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:


Building the Kamakura Period Umi-Bune, Part 6

As I mentioned in my last post on this model, I’d been wrestling with the configuration of the roofs. The 1/20-scale museum model that I often see reference on the web, differs from Professor Ishii’s 3-view illustration that I’ve mostly been basing construction on. Those drawings are more of a match to the early scroll paintings. Oddly enough, none of the models I’ve seen match them exactly. Is it possible that the builders had access to more updated information? Or did they just decide that the Ishii-san was wrong? But, then what about the scroll paintings? Are they simply written off as being wrong?

As you can see in the photo below, which was taken at a ship model club meeting, I initially made flat roofs panels. If I could justify them, they would certainly be the simplest to construct.

Flat roof panel initially constructed is seen in foreground.

Continue reading

On Amazon – Illustrated History of Japanese Traditional Boats by Kenji Ishii

I had to post this, because it is a very rare find. This book, written by Professor Kenji Ishii, was published in 1983 and is pretty much the bible of historical Japanese watercraft.

Illustrated History of Japanese Traditional Boats

This is the primary source for my own research on the subject of wasen, or traditional Japanese boats. I bought my copy used from Japan and it cost me around $170 with shipping. It was definitely worth the investment, as this information is extremely hard to  find anywhere else, especially outside of Japan.

Well, today, I was updating my post on my Kamakura period large sea boat project and I thought I see if I could find a link to this book on I did and lo-and-behold, there’s an actual copy available in the U.S. for about $100!

I had to pass this along to readers here – this is a steal! I’m surprised to even see it listed here, because it’s written entirely in Japanese, so I wouldn’t expect copies to be turning up in the U.S. again, except in very rare cases. In fact, I don’t even see it listed on Amazon Japan at the moment.

Buy it before it’s gone. Seriously.

Can a Kobaya be Built from Paris Plans?

Kobaya is a term for a type of smaller military style vessel that is fast and maneuverable. Highly ornate versions of these and larger military vessels called Sekibune were used by Daimyo and their clans for ceremonial and other official purposes. I don’t know about the smaller ones, but the larger ones were called Gozabune.


Photo of a 30-oar Kobaya, of small fast-boat, from a display of models built by Yukio Nakayama. Photo is courtesy of The Rope.

Ship modelers building American or European subjects are accustomed to finding detailed drawingsfor the more popular of these vessels. There are even large numbers of plans made specifically for ship modelers. But, unlike with western subjects, there is a dearth of plans of Japanese watercraft. I’ve found plenty of sketches and there are basic line drawings that might be used, but these commonly don’t have the information needed to build a proper model.

One reason for this is that Japanese boatbuilders don’t have a tradition of recording their work, and they generally only make temporary drawings on wood, sometimes destroying them when done.

Japanese boatbuilder’s plank drawings. Photo courtesy of Douglas Brooks.

Continue reading

A Thesis Writer’s Journal

Today, I was trying to find some information on the Funakagami, a book written during the Edo period used in the 19th century to help identify the river boats of the Kanto region for tax purposes.

Specifically, I was trying to find out when the book was published, which turned out to be 1803. But, in the process, I ran across a journal entry of a then graduate student of the Marine Underwater Archaeology who was writing her thesis on Japanese boats through art. Very similar in subject matter to the recent series of articles by Jean-Pierre Mélis in the French magazine Neptunia that I’ve written about here a couple times.

The journal was written in 2007 to 2009 by Michelle Damian, and provides an interesting look into the process of thesis writing and the research that goes into it. What I found the most interesting was following the experiences of someone as she was going through roughly the same discoveries and issues as myself.

Link to the Journal of Michelle Damian

I also found it interesting that one of her advisors was Dr. Hans Van Tilburg, who I was in contact with a few years back on my research on the U.S.S. Saginaw, which was the subject of one of his books. It makes me wonder why I’m not doing something more academic, given all this kind of work I’ve been doing.

In any case, I’m very curious to find out if Ms. Damian has continued her work on the subject.

Neptunia – Traditional Japanese Boats Through Prints

I have had the good fortune of having been in many email exchanges with French author Jean-Pierre Mélis and our mutual friends in Japan for about the last year or so. Mr. Mélis has been writing a three part series of articles in Neptunia, the Journal of the Friends of the French National Maritime Museum.

The series explores different types of Japanese watercraft as depicted in  Japanese woodblock prints. The journal is in French, but with modern translation tools, it’s not too difficult to read in English. This is how I was able to read the first issue, and it was a very interesting read. Plus, it was the first time I’d seen many of the prints.

It may seem odd that the subject of Japanese boats appears in a French journal, but it was Admiral Paris’s book Le Souvenirs de Marine, first published in 1888, with the most recent reprint that I know of being in 1962, that gives westerners the earliest detailed look at Japanese watercraft. A model based on this work also appears in the French National Maritime Museum, and is featured on the cover of the first issue above.

From Le Souvenirs de Marine

Mr. Mélis informed me the other day of the publication of his final article, which looks at the boats used to navigate the rivers and canals of Japan during the final years of the Shogun period.

If you are interested in reading the articles, you can purchase copies from the publisher’s website: 

Specifically, the issues are numbers 281, 283 and 285.

The articles should be interesting and informative, and I am looking forward to seeing the artwork as well.


Book: The Tub Boats of Sado Island

I just found out that Douglas Brooks has a number of copies of his book, The Tub Boats of Sado Island: A Japanese Craftsman’s Methods, available for sale.

This book is in Japanese, but includes a full english translation in the back with translated photo captions as well. It was published in 2003 by the Kodo Cultural Foundation and lists for $38.99 plus shipping from the Kinokuniya book store. However, they list it as out of stock.

The author with Mr. Koichi Fujii. Photo courtesy of Douglas Brooks.

You can get a copy now, inscribed by the author, for only $30 including shipping. Take advantage of this opportunity by emailing the author directly. Here’s a link to his contact page:

If you didn’t know, these boats are called Taraibune (たらい舟), and were used on the Echigo coast of the Sea of Japan and on Sado Island. If you ever visit Sado Island, there are a couple places where you can take a ride in one and even try out using the front mounted oar. Douglas Brooks did his first traditional apprenticeship in Japan with Mr. Koichi Fujii, who was the last professional tub boat builder on Sado Island until his death in 1999.

Taraibune for tourists at Shukunegi village, Sado Island. Photo courtesy of Douglas Brooks

Learn more about Taraibune on Mr. Brooks’s website:


Wasen Models of the Ōta Ward Museum


五大力船 – Godairiki-sen. 1/10 scale. One of the models in storage at the Ota Ward Regional Museum. Photo courtesy of Ota Ward Folk Museum, and taken by The Rope Tokyo.

The Ota ward’s regional museum is a place I’d never heard of, and nobody told me about. I discovered it one day as I was digging through an old database file I stumbled across on the Nippon Foundation Library website. Not being able to read much Japanese, I downloaded an Excel spreadsheet and began translating piece of it to figure out what I had. What I found was a list of about 900 wasen models and their dispositions. Included in the list was their city location and address.

I recognized the kanji for Tokyo, 東京, so I focussed on those. I copied and pasted the address into Google Translate, and I got that the address was in the Ōta ward. Now, I’ve been to Tokyo a few times, but I’m not too familiar with the system of wards, which are subdivisions of cities. But, I had the address and popped it into Google Maps, which allowed me to locate it precisely, and even do a virtual walk around the area.


Front of the Ota Ward Regional Museum as seen from Google Maps’ street view.

The walk around was a little  confusing, as the Japanese city zoning is very different from that in the U.S. The area looked pretty much like any other narrow semi-residential Tokyo street. I wasn’t sure if I was just mistaken about the whole thing. But, I did have a map of the location and saw that it was not all that far from the homes of a couple people that I met with on my recent visit to Japan, so I asked them about it and gave them a list of the models that the spreadsheet had indicated were there, or were once there. This began a whole project that I was not directly involved in.

The two gentlemen I contacted were Mr. Norio Uriu and Mr. Masama Sekiguchi, both members of The Rope, Japanese ship model society. Mr. Skiguchi is also a 14-year executive member of the Yokohama Sailing Model Club. I emailed them about the museum and the possible wasen model collection there, in the hopes that if they might know about it and help me find a way to get information about them.

A few days later, Mr. Uriu spoke with museum staff about my interest and found that the museum had a couple DVDs/CDs for sale about the old local boatbuilding industry, and also found that there were some 17 or 18 models in storage in their warehouse. He arranged for permission from the museum staff to allow them to make a special visit along with a third member of The Rope, Mr. Akamichi, to make a photographic record of the models there. I believe this has become an official informational CD of The Rope.

羽田水舟 - Haneda Mizubune, a boat used for carrying drinking water.

羽田水舟 – Haneda Mizubune, a boat used for carrying drinking water. Photo courtesy of Ota Ward Folk Museum, and taken by The Rope Tokyo.

As it turned out, there were 25 models in all and the group managed to take some 300 photos of them. Most of the boats were of types involved in seaweed harvesting, which was a big industry on Tokyo Bay up until about the 1970s when pollution and land expansion took its toll. It also took its toll on the traditional boat building industry which was a big part of the local community.


Bow view of a Tsuribune, or fishing boat. It is described as a Nomeri-type. Photo courtesy of Ota Ward Folk Museum, and taken by The Rope Tokyo.

Mr. Uriu, in addition to providing me a copy of their CD, sent me the discs published by the museum as well, which consisted of a video, in Japanese, about boatbuilding in the Ota Ward as well as a pdf version of a book on the same subject that was published by the museum, but is no longer in print. I believe I wrote about this in a previous post.


Boatbuilding book from the Ota Ward Regional Museum. Currently available only as a pdf file on CD at the museum.

I mentioned all of this to Douglas Brooks who was kind enough to provide me with a physical copy of the book as he had a few extra copies he’d been given over the years. Together with the photos, this was quite a boon.

多摩川の渡し船 - Tama River Watashi-bune, or river ferry.

多摩川の渡し船 – Tama River Watashi-bune, or river ferry. Photo courtesy of Ota Ward Folk Museum, and taken by The Rope Tokyo.

While going through all of this information, Mr. Sekiguchi paid a visit to the Urayasu Museum, which I managed to visit on my recent trip. I told him that I had wished to contact the curator there, whom I had met, and say hello and thank him again for making my museum visit so nice. I had emailed him months ago and had received no reply, which was distressing. So, Mr. Sekiguchi called him and passed along my regards. He also got permission for me to share information I received in a pamphlet published by the Urayasu Museum, which I will do when I get back to writing about building the Urayasu Bekabune model. Should be very soon! Ω

Building the Kamakura Period Umi-Bune, Part 5

Umisen Model

Model on exhibit at Kanagawa University. Photo by Masami Sekiguchi.

 No, that’s not my model. This 1/10-scale model of a Kamakura period umi-bune is on display at the Kanagwa University, which is home to the Institute for the Study of Japanese Folk Culture. The photo was taken by my friend Masami Sekiguchi, who is one of two Japanese ship modelers I met with in Tokyo last September. The other is Norio Uriu, Both gentlemen are members of The Rope, the Japanese ship model society in Tokyo.

I had been corresponding with Mr. Uriu for over a year, as he is a friend of fellow ship modeler Don Dressel of the Ship Modelers Association in Fullerton, California. Don was building his model of a Higaki Kaisen at about the same time I was building mine, and at some point, he put me in touch with his friend in Japan, Mr. Uriu.

When I travelled to Japan, I made arrangements to meet with Mr. Uriu for dinner in Tokyo and he brought along his daughter Hanako, who helped with our discussions, and Mr. Sekiguchi, who has been helping me understand information on Japanese ever since.

Mr. Uriu actually got myself, Mr. Sekiguchi and Jean-Pierre Mélis together, as we were all interested in the subject of wasen. Mr. Sekiguchi is a long-time member of the Rope and the Yokohama Sailing Model Club, where he served on the executive board for 14 years. I’ve mentioned Mr. Mélis before on my blog as he’s been writting a 4-part series on a look at traditional Japanese boats through paintings in the Neptunia, which is the Journal of the Friends of the French National Maritime Museum. The three of us exchanged many emails on the subject of wasen, as I work on my wasen models and Mr. Mélis writes his articles, the third of which should be appearing the March/April issue of the Neptunia.


Another view of the Kanagawa University model. According to Mr. Sekigushi, the model was built by the late Yuichiro Kondo, a third-generation boatbuilder from Yaizu, and maritime researcher. Photo by Masami Sekiguchi.

Regarding the large umi-bune model at the Kanagawa University exhibit, this is is very similar to what I’ve been working on, and would represent the same type of boat. The 1/10-scale model on display varies only slightly from a pair of 1/20-scale models I have photographs of. One set of photos of the 1/20-scale boat were sent to me by Douglas Brooks, the other set of photos is from the Nippon Foundation Library website. The 1/20-scale models are nearly identical, though one is rigged and the other is not. I suspect they may have been built by the same person or persons.


1/20-scale umi-bune model being prepared for exhibition in Kobe. Photo by Douglas Brooks.

One of the issues I’m looking at is that if you look closely at the 1/20-scale model photos, you may notice that the roof boards are short and run from the peak of the roof out to the sides. With the large 1/10-scale model and models of medium-sized version of the ship, the roof boards run the length of the yakata. Now, this may seem a minor issue, but it affects the underlying structure of the roof. Also, I don’t know that they’d both be correct for the exact same ship. Different time periods, maybe? It’s just another one of those things that I’ll have to make my own call on.

Kitano Tenjin scroll painting boat

Closer look at the umi-bune in the Kitano Tenjin scrolls.

As you’ll see next, I’ve just about run out of time to decide, as I’ve completed the basic framework of both the large and small deck house structures.


Now, I should point out that I’m pretty much “winging it” when it comes to the structures. I’ve examined images of traditional Japanese carpentry and structure, and looked over my photos of houses from the Edo-period, though that’s 300 to 500 years later than this boat. I think this is basically what I’m seeing in the museum models, and I think it, more or less, works.


I feel that I’m cheating, to a certain extent, as this is all going to be covered over by a roof, and the internal structure won’t be so noticeable. At 1/50 scale, the first issue I ran into was that these are very flimsy structures as glued together, and the only way I could keep them from falling apart was to drill out the joints and insert steel wire “pins”. These are hidden by the beams I added. It seemed odd to add beams on top of beams, the way I did, but I didn’t really see how else I could support the roof otherwise.
img_2472For the lower walls of the long yakata, I wasn’t sure what the texture in the drawings represented. They looked almost like simple rectangular lattice work, and I considered make them very similar to the way they are on the photos of the large model that Sekiguchi-san sent me. The Kitano Tenjin paintings didn’t seem very clear on this and it seemed to look like the walls were really entirely just a drape or maybe a roll-up screen. But, I tried to follow the drawings I’ve been using, which suggest these lower panels.

Considering they might be some kind of wicker work, at this scale, I just decided to cut a pattern using a knife. I stared by making very narrow strips of hinoki on my table saw. Basically, cutting them as narrow as I could manage. I glued these up, side-by-side, onto a thin backing board, and trimmed the piece to fit into one of the openings. For no particular reason, I used sugi, or Japanese cedar, for the backing board. I then cut lines perpendicular to the narrow strips. I was going to for a weave pattern.

As you can see, I also added the support posts on either end of the long yakata. I don’t know this for sure, but these seem to be present to allow the crew to easily stow the mast and sail gear out of the way. Also, the umi-bune in the Kitano Tenjin scrolls has a lantern hanging on a pole, which is attached to one of the forward posts, probably lashed to it. I imagine that nobori, or vertical banners flown by a daimyo’s vessel, would also have been lashed to these supports as needed.

Regarding the mast and sail, there is just the one mast, but the sail is supported by the yard at the top and a spreader at the foot. Basically, these are just two poles, probably identical. Because of the stiff nature of straw matting, sails weren’t furled on these early sailers, but were rolled up, and they had to be carefully handled, as they would become extremely heavy if they got wet.


The Kanagawa University model shows straw mat sail as being made up of separate panels that seem to be tied together at the edges. Photo by Masami Sekiguchi.

At some point, I’ll make a sail for my model, but I don’t know that I’ll have time before the model is displayed at the Japan Center Mall as party of my next Japanese boat models display in March. A while ago, I purchased a sample piece of a very coarse weave cloth that I think will work well for my model. I don’t know if I’ll tie the panels together like was done on the Kanagawa University model, though it looks very interesting. More likely, I’ll just sew in the stitching in a large grid pattern to simulate the panels. I’ll have to experiment with it a little to figure it out.


You’ll note in the above photo, I added the stern deck. I decided to simply use the natural ledge created by the overlap in the bulwarks planks to support the deck. I had done this at the bow as well. Again, I don’t know if this would be accurate or not. One issue is that those beams under the rails at the sides are set into the hull, but stop there. All other beams run all the way through the hull and out the other side. I didn’t see any sign of that in the models and drawings. However, it is possible that these rails at the stern should actually be sitting lower that they do on my model. If I do another model of this type, I’ll be revisiting the design here.

You’ll also see that I added the rowers’ platforms and support beams for the oars to push against. It took me a while to get comfortable with how these boats were rowed, and I still have questions about this. I’ve reviewed paintings and even the Battle of Dan-no-Ura sequence in the movie Kwaidan to wrap my head around this. The drawings of the Umi-bune showed some very flimsy looking beams that the rowers would pull hard against, and I just didn’t feel comfortable with how fragile they looked, so I used slightly heavier beams.

Based on the scroll paintings, the platforms in the drawing, and consequently on my model, seem awfully small too. I really need to see some figures on the model and to play with some oars to figure out how they would have rowed. One of the issues I have is how they rowed. Sculling oars are generally used with the rower facing forward. In all the early paintings, the rower is commonly seen facing backward, like a western rower.

The Kanagawa University document on the Kitano Tenjin scrolls, that I mentioned in a previous post, suggest that the kind of oars shown could be used like a pole to push the boat along as well as used like a paddle. If you look at the painting above, clearly, they’re not sculling –They seem to be pulling against the water, like a western-style oar. If they were polling along, I don’t know if it’s possible to get leverage against the bottom of a river or shallow sea floor that way. So, I’m guessing that they are rowing, western-style.

Yesterday, Sekiguchi-san gave me a new piece of information that might help research this a bit more. Already known, is that the Japanese word for oar is “ro”. Sekiguchi-san explained that there are two types of ro in Japan, a sao-ro and a tsugi-ro. The tsugi-ro is a two-part ro, with a head set at an angle to a long blade. The sao-ro is a pole type and is the type that would have been used on the ships shown in the Kitano Tenjin scrolls. I’ll probably be thinking about this a lot in the next week or two, as I want to add the oars to my model. So, I’ll be discussing this more in the future.


The last thing I’ll mention here, is that I finished the mast support, adding the side pieces shown above. So far, I have no idea what the stair-step shape is for. It may serve as a rest for the sail spreader. Perhaps to keep it from flapping around, perhaps lines attached to the spreader are pulling back hard and hold the spreader against this support. Possibly, the yard is lashed to the mast support or to the beam behind it.

This is the only thing that make sense to me, but it would require the bottom of the sail to sit very low to the deck. If you look at the Kanagawa University model, the sail is mounted way too high, or the mast is too long, for this to work. But, perhaps that’s an error in that model. I’ll have to examine more paintings regarding this.

Building the Kamakura Period Umi-Bune, Part 4

Kitano Tenmangu

Kitano Tenmangu – Shinto Shrine in Kyoto. Photo from Wikipedia.




About a week ago, my ship modeler friend in Japan, Mr. Sekiguchi, explained a little about the Kitano Tenjin scrolls that depict the Kamakura period Umi-bune, and I have since re-read through online information on the subject to get a better understanding.

The scrolls represent the life of Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar and poet in the Heian period (平安時代  794-1185) who rose high in politics in Kyoto, then Japan’s capital. But, he had powerful  rivals in the Fujiwara clan that plotted against him, and he was exiled to Dazaifu on the island of Shikoku, where he died three years later in 903.

Apparently, there was much sympathy for Michizane, and shortly after his death, there were a number of calamities, including a lightning strike within the imperial palace. The emperor’s court fearing that these were caused by the wrath of Michizane’s angry spirit, decided to placate him by deifying him and erecting a shrine. He was given the Shinto name of Tenjin, and the shrine was built at Kitano, and known as Kitano Tenmangū.

The scrolls were painted a few hundred years later, during the Kamakura period, and there were apparently a few versions of them. The images shown in my previous blog posts appears to be from the scrolls known as the Jōkyū version, which consisted of eight scrolls, and date from 1219, fairly early in the Kamakura period.

If you really want to learn more about the Kitano Tenjin scrolls, I found an excellent 191 page English language pdf that you can download here: Kitano Tenjin engi pdf. This pdf publication discusses each of the elements of the scrolls. The last two pages even examine the umi-bune in the paintings.

As it turns out, the source for this is Kanagawa University, which is the home of the Institute for the Study of Japanese Folk Culture. I’d wanted to visit the exhibit hall on their campus during my last visit, but my schedule was too tight. I don’t know if it still there, but they had a beautiful looking wasen exhibit there.

The next stage of the model was to complete the hull planking. This was pretty straight forward. I’d already added the upper planks to the main hull, and just needed to complete the bow and stern sections. For these, I made patterns from the drawings and then trimmed the pieces up.


As with the other planks, I used my mortising tool to create the stitch-like pattern along the bottom edge of the planking. I didn’t have a photo of it last time, but here you can see a couple shots of it up close.



Again, the offset point was unintentional, but turned out very useful. This is nothing more than one of an inexpensive 5-piece steel chisel set. I don’t even remember where I got them – I think I was given these by someone. I’ve seen similar sets on the Micromark website.

I decided not to worry about the butt joint between the ends of the plank sections. I’ve seen museum models that show dark, short lines that might represent some sort of fastener. The following photo I took inside the hold of the Kitamaebune Hakusan Maru shows staple-like iron fasteners holding planks together, but this is type of ship that would have appeared, some 600 years after the Kamakura period sea boat.

More likely I think is the use of something like the dovetail fasteners illustrated in the following photo from Douglas Brooks’ blog entries during the building of a sabani in Okinawa back in 2009-2010. But, at the small scale of my model, I decided to omit this detail, as it would be both too difficult for me to make or even simulate, and it would also be nearly invisible.


The next detail then, was to notch the upper bulwarks planking and add the transverse beams across the hull. These would extend far enough out from the hull to support a pair of outboard rails that run nearly the length of the boat. It didn’t take long to cut the notches and make the beams since they were all identical to one another.


With the beams in place, a caprail was added, locking them down into place. The main section of the outer rails were added too, as well as the bow deck. At this time, I also corrected the piece that runs across the front of the bow. I originally had two pieces, the upper piece over lapping the lower, but replaced this assembly with a single bow piece, which seemed to be more correct according to the drawings.

One thing that seemed very odd was that the main museum models and the drawing showed a beam riding atop the bulwarks at the bow. The drawing and models show a forestay labeled a hazuo 筈緒. But, a forestay would exert an upward force on the beam, so it would have to be fastened down securely.

One drawing I’ve seen, shows the outer railing mentioned above extending all the way around the bow, and the beam fastened to it. Without this railing, I decided to add a below-deck beam, which this topside beam would be secured to with rope fastenings. This is something I’ve seen in other boats, so it seemed reasonable here. If you look closely at the bow deck, you’ll notice two square holes. It is through these that the rope fastenings pass.



The next part of the build was easy, and involved planking the deck for the long deck house or yakata. I worked out the average width of the deck planks from the drawings and cut some strips of hinoki. These had to fit flush with the tops of the beams, which also meant that I had to adjust the widths of the planks so that an even number would fit between the beams. Of course, I also had to build a ledge for the ends of the planks to rest on.


Next time, I’ll start on the completion of the stern and the construction of the deck houses and details.