Traditional Japanese carpenters are both builders and architects, and they master a wide range of joinery techniques. These shokunin – or wood artisans – are crucial to maintaining the integrity of Japanese architecture and building traditions.
There are four distinct professions or schools of carpentry in Japan, each with their own unique set of skills and tools. These are miyadaiku (temple and shrine carpenters), sukiya-daiku, sashimono-shi, and tateguya.
Japan has a rich history in carpentry, a craft that has been honed over centuries. This is a discipline that elegantly merges form and function, with an innate understanding of wood’s natural characteristics and the ability to use it for its best effect.
This is why Japanese carpenters are revered as a design and construction force. Their structures are not only beautiful but also sturdy and long-lasting, a result of the innate material qualities of wood.
Traditional wood joinery techniques, developed and passed down in guilds for generations, allowed Japanese builders to fit wooden beams together without using any external fasteners. Unlike in Europe and China where stone, clay, and other materials were the building materials of choice, Japanese builders opted for timber because it is more economical, structurally smart, and constructively durable.
These skills and techniques were put to use at Horyu-ji, a Buddhist temple complex in Kyoto that was constructed over a millennium ago. Like sashimono furniture, this structure utilises elaborate joint systems that make the most of wood’s inherent properties.
In contrast to Western carpentry, which typically relies on iron nails, Japanese joinery focuses on timber. This reliance on timber means that woodworking joints are usually intricate works of art, and the precision required to make them work seamlessly is something that is only reserved for skilled artisans.
A key factor in the success of Japanese joinery is the deep understanding of how wood works. The ancient Japanese developed a profound respect for the material and worked in harmony with it rather than against it.
The chisels and planes used in traditional Japanese carpentry share constructive principles similar to the Japanese sword, which involves using an extremely hard blade metal (ha-gane) forge-welded to a softer base metal (ji-gane). This technique makes Japanese chisels and planes much harder than their Western counterparts, while also allowing for the creation of finer edges.
This deeper understanding of the nature of wood is one of the reasons that Japan’s centuries-old buildings still stand today. It is also why the Japanese have a special respect for wood as a building material, which is why Japanese carpentry remains a highly respected craft around the world.
Japanese carpenters work with a variety of timbers, including hinoki false cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa), Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) and red pine (Pinus densiflora). They use these woods to construct the structural members of temples, shrines and bridges.
Traditional Japanese joinery, called Kigumi, is made without the use of iron nails or other fasteners. It’s also renowned for the durability of the structures it produces.
A new exhibition at the Japan Society in New York City, titled When Practice Becomes Form: Carpentry Tools from Japan, presents antique and traditional hand tools. The exhibition also features wooden models and examples of traditional joinery.
Although many of the techniques associated with Japanese joinery are documented in books and magazines, they can be difficult to visualize using only 2D illustrations. To help make these traditional joint systems more accessible, a young Japanese man created 3D animations that show how different parts of a structure can be assembled. He created the illustrations by using product design software Fusion360 and his own self-taught woodworking skills.
Japanese carpenters use a variety of tools to make their work more efficient. These include hand tools and power tools, such as a saw.
Many of these tools are derived from Chinese tools, but there are also some tools that have their origin in the West. The bevel gauge, for example, is thought to have come from the west.
Another tool is the kiri, which is used to bore circular holes in wood. This is typically the first step in hollowing out a mortise.
Other tools that are often used in Japanese carpentry include chisels and planes. These are all tools that help to achieve precise cuts. They also help to clean up a mortise or smooth a joint.