Much of a Muchness – Japanese & Estonian Cooperage

From the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai, 1830-32. Metropolitan Museum, New York

Fujimigahara in Owari Province, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai, 1830-32. Metropolitan Museum, New York

You never know what you might find when viewing Fujisan in a Japanese woodblock print. The tool the cooper is using looked very familiar and then I remembered the tools from “Woodworking in Estonia” by Ants Viires. The bigger Japanese tool may be a spear plane but in Estonia it was a grooving knife.

Tools from the Boarded Container chapter of "Woodworking in Estonia."

Tools from the Boarded Container chapter of “Woodworking in Estonia.”

The Estonian tools in use at the time of Ant Viires research in the first half of the 20th century were likely no different from the tools used a century or more earlier. Besides the the size difference in the spear plane and grooving knife I wondered how the Japanese cooper’s tools might compare to those of the Estonian cooper. A quick search turned up the plate below and oddly enough it was in the National Archives of Estonia.

Japanese cooper's tools.

Japanese cooper’s tools.

The handwritten title in German translates to “Cooper’s Tools.” No date was provided for this plate but the notations beneath each tool give a clue. The notations provide a scale in the old German measurement, the Fuß* (fuss, or foot). The Fuß was in use until the beginning of 1872 when use of the metric system became compulsory. To find out how long was the Fuß (good luck!) see the bottom of the post for some conversions.

Looking beyond the tools the next question was what were the Japanese and Estonian coopers making and were there any similarities. Going back to “Woodworking in Estonia” I pulled a few photos that date from 1890 to 1939.

Products of the Estonian cooper.

Products of the Estonian cooper.

As described by Ants Viires coopers made buckets, churns, wash tubs, small baths, beer casks and containers for grain and other food storage. For merchants there were larger barrels for beer, food and many other commodities. For the Japanese cooper it was much the same with the addition of very large barrels for production of fermenting sake and soy sauce.

Selection of Japanese cooper's work taken from woodblock prints dated

Selection of Japanese cooper’s work taken from woodblock prints dated 1766-1790 by Chobunsai Eishi (top left and bottom) and Suzuki Harunobu (top right and center).

Many woodblock prints feature domestic scenes with women using buckets and tubs for bathing, washing clothes and for food preparation (I left out the bathing scenes). Much larger tubs and barrels can be seen in making sake.

Dainihon-meisan-zue, sake-making, by Utagawa Hiroshige III (1842-1894).

Dainihon-meisan-zue, sake-making, by Utagawa Hiroshige III (1842-1894).

One of the differences between Japanese and Estonian cooperage is the material used for the hoops. Estonian coopers used small branches, and later, iron for hoops. The Japanese used braided bamboo, then iron and copper. Traditional craftsmen making small pieces and companies using huge barrels for making soy sauce still use braided bamboo for hoops. Overall, there are more similaries than differences in the methods, tools and items made by the Japanese and Estonian coopers.

Estonian, 1921; Japan late 19th- to early-20th c.

Not so different: Estonian, 1921; Japan late 19th- to early-20th c.

With so many similarities the next question is about the roots of cooperage in each country. Open wood buckets made using the methods of a cooper have been dated in Egypt to 2690 BC and fully closed Iron Age barrels have been found in Europe from 800-900 BC. By the 1st century BC barrels were in wide use for beer, wine, oil and water. Celtic tribes in Europe can be credited with making and using barrels for beer and wine. Next, here come the Romans because they always seem to be part of adapting, refining, inventing or spreading new technologies.

The Romans, like the Greeks and many early Mediterranean civilizations, used clay containers for storing and transporting wine and oil. Roman rule over the Celtic tribes of Gaul began in the 2nd and 1st c. BC and continued until 486 AD, and it was in Gaul they encountered the barrel. They found wooden barrels a vast improvement over clay amphorae for transporting wine and the added benefit of an improved taste to their wine, especially when the barrels were made of oak.

Loading barrels on a boat in the Danube, Trajan's Column in Rome, completed 113 AD.

Loading barrels on a boat in the Danube, Trajan’s Column in Rome, completed 113 AD.

Did the early Estonian peoples learn cooperage from the Romans? Although Roman coins have been found in Estonian we don’t know if there was a direct connection.

Baltic tribes had trade contact with the Romans via the Amber Road. The Amber Road (actually a network of routes) extended from the North Sea and Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean.

One example of the Amber Road, from Wikipedia.

One example of the Amber Road, from Wikipedia.

Highly prized, amber from the Baltic has been found in Egypt from 16th c. BC. Like the East-West Silk Road, the Amber Road was a conduit for trading commodities and technology.

For five centuries the Romans controlled Gaul and that extended presence did exert an influence on Germanic tribes not under Roman control. If the Baltic tribes in the area of Estonia did not aquire knowledge of cooperage prior to the end of Roman control the technology may have arrived via trade or war contact with Germanic tribes, or during later invasions by others.

When did Japanese coopers learn their craft? In yesterday’s news (what timing) there was a report that Roman coins had been found in the ruins of a 12th century castle in Okinawa. What next, Vikings? The archeologist overseeing the site said there was no evidence of Western contact with the ancient Okinawan kingdom, but the Chinese did have extensive trade contact with the West from the 14th through the 19th centuries. The coins were probably traded between the Chinese and the Okinawans.

For millenia Japan had extensive trade and cultural contact with its neighbors, in particular China and Korea. During the Nara period (710-794) Japan turned more inward and concentrated on cultivating its native crafts, especially woodworking, ceramics and textiles. As for cooperage, we known that sake has a history extending back 1700 years. In the 8th century sake was favored by, and became regulated by, the Imperial Court. The Imperial regulations covered all portions of the production of sake and included the barrels used.

Left: Late 19th- to early-20th c. cooper. Right: a 21st c. cooper making a sake barrel.

Left: Late 19th- to early-20th c. cooper. Right: a 21st c. cooper making a sake barrel.

Soy sauce production dates back about 1500 years and one of the key ingredients of the fermenting process is using kioke, barrels made of cedar. After World War II soy sauce companies were urged to use stainless steel vats instead of the cedar kioke.

70 year old kioke fermenting soy sauce at Yamaroku Shoyu.

70 year old kioke fermenting soy sauce at Yamaroku Shoyu.

On the island of Shodoshima the soy sauce makers did not agree and continued to use kioke. In 2012 Yamamoto Yasuo the owner of Yamaroku Shoyu traveled with two carpenters from his company to learn the traditional method of making kioke from preparing the cedar slats, making the bamboo pins and selecting and braiding the bamboo hoops. They worked with Ueshiba Takeshi of Fujii Wood Work in Osaka Prefecture. They now make there own kioke and other producers are following their lead to revive and continue the traditional craft of making the huge barrels. A short (7 minute) video on making a kioke and the braided bamboo hoop is here (it is really cool).

One of the themes Ants Viires highlighted in “Woodworking in Estonia” was the decline of traditional crafts and the use of plastic items to replace wood. This lament is also heard in Japan and more efforts are underway to work with elderly craftsmen to learn and document traditional craft. In Kyoto this movement is particularly strong.

Nakagawa Shuji, an oke maker (oke are the wooden tubs) in Kyoto was interviewed by Kyoto Journal. Nakagawa talks about his apprenticeship and efforts to keep his traditional craft alive. The oke he makes are refined and copper is used for hoops. In the middle photo below he holds the sen, the two handled plane, that dates back to medieval times (1185-1600 in Japan). You can read the interview with him here.

Nakagawa Shuji, oke maker of Kyoto.

Nakagawa Shuji, oke maker of Kyoto.

Conclusions: although the Romans seemed to have left their coins everywhere they did not originate nor spread cooperage around the world. Good ideas and sucessful technology don’t have to have a single point of origin. With some variations in tools and techniques, when humans need to make something to improve their lives they often travel the same path.

The tools of a 21st c. Japanese cooper.

The tools of a 21st c. Japanese cooper.

Suzanne Ellison

*There was no standardized measurement for the old German Fuß as it changed through time and it also depended on where you were living in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and parts of France. Here are conversions as recorded in 1830 in three places (chosen to show the range of the Fuß measuremnt and because I either lived or visited these cities as a child): Mainz – 314 mm or 12.36 in, Metz – 406 mm or 15.98 in, Würzburg – 294 mm or 11.57 in.

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18 Responses to Much of a Muchness – Japanese & Estonian Cooperage

  1. Just my 5 cents here… Far from a history expert, I’m just a curious guy.
    But the land that today is know by the name Portugal – being a sailors people since ever-and under the influence of “trade people” that came from the sea (there are some historical evidences) even before the Roman Empire.
    Also there are traces of evidence that Portuguese were in the Far East since XV century with and extensive culture and tech exchange – even with some current words.

    As this being out of topic, feel free to delete this post or If you want, I can provide amateur research by e-mail!

    • I am still digesting what seems to be another marvelous post topic by Suzanne…So, I am still unclear to exactly what point you are trying to make per se with your post?

      If you are suggesting that the Portugal’s “trade people” have been at it (by sea and land) for a very long time, one could not debate that history at all. Much of the history of all cultures in and around the Iberian Peninsula is acient, and of trading peoples…

      By comparison however they are infantile and limited in age and reach over the span of history and all cultures. We are just beginning to learn what the Middle Eastern Cultures (pre BCE period) achieved as they spread East and West. We know (and are still learning much) that the Chinese pelagic trade routes existed as early as 700 BCE and may reach as far (in some trade routing areas) to 2700 BCE long before the Portuguese had any dominance in the seas.

      Not that it is a popular belief among many historians, yet there is mounting evidence that Asian Cultures (and people) had much more of an influence on the world (in many ways) perhaps more so than the Greek or Roman, yet these influence are subtle and obscure…but their evidence is ever mounting as we learn more…Some even call it the forgotten histories…

      • Ok! I’ll try to be more clear!
        I should wrote Iberians and not Portuguese, my fault! (officially Portugal only ‘born’ in 1143)
        And to all readers add a bit of salt – I have not academic background in History but my readings led me to find there are different ‘stories’ around what happened in History according to who wrote it!
        The “trade people” I was referring are the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians long before the Romans invaded. Here in the Iberian Peninsula we have actually some findings proving that.
        ‘Chinese pelagic trade routes’ and others I know them by the ‘Silk route’ and ‘Spice route’ and their products came here via North Africa and Mediterranean trades people
        The people that habitat the peninsula was like this in 200 BC https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ficheiro:Ethnographic_Iberia_200_BCE.PNG
        My point is the all Peninsula is traceable to several different origins and cultures including some of the Far East and over the last 1000 years we manage to assimilate it and long before XV century. I don’t know why, and neither the fellows that study that… yet 🙂
        And I agree with you that some ancient Asian cultures influenced a lot all over the world. Just haven’t been so many studies like other civilizations.

        • Kansas John says:

          “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

          • Hi Kansas John!
            I don’t know about you… but I think It was were the inspiration came from for the last couple of benches for one of my favourite Anarchist 🙂
            Also here in the Iberia Peninsula we have working roads, aqueducts, bridges, etc!
            Cheers

            • saucyindexer says:

              Thank you for your comments. Iberia is a fantastic crossroads of cultures and I have only worked backwards about a thousand years (just scratching the surface), and there is much to discover!

            • Kansas John says:

              “Lovely race the Romans.”
              I’ll have to give them credit for the low bench idea. I think about sitting and working at the bench with every passing year. Maybe they were onto something.

          • saucyindexer says:

            John, they left us coins, lots and lots of coins!

        • ​Ah…Now I understand your context better… 🙂

          For those of use that are deeply stewed in the traditional arts and ILS (Indigenous Life Skills) world, we are often faced with…histories….that are very jaded and/or one side…Much of American history is written from a very clear sexist and racist perspective….and very Victorian Eurocentric in many ways as well.

          As time goes on, I think many of us are going to learn and take a much more balanced and global (inclusive) view of history, and especially very early history. How everything got started, as if we go back far enough we know that most (conservatively 90%) of everything we know how to do started in Africa and the Middle East, and spread from there Eastward for millenia. From a global perspective, the complexity of arts, crafts and what some would call advanced cultural metrics, was much more advanced in the Middle East and Asia…while much (most??) of Europe was still living in caves, earth huts, and hunting Neanderthals (and breeding with them.)

          The travels and complexity of the Iberian cultures (being so close to Africa and trade with the Middle East) of course (like most Mediterranean sea cultures) would be some of the oldest, early advanced, and most complex of Europe because of this trade near and far…​

  2. Hi, Another interesting article.

    In figure 86 is shown what is called a chopping knife. This looks identical or very similar to what in England is called a bill hook. See here:

    http://woodsmithexperience.co.uk/shop/category/billhooks-slashers-grass-hooks/

    This was a tool that every country household had as late as the 1960s and I am glad to say it is still used. In the home it was mostly used to split the smaller logs for the fire and to prepare kindling. It was also widely used for hedging on farmland and for coppicing. Its long handled version is called a slasher that is only ever used in hedging. Laid hedging still uses both versions and is a growing, albeit minority country craft.

    Many of these two tools have a “V” notch in the blade down near the handle. This is because these tools were also used as weapons so the notch was essential as it meant the blood dripped from the notch instead of over the hand. This was not because people didn’t like blood but because blood made the handle slippery. In close order fighting these were both formidable weapons and were brought to Britain by the Saxons. They were always sharp and close to the dwelling as they were used every day and meant they could be quickly grabbed to fight off Viking attacks.

    I have a pair hung over my front door as a constant reminder of the tools of my childhood and heritage – seventy odd years. These are unfortunately not inherited but I hope I may use them to make some woodland chairs one day.

  3. Kansas John says:

    Great Article! Thanks.

  4. Hi Suzanne,

    This is another great post!!!

    You are now stumbling onto some of the same questions many of us over the decades have been asking historians, and also learning along the way that much of written history (at least in English and other European languages) has a very apparent Eurocentric twist to the…when, where, what, why, and hows of it all…

    Clear evidence like your post illustrates (as well as many other things…like finding Buddhist effigy buried with Vikings) indicates patently that trade with Asian (and other) cultures go millenia into the BCE time periods and most likely well before it.

    Europe has a long and very rich history…no doubt…yet it isn’t (nor was it ever) the only center of world culture, art and philosophy that many have proclaimed for way too long…If we just go with…”who did it first”…thinking, or perspective…that would not be the Europeans by any means…They only stood on the shoulders of the traveling cultures that learned and traded with the originators someplace outside of Europe…The similarities of Coopering tools and skill sets reflects this…as do many of the traditional arts and crafts…

    Thanks again for such an excellent post!!!

    • saucyindexer says:

      Thanks, Jay. Imagine my surprise when the illustration of Japanese cooper’s tools showed up on a site written in a language with double vowels and double umlauts and it turned out to be in the National Archives of Estonia.

      • Surprising…yet not completely… considering Estonia’s rich woodworking (folk) culture and interest in it, as well as, the political history Estonia has embraced (and endured.) Such a culture would collect and accumulate a sordid array of information germane to woodworking arts from far and wide. I see something like this as a pleasant, but perhaps not overly surprising event…This country did, after all, give us the gift of a person like Ants Viires.

        Again, much thanks for bring into new light such things as this…It was the real surprise today for me…!!.. 🙂

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