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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