The Path to Japan Winds Through My Grandfather’s Tool Chest

by Gary Funamura (adapted from The Wooden Post, vol. 5, December 2016)

Japan intimidated me. I didn’t speak the language and its customs seemed too formal and opaque for a Westerner to comprehend. Such is the feeling I shared with other Sansei, the third generation of Japanese in the United States. My grandparents immigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the last century to ultimately settle in California to farm. They, with my parents, suffered through the relocation and internment during World War II. Although I had not yet been born, the “camp” years influenced me for decades. The humiliation and fear that my parents suffered certainly affected the way I was raised. It was most important that I “fit in” and not be seen as different from our neighbors. Thus, my connection with Japan and things Japanese was suppressed. Habits and mannerisms brought from Japan merely seemed quaint or odd. Although sometimes curious, I never pursued attempts to find long lost relatives in Japan or learn of the family roots. Of course, as my parents’ generation passed on, so did those opportunities.

Family was important when I was a child and we would spend much time at my maternal grandparents’ farm in Stockton, California. My grandfather hadn’t always been a farmer. Before arriving in San Francisco, he was a carpenter on the small island of Su-Oshima, in the Yamaguchi Prefecture of southern Honshu. After arriving, he continued as a carpenter until the 1920s, working to rebuild gambling halls in Chinatown wrecked by police raids and participating in the reconstruction of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. His penciled construction drawings of the Japanese exhibit building for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition hang in my home memorializing one of his jobs from a century ago.

My grandparents’ farmhouse in Stockton had a dirt cellar. In it were many things: jars of pickles, crocks of dried fruit, paint cans – the usual stuff. But what drew me like a magnet was my grandfather’s tool chest. Because he was extremely protective of it and its contents, I learned from my older cousins that the chest was to be treated like a sacred object. I remember sneaking into the cellar to examine the mysterious artifacts in the chest. To my regret, the barriers of language and the generations kept me from learning more. I could only guess what they were and what could be done with them. Yet these were the tools that he packed across the Pacific Ocean to a strange land with the hope that with his hands and tools he could earn enough to live and to send home to his wife and family. Sixty years later grandpa’s tool chest lives with me.

The Path to Japan Winds Through My Grandfather’s Tool ChestMy father had been a journeyman carpenter. Although he was trained in Western methods, he appreciated the importance keeping the tool chest intact and kept it in the family when my grandfather passed away in 1972. Since then, I had always thought that someday I would learn to use grandpa’s tools. The tool chest contained everything I imagined a working Japanese carpenter needed to make a living in 1905: An extensive assortment of nomi, nokogiri of all types and yasuri to keep them sharp, a cornucopia of kanna for both general carpentry and shoji, unfinished dai, several kebiki (some that he made himself), a chona for hewing logs, many stones and much, much more. As enticing as this bounty was, raising a family, a career and expediency (i.e., power tools) conspired to keep me at a distance from the tool chest for the next four decades. When I retired, I began to think about the tool chest. I wanted to learn how to awaken them from their long sleep.

In 2015, I found myself back in college for the first time in 35 years, attending Jay van Arsdale’s Japanese Joinery class at Laney College in Oakland. Here began the immersion into Japanese culture that had been hiding from me (in front of my nose) all of these years. Grandpa’s tools represented over 1,300 years of skill, science, craftsmanship and genius of Japanese carpenters and blacksmiths. They reflected the people and spirituality of Japan spanning the centuries. Of course, to appreciate the role of the daiku in historical Japan is to appreciate the all-encompassing impact of Buddhism and Shintoism there. Without carpenters, the magnificent temples or shrines that cover Japan like so many cherry blossom petals would not have been built.

Under Jay’s tutelage, I have begun to awaken my hands and grandpa’s tools. I remember the first crosscut that I made with one of my grandpa’s ryoba – I had to stop mid-cut, to wipe the tears from my eyes. The rewarding and meditative spell that working with the tools and wood was entirely new to me.
But it was larger than that. For once, I wanted to know more about Japan and the culture that created an important place for these amazing tools and the people that so skillfully employed them. I read more – about the history of Japan under the Imperial Families and the shogun; about the seamless melding of Buddhism and Shinto into the daily lives of the Japanese; and the spirituality and devotion of a nation of people that inspired them to erect the magnificent temples and shrines, ornate and simple, large and small. Of course, I was fascinated by the temple and shrines themselves, and how they were built, from the foundation stones to the highest gable caps.

My wife, who had traveled in Japan as a Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program participant urged me for years without success, to experience Japan. I was now ready. I could write a travelogue about our month-long travels in Japan – cities and forests, temples and shrines, both immense and tiny, castles and trains, food markets and bars. I run out of superlatives to describe everything seen, touched, tasted or felt in Japan. Other travelers in Japan have mentioned “temple overload”, but I couldn’t get enough.

Nothing could have fully prepared me for the intense and emotional impact of a month-long immersion in Japan. I know that without my exposure to the art and craft of the daiku, my appreciation of Japan’s architectural treasures, large and small, would have been incomplete. I could appreciate the beauty of the massive and complex joinery employed in the world’s largest wooden structure, the Great Buddha Hall of the Todai-ji, in Nara, in a way that I could not have as a casual tourist. The same went for the tiniest detail of a garden gate along a forest path. Japanese notions of frugality and creativity came to life with the centuries old floral and animal-shaped plugs carved to fill knotholes in temple floors and gates. I am not embarrassed to admit that I was brought to tears standing before the towering Daimon at the entrance to the holy town of Koya-san.

It was clear that so much of what we could see – the architecture, gardens, the daily life of the people, were deeply rooted in Buddhist and Shinto traditions of beauty, austerity and reverence. What seemed like stark contrasts between the serenity of the old and religious and the frenetic and crowded daily life of Japan were reconciled when I observed salarymen, walking home after a late night at work, pausing to make an offering and prayer at a small centuries-old temple tucked between tall modern office buildings.

I also found something else very im- portant to me in Japan. In the small town of Jigozen on the outskirts of Hiroshima, a delightful, baseball-loving Buddhist minister led us to a small cemetery to visit some gravesites. Many of the granite headstones were worn to the point of illegibility. These were the burial plots of my grandparents’ families, something that I had never expected to see. We departed with gifts from Reverend Itagaki: Juzu (Buddhist prayer beads) crafted from wood harvested from the immense Ginko tree that stood in the temple courtyard.

These are just tiny pieces of an overwhelming experience. Long-forgotten anecdotes and tidbits passed on by my grandmother about nineteenth-century life in Japan began to fall into place. Social behaviors in the Nisei community that seemed inconsequential, odd and archaic when I was a child became important again. Being in Japan with its people helped give context to much that I had either ignored or forgotten while growing up.

My visit to Japan rekindled long-dormant memories. It emotionally and spiritually connected me with a culture that I should have, but did not understand. I now understand that grandpa’s tool chest is a legacy far greater than the tools themselves.