In the Making: Wasen and Lessons in Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding highlights the sights, sounds, and experiences involved in constructing a traditional Japanese wooden boat (wasen). During the 2023 January wintersession, twelve students—many with little or no previous woodworking experience—built a Japanese river skiff through an apprenticeship-style "silent" workshop led by professional boatbuilder Douglas Brooks. Students used traditional tools and learned techniques distinctive to Japanese boatbuilding, gaining insight into the materials, processes, customs, and relationships that continue to shape the craft in Japan today. With observation emphasized over spoken instruction, students embraced an alternative approach to both teaching and learning.
The boat that was built features prominently in this exhibition. Regionally known as a honryōsen, this flat-bottom skiff is well adapted to the narrow waterways of the agricultural regions in central coastal Japan. At 22 feet long and almost 4 feet wide, the boat is true to size. It is made by tightly fitting and nailing wooden planks together, a technique that alleviates the need for caulking or sealants. In the past, such boats were primarily used by farmers to transport supplies through flooded rice paddies and irrigation canals. Following World War II, the land was drained and developed, leading to a sharp decrease in demand for this kind of boat. Fishermen who still use the few honryōsen remaining praise their stability and suitability for local waters.
During the workshop, the students immersed themselves in the physical work of making. Like in Japan, there were no written plans of the boat provided, no photos or detailed diagrams for reference. Instead, students watched how a particular task was done and then repeated it themselves, often shoulder-to-shoulder with their peers. They sawed, chiseled, hammered, planed, and sharpened. The process of making entailed not just assembling pieces but also maintaining their tools and workspace. Careful observation, paired work, and reflection oriented students toward a less familiar educational approach—one that leaves teaching in the hands of the learners. Through our collection of time-lapse videos, photographs, and audio samplings (accessible via QR codes)—along with the boat itself—we invite you to learn through our students and explore various dimensions of the embodied experience of making. As with our students, the honryōsen's voyage is just beginning. We will launch it on the Charles River in early April, in time for the spring cherry blossoms.
In the Making is curated by Sky Araki-Russell (College '20, GSD '26), and Wei-Hsuan Jenni Ting (College '15) and Gavin Whitelaw (RSEA '01) at the Reischauer Institute. We extend our deepest thanks to the Graduate School of Design (GSD), CGIS Building Operations, Harvard Office of Environmental Health and Safety, Harvard Office of Student Services, and most especially to Douglas Brooks and to the workshop students who enthusiastically embraced the experience of constructing a traditional Japanese wooden boat on campus.
In commemoration of its fiftieth anniversary, the Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, whose mission is to advance research and teaching of Japan at Harvard and beyond, is honored to showcase the work of these students in an exhibition in the Japan Friends of Harvard Concourse Gallery.