See How Traditional Japanese Carpenters Can Build a Whole Building Using No Nails or Screws




If it came down to it, most of us could hammer basic shelter together with enough wood and nails. But what if we just had the wood? And what if we needed to make not just a hut, but a full-fledged building: a livable house, or even a house of worship? That may well sound like an impossible task — unless, of course, you’ve trained as a miyadaiku (宮大工), the class of Japanese carpenter tasked with building and maintaining buildings like shrines and temples. Without a single nail or screw, miyadaiku join wood directly to wood — a method of joinery know as kanawatsugi (金輪継)  — and in so doing manage to build some of the world’s longest-lasting wooden structures, just as they’ve done for centuries upon centuries.

Back when this style of carpentry first developed in Japan more than a millennium ago, “it was difficult to acquire iron.” And so “people tried to build buildings only with wood,” making up for what they lacked in tools with sheer skill. So says Takahiro Matsumoto, a miyadaiku carpenter based in the city of Kamakura, in the Great Big Story video above




Japan’s de facto capital from the late 12th to early 14th century, Kamakura is still filled with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, some built more than 1,200 years ago. To build new temples and shrines, or to provide the existing ones with the repairs they need every century or two, a miyadaiku must master a host of differently shaped wooden joints, each of them developed over generations to hold as tightly and solidly as possible.

For another view of kanawatsugi, have a look at The Joinery, a library of explanatory animations previously featured here on Open Culture. You can see exactly how each of these joints are cut and assembled for real-life projects — as well as every other aspect of how miyadaiku put together a building — at the Youtube channel Japanese Architecture: Wisdom of Our Ancestors. The channel is aptly named, for only with a high regard for the carpentry knowledge gradually built up, tested, and refined by their predecessors could today’s miyadaiku do their work. “Advanced skills are needed, but we work with the old buildings built by our ancestors,” says Matsumoto. “Today, we also learn from the ancestors’ skills, since the old buildings themselves are standing documents of those skills.” Each and every one testifies to how, for want of a nail, some of the most admired architecture in the world was born.

Related Content:

Mesmerizing GIFs Illustrate the Art of Traditional Japanese Wood Joinery — All Done Without Screws, Nails, or Glue

20 Mesmerizing Videos of Japanese Artisans Creating Traditional Handicrafts

Watch Japanese Woodworking Masters Create Elegant & Elaborate Geometric Patterns with Wood

The Making of Japanese Handmade Paper: A Short Film Documents an 800-Year-Old Tradition

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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Comments (8)
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  • Hawthorn says:

    The article describes building with only wood, but the headline says “No Nails or Wood.” That would be a neat carpentry trick indeed!

  • Tormod says:

    You might want to change the strapline at the top of this article.
    They may not have used nails but they certainly used wood!

  • Lonnie says:

    Has no one taught millennials to proof read their work? Journalism is going downhill fast!

  • Trevor says:

    I hate when I have to build a wooden building with no wood. That’s the worst.

    Clickbait titles should be illegal everywhere.

    In no way is dovetailing and joinery exclusive to Japan.

    In history, Japan has had her share of slaughtering Christian missionaries and trying to take over the world, but not a monopoly on woodworking!

  • John says:

    OMG… Wow, simply amazing. We are all doomed.

    Good luck

  • John says:

    OMG… Wow, simply amazing. Magic Is real.

    We are all doomed.

    Good luck

  • Benjamin says:

    @Trevor

    There are hundreds of joints, unsure why you single out the dovetail joint (which is the English name for it).
    Also the amount of documented joints in Japan is massive, the amount in England is much smaller and there are nearly no long existing examples in England of advanced woodworking. So if you are claiming England introduced this to Japan, you are historically moronic.

    BTW the first English person didn’t even reach Japan until 700+ years after Japanese woodworking existed, so you have a huge time issue there in your low IQ made up belief.

    The fact is that Japan has the most advanced woodworking techniques ever documented, and even German visitors like Einstein were marvelled at this, which is written in his diary. No other country has such wooden joined structures as Japan has, especially at the age Japan’s originate.

    As far as “Christian missionaries”, gives me a break. The first countries to have contact with Japan were the Portuguese and Spanish, and they openly tried to attack Japan’s native religions by calling them sinful, and then trying to take over with Christianity. You blame Japan for defending itself against attempted colonisation? You are a joke.

    Additionally Japanese were captured in lower islands by the Portuguese and sold off as slaves in the international slave trade. This is the straw that broke the camels back, leading Hideyoshi to ban slavery in 1590, and the Abolish Europeans from Japan. Which ended their attempts at colonising Japan.

    Japan however did continue to trade with the dutch for some time after this, because the dutch would trade with no strings attached, meaning they didn’t try to Christianise the country or enslave people or try to start a colonisation attempt.

    As far as Japan trying to take over the world, this never happened in history. Now if you are going to say England tried to do this, that is true. But Japan never did.

    The lands Japan invaded were lands that were invaded and occupied by European empires, Japan invaded these to free Asia of European colonisation, because Japanese leaders thought that Japan (one of the only 2 nations not yet colonised) would be colonised next unless they push Europeans out of Asia.

    Indeed if Japan didn’t stick up for itself and build up it’s military and take on European empires, it would have the exact same fate as the Filipino or Vietnamese (invaded, colonised, loss of native writing, conversion to Christianity, mass rape of civilians, enslaved on plantations etc).

    European colonialism died after Japan rose, every European empire collapsed into just being a nation state, because without the overseas lands and the ability to run slave plantations and pillage resources from mines etc, the European country itself (whether it be France, Holland, England etc) would no longer have the monetary resources to be an empire.

  • ZenAtWork says:

    @Benjamin:

    What are you babbling about!?

    While I agree with your position on japanese woodworking and joinery, “Japan invaded these to free Asia of European colonisation”!? Dude: Japan invaded every country that what even MILDLY accessible to them. Again and again and again! Korean, Taiwan, China, Russia, Indonesia, Mongolia, Vietnam… you name it! And no: not as liberators. Much of Japan’s imperial history reads like something closer to viking war parties than this delusion you seem to have.

    From the formation of Japan as a nation state until about the 14th century Japan fought everyone that could conveniently lay a weapon into. At that time, at least, that meant Japan mostly fought… well, Japan. They were in the midst of a near constant civil war, up until the Onin War of the mid-1400’s. After that, the first great Japanese unifier, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, rose to power.

    Thing is, when you spend 1500 years fighting yourself, then finally get your act together and get unified, well, you know war, you’re really, REALLY GOOD at war, but there’s nobody left on the island to war with. What do you do? Well, you already have this big-ass fleet of pirates who know the channel separating you from the rest of mainland Asia, sooooo…

    In 1589 Hideyoshi sent a letter to king of Korea, informing him that the Korean army (such that it was) would be the VANGUARD (read: cannon fodder) of the Japanese army, after it landed in Korea to begin it’s march toward world domination, beginning with the conquest of Ming (the capital of China at that time. It’s also worth noting that Japan is the ONLY country to have carried out such attacks against China successfully since the MONGOL HORDES). His letter read, and I quote:

    “In this world human existence, however long it may be, has rarely
    attained a hundred years since ancient times. Why should I gloomily
    spend my life here? I shall invade the Great Ming, although it is a
    country far away and divided from ours by mountains and seas, and
    will have the customs and manners of our country adopted in the four
    hundred provinces, bestowing on the people the benevolent imperial
    government of our country for millions of years to come. This is the
    plan I have in mind.”

    Google the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592. In which they ravaged the country, pillaging, looting, killing, raping, and enslaving. And yes: the Japanese were notorious slavers. Good gods, talk to some of inhabitants of those surrounding countries. Ask THEIR opinion on the Japanese “freedom fighters”.

    So no, son. YOU are the joke here. You know nothing of what you speak of. I agree, as a woodworker myself, that their techniques were and are some of the greatest there have ever been – from necessity! – but if you think the Japanese were some noble, peace-loving cadre throughout their history, you’ve got another think coming. Indeed, the only reason they’ve enjoyed their current prosperity is BECAUSE they stopped warring, and they only did THAT because after the bombs fell in WWII, part of the terms of their surrender were that they were not allowed to HAVE an army beyond a ceremonial one, I think 5,000 strong at max. Were they attacked, the USA was to be their army, and several large US military bases have resided there ever since.

    SMH. There’s literally no way you’ve read ANY Japanese history – any ASIAN history – without knowing this.

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