Makoto Imai, 70, has been building homes and making furniture for 55 years by using traditional Japanese tools and traditional Japanese wood joining methods.
Imai was born in 1948 in Gero, Japan, a small city in the center of the country. As a child, he was very much a hands-on learner and would rather play and build things than sit at a desk.
At 15, he became a carpenter’s apprentice and started working for $25 a month while also completing his high school education.
Imai completed his apprenticeship at age 20 by building a house. He spent the next three years building temples and tea rooms in Kyoto.
In 1972, Imai traveled to the United States after being asked to build a tea house in Nevada City, California. While in the U.S., Imai noted that many people were interested in learning the traditional craft of Japanese wood joining.
In Japanese wood joining, everything fits like a puzzle and is held together by wood pegs. No bolts, metal or nails are required.
“In this kind of work, you have to use everything — your mind, body and spirit,” Imai said.
Part of what drove Imai to move to the U.S. in 1975 was the proliferation of power tools for home construction in Japan.
“It takes away from the artistry,” Imai said.
Imai noted when he is working on projects for a client, he will use power tools only when necessary and for time’s sake but will stick to the original hand tools for the fine finish work.
Imai noticed that American students had more appreciation for the craftsmanship behind his work and saw a better opportunity here to continue doing what he loves. After working with some apprentices, he was asked in 1978 to come to teach at UC-Berkeley.
“I enjoyed teaching in class. I don’t like the apprenticeship model. It creates too much competition, especially when the students and teachers are close in age like I was,” Imai said.
Imai was given the title of Daiku, or master carpenter by his students, though he is not formally a master.
“I don’t see myself as a master, because once you master something, you stop learning and I want to keep learning,” Imai said.
Even at 70, Imai continues to work on projects for clients, as well as on his own work in Seabeck. Most of his client work is furniture — everything from cabinets and dining tables to tables for Japanese tea ceremonies.
“You have to find a balance between work and fun. I’m still working on that. There are projects that I would like to work on, but because I still need to make money, I have less time for them,” Imai said.
Furniture building can take about 90 days depending on the size, scale and type of wood used.