At 9 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 9, Carlo Y. Hensch ’24, a History of Art and Architecture concentrator, entered an unfamiliar kind of workshop. Though other Harvard studios often buzz with chatter, the students in this workshop were completely silent.
This was the beginning of an approximately two-week-long project to build a honryōsen, a type of Japanese flat-bottomed river skiff, in the basement of CGIS South. Douglas A. Brooks, a researcher and boatbuilder trained in the practice, led Hensch and 11 other students in their two-week workshop, a Wintersession program called “The Art and Craft of Japanese Boatbuilding with Douglas Brooks,” which was sponsored by the Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies. Students were tasked with constructing a boat using Japanese tools and methods while abiding by principles of traditional Japanese apprenticeships, which require silence, and diligent observation from apprentices.
“It became like working in your own little world for a little bit,” Hensch says.
Honryōsen was once a standard boat model for fishermen and farmers in the Shinano River delta. After World War II, however, honryōsen became obsolete: the region was drained and developed, and irrigation canals surrounding the delta were replaced by roads and highways. Before long, the skiffs — locally known as itaawase, which translates to “plank-built” — became a rarity.
Brooks is one of the few living people trained in this method of boat building. “I was the sole apprentice for seven of my nine teachers,” Brooks says. “There was just a missing generation of apprentices.”
Throughout his apprenticeships, Brooks’ masters emphasized the importance of nusumi-geiko, which translates to “stolen lessons” — a practice by which apprentices are required to steal techniques from their masters, rather than receiving direct instruction. Brooks recalls finding the requirements of traditional Japanese apprenticeships “shocking” at first.
“‘There will be no speaking whatsoever in the workshop,’” he remembers his teachers telling him. “‘You cannot talk to me. You cannot ask me anything.’”
During his two weeks at Harvard, Brooks conducted a similar, albeit slightly less intense, workshop with the cohort of 12 students, who. worked non-stop for four hours every day.
On a typical workday, Brooks would demonstrate different techniques and direct students’ efforts. Students would rotate their tasks, which varied from hammering planks together, to sharpening tools, to sweeping the floor, remaining quiet for the duration of the morning. At the end of the four hours, everyone came together for lunch, where they could rest and, finally, chat.
Getting used to the silence was “a little bit difficult at first,” says Sachiko J. Kirby ’26 . Kirby was initially drawn to the program because of her interest in Japanese history and culture, herself half-Japanese and Tokyo-born, as well as her enthusiasm for architecture.
She left the workshop with more than just practical carpentry knowledge. “You just had to trust your own instincts a little bit, which teaches you a lot,” she reflects.
For Hensch, the apprenticeship-style of the workshop felt freeing. “Within studio classes I do for HAA, I am bogged down by the fact that I am being critiqued by the result of all the work that I do,” Hensch says. “The only thing that is thought about is the end result.”
“‘You are the agent of the resolution you desire,’” Hensch remembers Brooks telling him.
Meanwhile, Brooks is unsure about if his Wintersession program was intense enough. He jokes that, if the students did not hate him by the end of the workshop, then he “failed them.” He firmly believes that apprenticeships should be adequately challenging because learning how to overcome obstacles is a key part of his pedagogy.
“In an early class, we came to this kind of impasse,” Brooks says. “I said ‘I refuse to save you.’ And for some reason that clicked. Everybody went, ‘Oh, I get it.’”
Similarly, Kirby describes a dichotomy between her experiences in school and this workshop. “Students ask questions to almost prove something,” she says of Western education. “Maybe it’s not even a question they really have, but they want it to be known that they’re thinking about a certain aspect of something, and then it starts to get competitive.”
“What I really enjoyed about this workshop is that the idea about not speaking is that whatever you’re trying to figure out, either wait and you'll see, or wait and you'll hear,” Kirby says.
“I’ll make a political statement: more tools, less books,” Brooks says.
One final step remains: according to Gavin H. Whitelaw, the Executive Director of the Reischauer Institute, the Harvard Women’s Rugby Team will carry the honryōsen out of its current home in CGIS South in April as the apprentices, waiting on the bank of the Charles river, watch the launch of the flat-bottom river skiff they built by hand.
— Magazine Writer Talia Kahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.