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Japan Carpentry Traditions Revived

June 9, 2000

TOKYO (AP) _ Shinichi Yasuda sinks his bamboo plume into glistening coal dust and marks lines on a wooden block with the care of a calligrapher.

As power saws shriek and swirl nearby, he goes about his trade the traditional way, using many of the manual tools that built the temples of Kyoto and carrying on techniques passed on by his father, who stands by sternly as he works.

Yasuda and other younger people like him are at the center of a revival of interest in Japan’s traditional methods of woodworking and architecture. But while preserving the past, the new generation of carpenters is carving out a style all its own.

For a glimpse of Japanese street fashions, look no further than the urban building site: Young workers with dyed hair, baggy pants and bright bandanas balance confidently on wooden foundation beams.

The Yasuda father-and-son team is a study in contrast.

The 67-year-old Jiro looks every bit the traditional artisan with a cloth wrapped around his head, weathered knickerbockers and thonged sandals. Shinichi, 40, wouldn’t be out of place in a trendy nightclub with his flowing ponytail, Converse sneakers and smart green windbreaker.

``Working outside in the freezing cold of winter and the heat of summer is extremely hard, but in many ways you have more freedom,″ said Shinichi Yasuda. ``You can go home when you want and wear what you like.″

Carpentry colleges and workshops are gaining popularity as young people increasingly shun the suit-and-tie office jobs that were the ideal of their parents.

``Young people don’t feel they have to enter a big corporation and feel freer to choose their profession according to what interests them,″ said Isao Sakamoto, an architecture professor at Tokyo University.

Skilled carpenters became a rarity in the postwar era when Japan lost faith in its traditions and embraced things Western _ including the prefab dwellings that have become more characteristic of the urban landscape than winged eaves and cypress lintels.

But now, a movement is afoot to ensure that the construction methods Yasuda learned from his father do not die out.

``After the war, attitudes toward Japanese culture swung 180 degrees, and everything had to be new,″ said Kazuhiro Kiyosawa, a director of the Minka, or rustic home, Reuse and Recycle Association. ``But people are getting fed up with the postwar disposable society.″

Kiyosawa’s association, a network that restores abandoned farmhouses, has attracted more than 1,300 applications from people seeking to live in traditional homes listed in the group’s database. It gets about 100 new requests a month.

About 88 percent of Japanese say their ideal dwelling is made of wood. Of those, nearly 70 percent said they would like to live in a home built in the traditional Japanese style, according to a 1999 survey conducted by the Prime Minister’s office.

The influence of Japan’s spare building aesthetic on giants of modern architecture from Frank Lloyd Wright to Germany’s Bauhaus school is well known. But the manual tools used in building the structures are also the stuff of legend among Western woodworkers.

Traditional Japanese carpenters shun sandpaper and instead finish surfaces with the ``kanna,″ or block plane, that curls up yards-long ribbons of wood a fraction of an inch thick.

Chisels and saws evolved into high-precision tools that allowed carpenters to create the puzzle-like mortise and tenon joints that held structures together without the use of nails or glue.

Nobody expects traditional wooden structures to return to the prominence they once enjoyed in Japan, largely because of the time and expense involved in building homes the old way.

Overcoming the drafty corridors and poor insulation of traditional homes with modern amenities is also costly. And there is always the fire risk that wooden buildings pose in a land crisscrossed by earthquake fault lines.

Those disadvantages aside, the resurgence of interest in Japanese carpentry and the country’s new breed of craftsmen have raised hope that time-honored building techniques will remain alive, a vibrant part of Japanese society.

``There are more and more people who even as a hobby are trying to learn ancient techniques, like whetting and planing and creating their own works,″ said Hiroshi Okimoto, of the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum.

Despite their difference in style, Yasudas senior and junior share similar ideas about their trade.

``Carpenters throw away bad tools and keep using the good ones for decades,″ says Shinichi. ``That’s the way Japanese should think of building _ you should preserve the things of true value.″

His father smiles and nods.