Japanese woodworking is a traditional practice with a long history carved out by master craftspeople. Joinery is a technique that allows buildings and furniture to be constructed without nails. Let’s take a look at how it’s done, its history and some of the most amazing examples.
Like any traditional Japanese art, from sushi-making to flower arranging, it is full of practitioners who have dedicated their lives, generation after generation, to reaching an seemingly unattainable level of perfection. We’ll take a look at what makes Japanese woodworking unique, including what makes perfect joinery, the razor sharp set of hand tools, the intricate techniques, the applications of the practice, and where you can see and purchase products made by these traditional methods. Joinery refers to both the wooden components of a building, and the techniques used for making those components. The craftsperson who does this is often considered a joiner, as he or she is one who joins pieces of wood together to construct something. Traditional Japanese joinery is made entirely without the use of metal fasteners or adhesives. While building without the use of nails or other fasteners is not at all unique to Japan, the types of joints used, the durability of the structures created, and the complete absence of iron makes Japanese joinery stand out.
What is Japanese Joinery?
Sashimono is the tradition of making furniture without the use of nails or screws of any kind. Instead, complex wooden joints carved out with simple chisels, handsaws, and planers are used to create pieces that are as sturdy as they are refined. Due to the creativity inspired by this reliance on a single building material, the joints in sashimono are often intricate works of art in themselves. Though they will go unseen once the build is assembled, the precise construction and arrangement of this joinery enables the finished pieces to last for hundreds of years. Importantly, the tradition places a high philosophical value on working in tandem with nature rather than against it. The reverence for wood as a material comes from the fact that, even as recently as 2010, 69 percent of Japan was covered in forests, according to official UN figures.
There are a couple schools of thought in the Japanese carpentry tradition. Though there is a core practice shared by all Japanese carpenters, defined by a vocabulary of tools and joints and a method of working, a carpenter will typically identify with one of four distinct carpentry professions. Miyadaiku practice the construction of Japanese shrines and temples, and are renowned for their use of elaborate wooden joints and the fact that the buildings they construct are frequently found among the world’s longest surviving wooden structures. Teahouse and residential carpenters, known as sukiya-daiku , are famed for their delicate aesthetic constructions using rustic materials. Furniture makers are known as sashimono-shi, and interior finishing carpenters, who build shōji and ranma, are termed tateguya. Though it is rare to find a sashimono-shi or tateguya practising outside of their field, it is not uncommon for a carpentry workshop to work simultaneously as both miyadaiku and sukiyadaiku. Joinery is a technique used in each and every one of these lineages or traditions.
The History of Japanese Joinery
When there was plentiful wood, and iron was not readily available, sashimono’s arose as a practice: carpenters in Japan developed building techniques that have made excellent use of the abundant natural resource. Japan’s deep bond with woodworking goes well beyond convenience, however. Before his death in 1990, George Nakashima, a renowned carpenter who worked with wooden joinery and author of The Soul of a Tree: A Woodworker’s Reflections, summed up this philosophy by saying, “We work with this material as an instrument, to fashion useful objects, possibly if so willed a thing of beauty. In any case, a joining of the rhythms of nature to fulfill its own destiny and ours.” Sashimono is inherently tied to this way of thinking. Its beauty is best appreciated not only through its technical specifications but also through Japan’s history.
Since the 12th Century, Japanese artisans have been employing a construction technique that uses just one simple material: wood. Rather than utilize glue, nails, and other fasteners, the traditional art of Japanese wood joinery notches slabs of timber so that the grooves lock together and form a sturdy structure. Japan has some of the world’s oldest and most well-known architecture. They range from temples, shrines and other historical heritage sites that were built hundreds of years ago but still stand today. These buildings are open to the world to see and are flocked to by tourists every year. One of the most famous is Hōryū-ji, a Buddhist temple in Nara. The main hall of the temple, Kondō, is considered to be the oldest surviving wooden structure in the world. It was reconstructed some 1,300 years ago. In Nara, you can also see Todaiji, one of the biggest wooden structures in the world. These two impressive historical structures draw many tourists to Nara every year.
Two styles make up the bulk of the sashimono tradition, Kyo sashimono (Kyoto style)and Edo sashimono (Tokyo style), both of which have been practiced in Japan for centuries. According to Kogei Japan, an organization that specializes in traditional crafts officially defined by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Kyo-sashimono historically focused on producing display cabinets and boxes for ritual tea ceremony (chanoyu) utensils. Kyo furniture is marked by a regality and flair that was preferred by the Imperial Court members and societal elites who it was made for during the Muromachi period (1336-1573). This style, which often featured opulent ornamentation through the use of gold leaf and thin lacquering, evolved out of the wood joinery practices of the Heian period (794-1185), after which sashimono carpentry became increasingly nuanced. Paulownia wood is often used in Kyo sashimono constructions due to its resistance to heat and moisture, but other commonly used timber includes Japanese cedar, cherry, Japanese zelkova, and pine.
The contemporary Japanese architectural vanguard has the respect of the international design community; firms like SANAA, Toyo Ito & Associates, and Sou Fujimoto Architects continue to receive significant attention in such acclaimed exhibitions as “A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA, and Beyond,” now at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. While these and other Japanese firms design structures almost exclusively out of concrete and steel, wood was the dominant construction material in Japan for centuries. Brisk industrialization and diminishing timber resources spurred the shift away from wood during the 20th century. Although many qualities of traditional Japanese architecture carry forward in current designs, a closer look at historical construction practices reveals how much has been lost.
One of the best venues for such an assessment is the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum, founded in Kobe, Japan, in 1984. The museum houses more than 32,000 items related to traditional architecture and construction, including tools, models, documents, and scale building components, and it enables visitors to gain hands-on knowledge of past building materials and methods. To someone with limited knowledge of building design and construction, the country’s hand-built wooden temples, residences, and tearooms may appear beautiful yet obsolete in their conveyance of seemingly antiquated practices. Yet the deeper analysis afforded by the museum divulges a reality of misconceptions, paradoxes, and regressions in Japan’s architectural trajectory.
6 Incredible Examples of Japanese Joinery
Located in the Nara prefecture, the Horyu-ji temple complex is a pristine example of the work of miyadaiku carpenters. According to UNESCO, 11 of the buildings in the complex date from the late 7th century, meaning they are among the oldest standing wooden structures in the world. The complex is important for a number of reasons. The buildings there show how Japan incorporated the Chinese architectural principles that are the foundation of the country’s carpentry traditions. They also mark the introduction of Buddhism into Japan, which had a huge impact on the trajectory of architecture there in the following centuries.Among the architectural principles found at Horyu-ji is a post-and-lintel construction based on the Chinese bay system, where columns hold up horizontal beams. In Horyu-ji’s case, we see a modified version of that system, a heavily bracketed design that transfers the weight of the ceiling down to the columns below.
The temple columns are also examples of a principle called entasis, which is a slight convex curve is purposefully given to columns that corrects for the optical illusion of hollowness when tapered columns are seen from a distance. Like sashimonofurniture, the miyadaiku carpenters at Horyu-ji constructed it using wooden joinery. It should be noted, however, that according to a paper published in the journal Association for Preservation Technology International, both the five-storied pagoda and main pavilion at the temple complex have since been reinforced with steel to prevent structural defects from causing damage to the site. Almost as incredible as the age of the temple complex at Horyu-ji is the lineage of artisans that can be traced back directly to the original builders of the temple.
2. Yusuhara Wooden Museum Bridge
For this Bridge, Kengo Kuma adopted a unique cantilever bridge design, a traditional technique that has been forgotten in Japan. The structure is created by using laminated wood members with small sections, and gradually extending the bridge girder a little at a time from both ends by using many overlapping members. The only remaining structure of this type in Japan where wood planks are used instead of a steel structure is the “Sarubashi” in Yamanashi Prefecture. The overall structure is created utilizing the overlapping wood member system called “Tokiyo” used in traditional Japanese temple architecture, creating a presence (materiality) and abstractness which should be called “wood masonry” that cannot be obtained with a framework type of structure. The laminated wood members themselves consist of a material that has a presence and abstractness which is like “wood masonry”, and by connecting these wood masonry members in order to increase the dimensions, they strived to create non-hierarchical architecture in terms of its physical properties, technology, information and history. The architects said “In this project, we challenged a structural system which composes of small parts, referring to cantilever structure often employed in traditional architecture in Japan and China. It is a great example of sustainable design, as you can achieve a big cantilever even without large-sized materials.”
3. Conoid Desk
The Conoid Desk is a tapered, single-pedestal desk with fine joinery expressed in a single cross-legged base.“The lumber was full of knots, cracks, and wormholes,” his daughter Mira Nakashima recalls. “Things ordinary furniture makers would throw away.” But her father embraced those flaws, giving rise to a look we now call live edge, where the natural texture of the tree’s exterior is left visible. Butterfly joints, a.k.a. Nakashima joints, were used as reinforcement on unruly bits or to book-match two slabs of wood (he favored black walnut and selected pieces on instinct alone) into long tabletops. When interned in a camp during World War 2, he met a carpenter named Gentaro Hikogawa. With Hikogawa’s guidance, Nakashima was able to refine his furniture building skills using traditional Japanese hand tools and joinery techniques. This type of carpentry taught him to be patient, have discipline, and strive for perfection. Furniture making in this form is never a race, but rather a skillful journey. The butterfly joints he learned during this time later become part of George’s signature style. Nakashima practiced during the mid-20th century, but his work was a divergence from most of the other designers of that period. Whereas many designers during the time looked to incorporate new materials like metal, plastic, plywood, and glass into their designs, Nakashima preferred to work with solid, natural wood.
4. Odunpazari Modern Art Museum
Kengo Kuma’s architecture can be defined by its respect to Japanese constructive traditions and alignment with its context. Internationally recognized, the architect is known mainly for his wooden (or mixed) structures, which arise from a simple pattern of assembly and, which through different intersections and angles, generate a complex whole. The representations created by his team bring very specific details, ranging from didactic isometrics to complex parametric drawings. Odunpazari Modern Art Museum is to exhibit the owner’s collection of Turkish modern art. The Museum is planned in the city of Eskisehir where the owner was born and raised. The project is to realize the owner’s ambition to promote Turkish art and to make a cultural contribution to the city of Eskisehir. Eskisehir is known as a university town where the young population is large and the city has a lively and active atmosphere. The site is in the area called Odunpazari. It is situated at the threshold of the newly developed urban area and small scale townscape of traditional Ottoman wooden houses. These wooden houses, with cantilevered volume at the upper level, were built in lines along the meandering small streets that make the streetscape and walk though experience quite unique and unexpected.
The stacked and interlocked boxes are designed in various sizes to create diverse scales of exhibition space inside. Boxes at the ground level offer opportunities for large scale artworks and installation. The boxes get smaller at upper levels to exhibit smaller, intimate scale artworks. The central atrium, composed of timber blocks, connects each level to let the natural light through the skylight above.
5. Katsura Rikyū
Katsura Rikyū is a complex of buildings surrounded by gardens, with a tea house at the centre. It was built by the ruling class to show of their supreme power even though they were not at the foreground of the government. The building itself is a compound of buildings placed precisely throughout a traditional Japanese garden. Where the layout was planned on what view each room will have and how the building will react with the surrounding environment. Katsura Rikyū was designed and built in a very traditional Japanese style. With the mixing of indoor and outdoor the boundaries of the house disappear. The cabinetry is build into the house and uses the highest craftsmanship and precision with beautiful joinery. Dark woods and light walls push the space to seem bigger, the walls and floors disappear from vision. As with most traditional tea houses, the entire construction is done in wood, and uses no nails but only joinery.
What’s even more precious about this villa is that the specific wood used in the buildings comes from a tree called Cryptomeria Cedar or Japanese Cedar. This specific type of cedar is cultivated to grow extremely long with no nots or branches to create seamless timber and a beautiful texture. The Cryptomeria tree takes over 10 years to reach maturity for most purposes with continuous trimming of lower branches when they are young to prevent knots.
6. Tamedia Office Building
The Pritzker prize laureate, Shigeru Ban, uses unique materials in his design. He is called the “Paper Architect” due to the fact that he often uses recycled cardboard, paper and old beer crates in his design for emergency shelters as well as high-end museum and pavilions. Ban believes that the value of architecture lies in its necessity: he builds what people need and he uses the best material suitable to the context and economy. The relative ease and sustainability of timber buildings’ construction and maintenance process is the biggest advantage of the material. Ban thinks that wood engineering in Switzerland is at the highest level and therefore, when he was working on the Tamedia Office Building, he chose wood as the main building material. In Ban’s design for Tamedia Office Building, the client asked Ban to design a wide open office building where they could easily reconfigure and rearrange their workspace. Ban wanted an environmentally friendly design – one that used wood construction – but he faced immense challenges: wood doesn’t easily span large spaces. So, the architect developed a system of joinery that consisted of pin joints and a large portion of prefabbed wood pieces. The core concept is in their assembly: they can be put together systematically and, if necessary, the pieces can be replaced relatively easily. The requirement for high precision and quality goes without saying in a situation like this.
The use of pin joint (also called a revolute joint or hinge joint) not only provides the building with a unique and friendly look, but also creates a certain tolerance in the joint to allow for small amount of freedom when the materials fit together, which as mentioned above, improves the stability of the overall structure. The fact that the pieces are replaceable allows the beams to be made from an entire piece of timber. The integrity of the material and the design pushed the wood beam’s capacity to the limit but created the open space required by the client. All the joints are consisted of the same material: pine wood. The wood splices have no metal parts, resulting in amazing details in the structural system which, when exposed, gives a very special character and unique spatial experience.
Certain building techniques have been normalized in North America, for cost effectiveness, time and the level of skilled labour required. Joinery is a technique that does require skilled carpentry, and perhaps more large scale planning and detailed building. It is a form, however, that clearly has a lasting power. Japan is uniquely filled with buildings in this tradition, as well as other forms of carpentry like furniture. I hope you enjoyed discovering the history of the technique, and looking at some beautiful examples of it in action.