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American learns art of building sabani boat

Date Posted: 2010-02-18

When Douglas Brooks set out to learn about the Sabani, he knew little other than that it was a handmade wooden rowing boat.

He spent two years conducting research on what became known as The Sabani Project, the art of building the sabani, the traditional Okinawan fishing boat. Brooks began his studies after learning about a World War I incident in which five brave men left Miyako Island to travel to central Okinawa to warn people of Russian warships in the region. It took the men three days to row the sabani boat from Miyako Island to Okinawa’s main island.

Brooks was impressed, and set out to learn more. He wanted to know how the sabani was made. He discovered it was built without use of any iron nails, but only strong wooden nails. The hull was made with planks that were soaked in hot water for three days in order to bend them to the curved lines of the hull. That simple timeline, Brooks was to learn, was a critical key to pouring the water and making a special curve. The ship’s carpenter and researcher wanted to study the world’s folk boats, and discovered there is no written technique book for making a sabani boat.

As he was to learn from sabani maker Ryujin Shimojo, “There is no such a book to make sabani. It is only in my head inside.” Brooks saw one of Shimojo’s sabanis is in a Tokyo exhibition hall, and that made him decide to build one himself.

The story of Brooks’ adventures on Ie Island in Okinawa are contained in a series of blogs on the internet, http://thesabaniproject.blogspot.com/2009/11/so-what-is-sabani.html. Ryujin Shimojo of Ie Island agreed to teach Brooks, and the construction adventure began last November 16th. The sabani was completed a few weeks ago, and is destined for a museum in Tokyo. Brooks’ 35 blog postings chronicle the step-by-step process of building the boat. Dozens of photographs depict the process while also taking viewers back to World War II when the Ie Island was a key spot for first Japanese aircraft, then the U.S. military.

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