Japan beyond 3.11 Stories of Recovery

A Tradition of Restoration

This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on July 13, 2015

Tomorrow Logo
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This is Shiramizu Amidado Temple, a National Treasure. This example of traditional Japanese wooden architecture was constructed around 900 years ago.

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It has stood through countless earthquakes, retaining its beauty right up to today. What is the secret behind that beauty?

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It lies both in the fine craftsmanship of ancient carpenters, and sustained restoration efforts over the centuries.

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Many precious cultural properties were damaged during the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.

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Work is now being carried out to repair that damage.

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We will report on the skills of the craftsmen involved. Morley Robertson from the United States is the reporter.

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“I want to master the skills of the ancient carpenters and even surpass them.”
(Master temple and shrine carpenter)

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To restore Buddhist statues temples, and shrines the skills of various types of craftsmen are required.

A Tradition of Restoration
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Senshoji Temple in Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture.

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Damaged in the earthquake four years ago (2011), it is currently undergoing restoration.

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The work came to a turning point in June, and a special ceremony was held. Prayers were offered for the lasting strength of the building.

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Built in the mid-17th century, Senshoji became a Nationally Designated Important Cultural Property in 2004.

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However, in 2011….

(Endo: Assistant head priest)

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In 2012, it was decided the entire building should be restored as the pillars were in danger of splitting.

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It was necessary to dismantle all the pillars and beams and reassemble them.

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Three years have passed.

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The restoration work is in the hands of temple and shrine carpenters. They are highly skilled craftsmen who specialize in traditional Japanese wooden architecture.

Masayuki Shinonaga
The Japanese Association for Conservation of Architectural Monuments

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Morley observes them at work. Overseen the restoration work is Masayuki Shinonaga, who has been restoring cultural properties for around 40 years.

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They start re-erecting the pillars that hold up the whole structure.

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Morley suddenly notices something unusual. The foundation for each pillar is simply a large stone.

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Many traditional wooden buildings in Japan actually have pillars placed directly on stones. This is the “building on foundation stones” technique.

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This ancient technique counters Japan’s high levels of humidity by improving ventilation, thereby prolongings the life of the wooden pillars as opposed to burying them in the ground.

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A close inspection reveals that the foundation stone is left in its natural state with an uneven surface... Will the pillar really stand straight on it?

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A perfect fit!

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“That's incredible!”
(Morley Robertson: Reporter)

So why does it fit so perfectly?

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The secret is in the bottom of the pillar. It is also uneven!

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“They’ve all been chiseled into shape, so they are somewhat elegular.”
(Masayuki Shinonaga)

“Wow, look at that!”

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Each pillar is cut individually to fit the contours of its foundation stone. This technique called hikaritsuke is a fundamental feature of many old wooden buildings in Japan.

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This is footage of Kumamoto Castle Honmaru Palace being restored about 10 years ago.

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The wood is chiseled away a little at a time by hand.

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Thanks to hikaritsuke, a solid foundation can be created.

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Specialized temple and shrine carpenters first appeared in Japan around 1,000 years ago. Since then, their skills have been passed down through the generations.

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How long did it take you to master the art of hikaritsuke?

“Well, I suppose it took me around seven or eight years.”
(Seiji Horie: Master temple and shrine carpenter)

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It is a job that requires both skill and experience. But why do they adapt the pillar to the stone, instead of flattening the stone?

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“Wow, it's a perfect fit! It stands vertically without being held!”

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Adapting the pillar to the uneven surface locks it in place to support the building firmly. It is a traditional skill of craftsmen who have worked with wooden buildings for many years.

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The carpenters work steadily to re-assemble all the parts.

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But there is still one nagging question in Morley’s mind.

“I don't often hear of European castles or brick houses being completely dismantled for restoration.”

“They probably wouldn’t do it.”
(Masayuki Shinonaga)

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Why is it necessary to dismantle all the pillars and beams to restore the building?

“It’s a wooden structure, and wood doesn’t last as long as stone. That means you have to replace many damaged parts. As a result of dismantling the whole thing, you can often come up with good ideas for strengthening weak points.”

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Wooden buildings in Japan are made by interlocking pieces of wood, making them relatively easy to dismantle and reassemble.

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Damaged parts can then be repaired to restore the whole structure to its original state.

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And this is where the skills of the craftsmen come into play….

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Can you see the difference in color between the upper and lower sections of this pillar? The upper section to the right is old, but still usable. The badly damaged lower section has been replaced with new wood.

Here you can see how the sections are joined.

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“This joint has a very distinct shape.”

“Yes, it’s a technique known as kanawatsugi.”

What is kanawatsugi?

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This technique has been used everywhere the pillars have been repaired. It is a traditional method for joining pieces of wood together.

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First, the two sections are cut precisely to ensure they are symmetrical. Then they are joined together.

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Finally a wedge is driven into the joint to firmly lock the pieces, forming a single pillar.

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This is another of the secrets of Japan’s wooden construction methods. Nails rust over the years, making the wood vulnerable to damage, but this technique prevents that happening.

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So kanawatsugi is another fundamental skill of the craftsmen.

“Morley, can you see the difference in size?”

“Yes, this is thicker. Why is that?”

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Here you can see there is a subtle difference in thickness. There is a secret behind this, too.

“This original section is about 350 years old. And this is the new section. Wood gradually shrinks over time. So over several hundred years, this new section will shrink and become smaller. That’s why we’ve made it about 3 millimeters thicker.”

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The old wood is completely dry, while the new wood still contains moisture. The carpenters have made the new section of wood thicker because they know that it will dry and shrink over time.

“How long will it take to fit together perfectly?”

“Well, it takes about 100 years to shrink. After that, it won’t shrink so much.”

“That's how far ahead they're thinking? Amazing!”

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The thickness is adjusted depending on the condition and type of wood used. It is the wisdom of master carpenters.

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There are other parts besides the pillars.

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The many curved parts of temple buildings are also shaped by hand.

The wood is planned a little at a time with great precision.

“This is amazing! You can see it slowly taking shape.”

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It is so smooth. The third craftsman skill is shaping curves.

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The carpenters are finishing off the decorations at the top of the pillars. They are not just decorations, but help to support the weight of the roof. In fact they really test the carpenters’ skills because they play a vital role in the building’s structural strength.

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A particularly difficult part is being made here. The craftsman finishes off complex curves using just a chisel.

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“Viewers around the world may wonder why machines aren't used. But this is a whole different thing. A machine couldn't do it.”

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They say it is difficult to recreate with a machine the beauty of something made by hand. Passing on these skills is another important role that these craftsmen must play.

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“I want to master the skills of the ancient carpenters and even surpass them if I can.”
(Seiji Horie: Master temple and shrine carpenter)

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They have inherited the skills of their forebears to restore buildings to their former glory.

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This is actually not the first time that Senshoji has been restored.

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This is a record of repair work that was discovered hidden in the temple. It says that repair has carried out in the late 18th century.

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Studying such records and signs reveals that the temple has been repaired many times since it was constructed in 1671. Its appearance has evolved subtly from the way it looked originally.

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Morley is shown one example of this.

“This is a ranma transom carving, but it was added later.”

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It is one of the decorative carvings inside the temple that were installed around 100 years after the temple was constructed.

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Senshoji began its life as an austere temple built for training apprentice monks.

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When asked to supervise the restoration this time, Shinonaga decided to return it to its original state.

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In fact, one of his main jobs is to study the documents and signs of old repair work to ascertain the building’s original appearance in order to figure out how to carry out the repairs. So He is also an expert in a different field of cultural property restoration.

“It seems like mind-boggling work….”

“Well, whenever I find anything strange, I try to find out what it was like in the old days. Making new discoveries is really rewarding.”

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So how will Senshoji be reconstructed this time? This is its original appearance according to Mr. Shinonaga. When it was constructed, it was a simple building with a thatched roof, but this was later replaced with a tiled roof for easier maintenance.

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Work will be carried out this time to restore a thatched-style roof, but actually made of copper plates, again for easier maintenance.

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And the interior will also be simplified with the original carvings restored. The temple’s original appearance is about to be revived in the 21st century.

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“We can basically restore its 17th-century appearance. It will remain here standing quietly, and I hope everyone will take very good care of it.”

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Koudo Endo, the assistant head priest, wants Senshoji to become a symbol of recovery after the earthquake.

“It’s a historical temple that’s been standing since 1671. We want everyone in the local community to know that it has not only survived but has also been given a new lease of life, and thereby give them spiritual strength.”
(Koudo Endo: Assistant head priest)

The work will be completed in three years. The craftsmen continue their meticulous work to restore the temple to its original state.

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“Master craftsman are coming together pouring their energy into restoring this ancient temple to its pristine original form. I was struck by their drive, their perfectionism and some of their obsessiveness to get every last detail right. While most Japanese are thinking and imagining about the restoring the Tohoku region to its pre-earthquake state, some are thinking about hundreds of years ahead.”

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Cultural properties in Ibaraki Prefecture were also struck very hard by the quake.(2011)

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A quarter of all the damage suffered by cultural properties such as Buddhist statues, temples and shrines was concentrated here.

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One reason is the concentration of properties due to its historical importance as a region ruled by the Tokugawa family in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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This is Hozoin Temple in Sakuragawa City. A Buddhist statue here is a city-designated cultural property.

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It is a wooden statue of Kannon believed to have been made over 400 years ago.

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It was repaired after suffering damage in the Great East Japan Earthquake.

“Can you tell where it’s been restored?”
(Head priest)

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Two places have changed dramatically.
Can you tell where?

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The answers are the right hand,

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...and the aureole behind the statue! Both have been remade, but it is not at all obvious.

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Morley visits the man who carried out the repairs.


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This is a studio specializing in the restoration of old Buddhist statues.

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Toshitaka Iizumi works as a Buddhist statue restorer. He has repaired numerous statues from the prefecture since the earthquake. Today, he is working on a small statue.

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He is reconstructing the damaged left arm. Besides carving, Iizumi does almost everything by himself, including painting and pasting gold leaf onto the statue.

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“Like a general practioner, I work mostly with local people. I want them to feel that they can talk to me about anything and feel relaxed about working with me.”
(Toshitaka Iizumi: Buddhist statue restorer)

After training at a repair studio in Kyoto that handles National Treasures, Iizumi began repairing Buddhist statues in his hometown in Ibaraki nine years ago.

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There are not many people who specialize in repairing Buddhist statues, and they have to do everything from the research to the repair work by themselves.

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After finishing the carving, he gives it an undercoat of lacquer. He mixes powdered rock with lacquer resin to make the undercoat.

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“Is this the same as they used in the old days?”

“Basically, yes. It was changed in the 17th century, but I use a method from the 13th century. It’s a lot more resilient.”

He relies on a method going all the way back to the 13th century! As a general rule, repair work should last at least a 100 years. To achieve this, it is best to stick to the original materials, which have lasted for many centuries.

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Iizumi begins painting. But it is far from being a simple process.

“You're giving it an undercoat now. What happens next?”

“I’ll give it another coating or two. Then I’ll lacquer it, and paste gold leaf on it if necessary. After that, I’ll carry out koshoku.”

What is koshoku?

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koshoku is the art of adjusting the colors to match the original parts. The left hand is new.

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Lacquer and different colored paints are used to give it the appearance of being old.

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The craftsman’s skill creates a natural appearance that perfectly matches the rest of the statue.

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Once again, Morley has a question at the back of his mind.

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“What surprised me while traveling around Tibet was that their statues are mostly bright gold. Even their old ones are maintained in a shiny state. The eyes are drawn clearly as if they're wearing make-up. But why have Buddhist statues in Japan not been kept shiny for so many centuries?”

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“That’s not actually the case. In fact, it’s mainstream in Japan, too, to keep statues shiny, like they do in other countries. The kind of work I do here is rather rare. But when you paint over national treasures or important cultural properties, they lose their appearance of being old. The point is that they’re partly valuable because of how old they are. They have both a religious and a cultural value, and that’s what I focus on in my work.”

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Buddhist statues are usually restored so that they look as good as new, but the statues that Iizumi restores are cultural properties. He pays tribute to the history behind them.

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He made use of his skills to repair the statue at Hozo-in.

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Here is a photo of it taken before the earthquake. Iizumi felt there was something wrong with the right hand.

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It seemed to be out of balance with the body, and the wood was different. He doubted its originality.

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Then, while repairing the statue, he made an unexpected discovery inside it.
He found part of the original statue from 400 years ago.

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He believes that the previous repairer had difficulty fixing the right hand, and hid the parts inside in the hope that a more skilled person would one day repair it properly.

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Iizumi repaired the broken hand parts and painted them the same color so that they would look natural.

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That’s how the ancient hand was restored.

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Moreover, he restored the decoration on the aureole, known from marks around the base of statue. It was beautifully finished using koshoku.

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The wooden statue of Kannon has been restored to its original form after several hundred years.

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The local people, too, were delighted by Iizumi’s meticulous work.

“Of course I’m happy. It’s the most precious statue we have at our temple. I never realized it was this magnificent. He’s done a great job on it.”
(Masaaki Tsukamoto)

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Iizumi has repaired dozens of Buddhist statues since the earthquake. Japan is a country prone to natural disasters, so Buddhist statues that have survived through the centuries are highly treasured.

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“Surviving for hundreds of years is no easy feat. Many statues have been lost over the years. You could say that the ones that remain today have been lucky because they’ve been stored in a good environment where they were properly protected. The statues can only really be protected by the temples themselves and the local community. All I’m doing is giving them a little help with that.”

Valuable cultural properties, protected over the centuries by local people… The repair work being carried out every day pays tribute to the history that lies behind them. Through this report, Morley has come to understand the passion that drives the craftsmen who are striving to pass on Japan’s cultural history to the next generation, reaching into the past and putting their hearts and souls into their work.

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“For many generations, Japan’s master craftsman have continuously repairing and restoring temples and Buddha statues to perfection. These artifacts seem to embody the will of the Japanese people to protect their heritage in a disaster-prone region. Witnessing the repair process of this ancient artifacts has enriched my sense of history.”

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