Call of the Wild Shipbuilder

There’s a little shipbuilding company in Kesennuma City, Miyagi, which has won a number of awards for their construction projects. Kessennuma is an extremely isolated area, and the air echoes with a sense of being at one of the ends of the earth. So why has this small band of local shipbuilders managed to spread their wings in a conquest of the construction world? This week we spoke to their ringleader, Kazushi Takahashi, to find out the answer.

Interviewed by Takafumi Suzuki
Translated by Claire Tanaka

Using shipbuilding skills to make a ship-like object

The final product will become a bar counter
**So how did this company come into being, originally?** It’s not such a complicated story. Simply, the company that my father and grandfather had run went bankrupt. I was about 25 years old then. All that was left was an old run-down house, and at that time there were ten people in the family. Well, if someone told you to go fend for yourself, what would you do? I had to go out into the wild with nothing but a triangle ruler, a pencil, and some cardboard. There were no grand plans. I just had to get some food on the table. **What did you do with the triangle and the pencil?** A fellow shipbuilder said to me, “I heard your place went under. Well, come help me out.” And I took on half the work of building a ship. After that, my younger brother and I started a metalworks and went all over the country to different shipyards, improving our design and welding skills along the way.
A deep-sea tuna boat designed and built by President Takahashi’s grandfather.
The deep-sea tuna boat designed and built by President Takahashi when he was 25

Is that how you learned how to build boats?

No, no. I’m a seventh generation shipbuilder. Ever since I was a kid I watched my father and grandfather building boats, and I helped them out too. When I was 25, I’d already designed a 70 metre boat, one big enough to go out into the Pacific, all by myself. I already had the skills. The theory came later.

Why did you shift from shipbuilding to architecture?

That’s because there was no more work in shipbuilding. (laughs) When the deep sea tuna fisheries declined, the shipbuilding industry went with it. The first thing that came along was from the Rias Arc Museum of Art. They wanted to build the museum with a curved metal surface and so I was consulted to see if I could use my shipbuilding techniques to do the job.

Rias Arc Museum of art (Kesennuma City, Miyagi)

Hoshinoko Daycare (Tama-ku, Kawasaki City, Kanagawa)

Iron House (Setagaya-ku, Tokyo)

Irony Space 2 (Setagaya-ku, Tokyo)

Weren’t you taken aback with a work request from a completely different field?

I did think to myself, “I’m a shipbuilder, don’t you know!” (laughs) but when I listened to what they had to say, I thought, “It’s the same as a ship.” And I decided to give construction a try.

Is there really no difference between making buildings and making ships?

Architecture is about straight lines and structural dynamics, while ships are about curved lines and fluid dynamics. Plus, another difference is that carpenters and architects can’t make boats, but shipbuilders can make both ships and houses. But the basic science behind it, the arithmetic and physics are the same. That is the common thread between them. The basics are the same.

The factory is only open for ten months out of the year. The other two months, the craftsmen work on improving their skills.

Are you saying that shipbuilders can build houses?

The chief shipbuilder is the one who knows all, from drawing up the plans and going to the worksite, everything from start to finish. From a flat plane to a solid form, it takes shape in his head and he takes action and gives orders to the other workers. But the site for a ship is the seven seas, on the waves. If a house has a leaky roof you’ll get by, but once a ship sinks, it’s over. (laughs) A boat is a little life-form, a cosmos. You’ve got to work everything, electric, air conditioning, water, into the plans from the start or the symmetrical balance will get disrupted. With building construction, the labor is split up. If you’ve got a company with ten guys doing all the work you can still supervise everything, but with a company of a hundred people, at that point it’s just a bunch of clock-punchers. There’s no way one person can oversee all that. (laughs bitterly)

But you keep producing these great, ground-breaking technical proposals one after another, don’t you?

There’s nothing ground-breaking or highly technical about what we do. (laughs) Manufacturing is about building on what you already know. What we do is fifty year old technology in the shipbuilding world. There just one main point to any job. All you have to do is think things through. The little windows without sills in the Ginza Lanvin storefront, it’s just a steel plate with holes punched out of it. (laughs) I’d done it with ships, so I figured it would work out. It’s a fitting technique that I drew upon for that job.

Working at the Kesennuma factory

Fitting acrylic windows into countless holes

Loading it onto the truck and taking it to Ginza in Tokyo

Assembly in Ginza

Could you tell me more about this fitting technique?

It’s a technique for making use of the swelling that occurs when the temperature of a material changes. We use it to assemble components made of two different materials. We made holes in the steel plate at the factory, then inserted the acrylic glass windows into the holes in a minus 30 degree cooler. Then when we brought it to the site, the steel and acrylic warmed up and expanded, making a watertight seal. That’s how the technique works.。

So this is the result of your working on one point and thinking things through?

They say coal mining is half a year of working and half a year of working out. At my factory, we only work ten months out of the year. The other two months are for working on improving skills. That’s when we work out the knots. It’s better to think about things on simple terms, and not get too big or complicated. That’s why at the root it’s all shipbuilding techniques.

Lanvin’s Ginza boutique. The acrylic windows and honeycomb structure steel plates combine to form the front exterior.
This is the result of the shipbuilder’s fitting technique! Completely airtight!

But, that shift in perspective is wonderful, isn’t it?

I’m not doing anything special. I don’t think anyone is brilliant enough to come up with any real dramatic ideas. Copernicus and Columbus, back then there must have been any number of people in the same field who were close to making the discoveries that they did. It just happens that they were the ones who got written up in the history books. That’s why it’s important to build on the basics, a little at a time, and to continually improve your aesthetics and stay in touch with your wild side too.

But, all the construction projects you’ve been involved with have had such a great response. Don’t you think that’s amazing?

That’s because I don’t take on boring projects, projects that I can’t show my own family. With the Jimbocho Theater building, I wanted to show it to my little fifth grader, so I said, “I’d like to do it if you make it look cooler, like Gundam.” (laughs) But while I may have seemed silly, I was really encouraging them to change the plans so that the building couldn’t be made by anyone but my company, with our shipbuilding technology.

The Jimbocho Theater Building (Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo)

This Gundam-like outer surface was all welded together, not a single bolt was used!

You’ve got the smarts to keep yourself in business, haven’t you? (laughs)

I suppose in order for small and medium-sized businesses out in rural areas to survive, we’ve all got to have some kind of niche, right? That’s how we do it. With big corporate construction places, even if they can do the complicated techniques that we can, they don’t bother. It’s because they can’t guarantee sufficient volume. The market economy is like the wild kingdom. Would a rabbit pick a fight with a wolf? No. A rabbit eats grass, so it goes to a grassy field where there are none of its enemies, it’s only natural.

When you call it the “wild kingdom” it makes it quite easy to imagine on a fundamental, essential level.

In order to stay in business, you’ve got to know yourself, your own strengths and weaknesses. To know that, you’ve got to travel, you’ve got to know the world. And then, you’ve got to sharpen your spear and polish your shield. To polish a shield, in our case, means to build up strength so that even if there’s no work coming in, we don’t have to panic. Once the opponent starts to run out of breath and show a chink in their armor, that’s when we move in with our sharpened spear and strike.

It really does look like they are building a boat
Look what’s going on behind the Kesennuma Factory!

I hope you can take on a ton more projects, and expand your activities!

I don’t want to take on a ton of projects. (laughs) We only do five per year. I don’t want to work too much. (laughs) Wouldn’t you agree? People are living creatures, just like animals. Sometimes they just don’t feel like doing things. It’s not like we are dealing with a thousand customers. We’ve got ten customers who spend about a thousand customers worth of money. In the wild kingdom, animals don’t hunt when their stomachs are full. Humans are logical and have the ability to stockpile, but I think it’s undignified to stockpile too much like some IT company president. That kind of behavior just doesn’t work in the long-term.

Takahashi Kogyo
Hajikamiuchinuma 38-4, Kesennuma City, Miyagi Prefecture

Kazushi Takahashi
Born in Kesennuma City. Seventh generation shipbuilder. Founder of Takahashi Kogyo.

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    great article! i think future systems talks to ship builders as well to help realize their projects.

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