Miyadaiku: The Art of the Traditional Japanese Carpenter

July 5, 2015

by Kurumi Kato, Narumi Kitagawa & Yu Nakabayashi

 What is a Miyadaiku

In Japan there are carpenters called miyadaiku. They specialize in building and maintaining traditional structures such as temples, shrines, and special Japanese wooden houses. They are playing an important role in sustaining architectural traditions and Japanese cultural properties especially now by building new structures or repairing older ones. Special skills are required of these carpenters because the structures of old buildings are complicated and often use special techniques, tools, woods and other materials.

The History of Miyadaiku

The origin of miyadaiku is said to date back to the Asuka era, which is about 1400 years ago. At that time, many skilled craftsmen were brought over to the Kansai area from Korea to construct temples and palaces. Two priests from Korea were brought to build Asuka temple near Nara. At that time, Prince Shoutoku, Japan’s first regent, organized the first central government of the country and put forth many innovations. He promoted skills for making official and sacred buildings. This, it is said, was the beginning of the miyadaiku tradition. Since the government had close ties to Buddhism, temples as well as aristocratic residences would be built in Kyoto for the next thousand years.

Miyadaiku Today

Building traditional houses, temples or shrines is getting more and more difficult. This is because such work requires specialist knowledge, greater material costs and much time. In addition there are now stricter building codes that require buildings to be earthquake-proof and fire-proof. One result of such regulations is that there are now more temples being built that use concrete instead of traditional woods.

There are about 500 miyadaiku in Japan. Even though the construction of wooden buildings has been decreasing, the number of practicing miyadaiku has remained the same because traditional buildings require constant maintenance and repair. Many of these jobs are passed from one generation of miyadaiku to another. That is why their work doesn’t disappear. Also, there are some people who want to become miyadaiku. Some begin their careers at age 15; others switch to miyadaiku work in their 40s or 50s. Some people even come from foreign countries because they love Japanese architecture, Japanese tools and Japanese carpentry techniques. Sometimes miyadaiku go abroad to teach about traditional Japanese tools and techniques.

Temples were originally built to last for hundreds of years on the assumption that future generations would visit them. When a building ages, it needs to be repaired, and the reconstruction of complex joints or layered mud walls requires special skills that only miyadaiku know how to do. They do protect historical buildings.

We visited Mr. Tomita, a miyadaiku who works in Kyoto. He started his career after graduating high school. However,  it was a late start for him and he recommended starting to work soon after graduating from junior high school if you want to be miyadaiku. He says that today houses are built with pre-cut lumber, but in the past beams or pillars were shaved by a carpenter’s own hands so the size of each one is different. So repairing and matching them need high skills. Therefore, becoming skilled in the traditional techniques takes about 15 years, he says.

These skills are handed down orally from a master to his apprentice. A master doesn’t explain to a student how to do, so pupils must learn by watching and imitating. This way hasn’t changed from the past. Apprentices learn not only traditional ways but also new ones. They are trying new skills to make traditional buildings better. So the arts of traditional carpentry are still developing.

Competitions

There are carpentry competitions called kezurou-kai that are held once a month everywhere in Japan. This competition lets carpenters show off their skills and see how thin can shave wood with traditional tools. Also, at such competitions you can see new and masterful techniques. And it is possible to meet craftsmen who make the traditional carpentry tools. Anyone can participate in these competitions, find new techniques and meet other craftsmen. So, this competition is place for exchanging knowledge and tools.

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