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From Value One, Summer 2008 No. 21  

Many different kinds of Boshu noko; the biggest one, in the center, is a funanoko.

Kamogawa City in Chiba Prefecture is situated on the Pacific coast and once thrived as a production center of shipwright's saws. Shipwright's saws, or funanoko in Japanese, are used in building and repairing large wooden (Japanese-style) deep-sea fishing boats.

Two smiths who have inherited the traditional skills of making these saws, which date back to the Edo period (1603-1867), are still living and working in this town. They are Minoru and Yuji Kasuya, father and son. Boshu funanoko (Boshu is located in the southern part of Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture) were well-known not only in Japan but also overseas. Saw smiths in this area are said to have received orders for their products by telegraph from Taiwan and countries even further south. This, however, was before World War II. Since the 1970s, steel built vessels became the mainstream of large fishing boats. It has been a long time since the last wooden ship was built in Japan, and the production of funanoko almost faded away as a result. Minoru and Yuji Kasuya are the only ones in Japan who can still make such saws.

The traditional skills employed to make funanoko have been adopted by smiths of other kinds of saws used in cultivating bonsai, cutting bamboo, making flower arrangements, and carving wood, among other activities. These saws, known as Boshu noko, are officially designated as traditional handicrafts of Chiba Prefecture and still generate an endless flow of orders from craftsmen and other lovers of the product throughout the country who want custom-made saws. "Because we make them in the same way that funanoko are made, our saws will continue to cut as if they were brand new for at least 10 years," said Yuji Kasuya proudly.

Boshu noko is made using Yasuki steel or Tama steel, which are also used in forging traditional Japanese swords. According to Yuji Kasuya, wooden ships were built of hard and relatively decay-proof wood, such as oak or zelkova, which could be cut only with a strong saw.

First, a sheet of Yasuki steel is cut into the shape of a saw, heated in a small furnace, and then beaten. What gives the saw its superior strength, sharpness, and edge retention is the heat-treating process. In this process, the saw, which has been roughly shaped at this point, is put into a fire reaching 700 to 800C and withdrawn when the whole saw is glowing in a red bean-like color. Knowing the right color is the most difficult part of the process, and this requires years of experience.

"The skills used in making the strongest shipwright's saw can be utilized to make any kind of saw," says Yuji. The best of skills, supported by tradition, leads to the creation of new products.
Yasuki steel, used in making Boshu noko, requires that the temperature be finely adjusted when heat-treating.



Yuji Kasuya hammers a heat-treated piece of steel.



Wooden templates used in making funanoko; every shipwright used to have a saw of his own design.



The Daigo Fukuryu Maru, a very valuable large wooden ship, still remains.

The tuna fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru was exposed to radiation from a U.S. hydrogen bomb test in 1954. It is now preserved and exhibited in the Tokyo metropolitan government-run Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall in Yumenoshima, Tokyo. Also, as the only large wooden ship remaining in Japan, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru is a valuable legacy of industrial culture. Boshu funanoko made by the Kasuyas were used in building this fishing vessel. Although it may be an inevitable outcome of the changing times, the decline of traditional Japanese industrial skills that are embodied in wooden ships and funanoko is very sad to watch.

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