasen, which means Toyama’s traditional Japanese boats.

This is a beautiful book and it is loaded with drawings. I flipped through it and counted about 30 boats detailed in drawings, though some drawings offer more details than others. Also, some of the rice field boats are little more than floating wooden tubs that are pushed or pulled through the fields by the farmer.

This book appears to be a 2011 publication by the Himi City Museum. I found my copy through Yahoo! JAPAN Auctions. I haven’t seen it listed even on Amazon Japan. I suspect it normally purchased directly from the Himi City Museum and, as it’s a museum publication, isn’t going to be found anywhere else.

I got lucky as I found what is apparently a used copy that someone was selling off. I did see that there is another copy listed on the auctions site. So, if you’re interested in collecting a large number of drawings of wasen, this is your best opportunity.

Sample drawing from the book.

I can’t tell you much about the details as I have yet to study this book. It’s 136 pages with a few pages with color photos. Most of the photos are black and white, and they’re small, so it’s really hard to see any details in them, especially with my unaided eyes.

Probably most useful, in terms of photos, is seeing the construction process of two types of local boats. Again, it’s hard to identify some of the small details in the photos, even when magnified, but they clearly show the steps of construction.

Now, some of the book will not be useful at all for model building purposes. Towards the back, there are many large tables which appear to mostly be some kind of ship building records. I will look these over, but I doubt there is anything very useful here.

Sample table from the book.

There’s a lot here to study. So much so, that I’m not quite sure where to start. I’d like to look at details of a couple of the boats depicted in drawings, but I have a feeling I’m going to be missing a lot if I don’t start at the beginning. There’s a fair amount of Japanese text to sort through, so I’ll just have to be methodical and start translating a paragraph at a time.

With 4 more books coming from Japan in the next couple weeks. I don’t know if I should start now, or if I should wait until they’re all here so I can decide what’s more important to work on.

It’s tempting to dig through this book, so maybe I’ll just go over a little bit… Ω

Douglas Brooks Building Honryousen

American Boatbuilder Douglas Brooks has been studying traditional Japanese boatbuilding techniques from master Japanese craftsmen for more than 25 years. He recently completed building a boat in Niigata prefecture under the guidance of Mr. Nakaichi Nakagawa. The boat is a simple river boat called a Honryousen.

Joining him in Japan is Nina Noah, Director of Student Affairs and Outreach at the Apprenticeshop, a non-profit organization located in Rockland, ME, dedicated “to inspiring personal growth through craftsmanship, community, and traditions of the sea.” She is also working on the boats and helping to document the work being done.

The following video was put together interviewing Mr. Nakagawa and documenting the work on this lovely boat.



In Search of Biwakobune (琵琶湖船)

As you may recall, I’ve been reading about the Marukobune of Lake Biwa. In the book, there are some small drawings of various boat used in and around the lake. Besides the Marukobune, which was a cargo and passenger transport, there were fishing boats and rice field boats, the latter often being used for various tasks.

Marukobune on Lake Biwa

I was intrigued by the many small wasen types, so I’ve been on a hunt for better drawings. The ones in the book are nice, but they were scanned and printed at a fairly low resolution, as they appear pretty small in the book. They also have no scale.

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Biwako no Marukobune (琵琶湖の丸子船)- Traditional Sail Boats of Lake Biwa

In early November, boatbuilder Douglas Brooks wrote a post on his blog about an unusual type of boat found in the area of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest freshwater lake, which is located northeast of Kyōto. The boats feature a slightly rounded, sharply angled bow, built of narrow staves, called Heita.

Heita bow construction on Lake Biwa boats. Photos courtesy of Douglas Brooks.

Boats of Lake Biwa. Photos courtesy of Douglas Brooks.

The heita-built bow is a type of construction common to many boats of Lake Biwa, including fishing boats, cargo boats, and even rice field boats. Mr. Brooks specifically mentions Marukobune (Mah-roo-koh-boo-nay). Though the boats he shows on his blog are not Marukobune, they share the same style of bow construction, and his mention of Marukobune in particular intrigued me, as I’d seen something about this type before, but didn’t know anything about it.

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The Demise of the Hacchoro of Yaizu

I just heard the sad news that the Hacchoro organization, which operates a pair of these replica bonito fishing boats, is shutting down. It was only a matter of time. When I visited Yaizu in 2016 and was given the opportunity to look over the boats up close, it was clear that they were deteriorating. I was told at that time that when the boats were no longer useable that they would not be rebuilt or replaced. To my knowledge, these are the largest wasen that were still in operation. I feel very fortunate to have had a chance to see them up close before they were gone for good. 

The Hacchoro measured 13-meters long, or just over 42 feet. The name literally means “8 oars”. These boats could also be rigged with three masts and sails when the winds were favorable. They vessels were used for bonito fishing and each carried as many as a dozen fishermen. The boats would travel to the fishing grounds and use a pole and line method for catching fish.


For more information about these boats of Yaizu, check out my post:

Yaizu’s Hacchoro (八丁櫓) Fishing Boat

On my Shipmodeler site, there is an overview of my build of the Woody Joe kit:

Woody Joe’s Hacchoro Kit Finished

Also, my notes for building the Woody Joe kit are here on Wasenmodeler:

Hacchoro – Notes for building the Woody Joe kit

And, finally, if you want to get the Woody Joe kit, order yours from Zootoyz. They provide good pricing and excellent service:

Hacchoro at


If you’re interested in building the kit, I’m considering doing a new build of an “upgraded” version of the kit, using my the notes I took on my 2016 visit to Yaizu, in addition to some other materials I’ve collected.

The Hacchoro replica boats were built with much enthusiasm and fanfare in the mid-to-late 90’s. Now, more than 20 years later, they are out of service. It’s not unexpected. Boats of this type were made for harsh use and not intended to last a long time. Much research was done to re-create them in the first place, and that work is not lost. Perhaps the Hacchoro will be back again one day, if only for a time. Ω

Sandanbo (三反帆) Kumanogawa Sailing Riverboat – Model by Kouichi Ohata

1/10-scale Sandanbo, Kumanogawa Sailing Riverboat model by Kouichi Ohata

Kouichi Ohata is a Japanese model builder who’s work I’ve featured here before. The last model of his that I posted here was his Kumanogawa Hayabune. Living in souther Mie prefecture, Ohata-san has the opportunity to see a number of unique tradional Japanese watercraft, and he has put his modeling skills to good use in reproducing them in miniature.

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Shimizu Port Terminal Museum (Verkehr Hakubutsukan フェルケール博物館) – Another Museum of Interest

This last week, I just learned of another museum in Japan that might be of interest. It’s not a large museum, and for most people, it probably wouldn’t make for an important destination. But, for a ship modeler interested in traditional Japanese watercraft, particularly ones of the larger variety, this one has something of special interest.

The museum apparently consists of a lobby entrance with some exhibition areas that surround a large courtyard. There is one main level and a smaller exhibition space upstairs. But, it is on the main level that there is a collection of what I believe are eight 1/10-scale models of sailing ships from Japanese history.

Among these are a few bezaisen, or coastal transports, a later period ship that, from photos I’ve seen, appears to be a schooner, a pair of Edo period warships and a pair of gozabune.

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