At the Altar of Japanese Woodcraft

THE GENIUS OF JAPANESE CARPENTRY: AN ACCOUNT OF A TEMPLE'S CONSTRUCTION, by S. Azby Brown. Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International. 156 pp. $24.95. MOST popular images of Japan are of recent vintage, stemming from Japan's industrial emergence into the modern world. But there is a Japan with a recorded history that flows back almost 2,000 years.

This book is about the restoration and new construction of a Shinto temple at a 1,200-year-old temple site. The entire project is under the direction and supervision of Tsunekazu Nishioka, a gentle, dedicated 80-year-old master craftsman.

Born into a family of master carpenters that spans six generations, Nishioka is the crucial peg in a complex set of carpentry interactions involving tools, materials, resources, supplies, as well as traditional sculpture, painting, and metalworking.

The effort was a complete labor of love. It is a monument to the dedication of one man, as well as the values he imbued his students with.

This undertaking is not unlike restoration works being performed in Europe and North America. But in Japan, it was important to follow the ancient masters, acquire the correct materials, and repeat, as closely as possible, the intricacies of an architectural plan more than 1,000 years old.

Throughout the project, Nishoika is a constant presence. His apprentices have only awe and admiration for him. One tells how he was taught to distinguish the region in which a particular piece of Japanese hinoki (a species of cypress) was grown for its smell. On another occasion, four senior carpenters stand stiffly at attention, patiently accepting a rebuke for a miscalculation of a few millimeters on a hip rafter.

The temple is made entirely of wood. The Japanese work in timber as Europeans work in stone. Japanese carpenters bring vitality and warmth to wood just as master stonemasons bring a feeling of life to solid stone. The tools and methods may differ, but the result is the same - a striking expresssion of natural material metamorphosed into new shapes, forms, and images. Wood remains ``alive'' long after it has ceased to be a part of a tree. It breathes; it embraces itself; it moves. Certainly, this temple is no Japanese version of the American log cabin.

Allowances must be made for wood movement; temperature expansions and contractions; humidity and gradual stresses under load. Although the components of the temple reconstruction are large, their dimensional tolerances are extremely fine, particularly in the case of surfaces that will remain visible.

Stone may represent solidity and steadfastness, but wood is organic - a material to be shaped lovingly. From the laying of the first floor post to the raising of the uppermost beam, there is cause for celebrating the human spirit with a sense of awe. Work on the temple is an endeavor that will possess its own 1,200-year-old legacy of craftsmanship, a creation from the past that is a gift to the future.

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