The videos below illustrate several unusual aspects of homebuilding in Japan. The first was produced by an architecture firm and is about the construction of a beach house. The house is nice enough, but what interests me is the part that was shot in the factory where the components of the frame were prefabricated.
Japan, like the U.K. and most of Europe has a long tradition of timber framing—a method that fell out of favor in this country after the 1830s, when a carpenter in Chicago invented balloon framing. In Japan, timber framing never died out and is still relatively main stream. While a small number of Japanese carpenters continue to use traditional methods—primarily for restoration work and building temples—the majority have been forced to adopt modern equipment, substituting joints cut by computer-controlled machines for ones cut entirely by hand.
But when the precut parts arrive on site, they’re assembled by carpenters (daiku) using more or less traditional methods, assembling joints by hand and pulling some of them tight with wedges. As can be seen in the second video, the floors are framed flush using sliding dovetail joints instead of nailed hangers. Not shown is the way “studs” fit into machine-cut mortises top and bottom. The large wooden sledge used to drive pieces home is definitely old-fashioned—but not at all out of the ordinary for this kind of work.
The carpenters wielding the sledges wear a distinctive type of work clothing. In Japan, people who work high in the air or on scaffolding, are referred to as tobi—and tobi favor an incredibly baggy type of work pants that are said to provide great freedom of movement. The legs taper at the bottom and can be worn in or over the boots.
You’ll notice that the soles of the boots are flexible and the toes are split so the big toe is separated from the others. This configuration is said to provide a better feel for the ground and greater agility and balance—so it makes sense it would be favored by trades that work high in the air. Footwear of this kind is modeled on the traditional split-toe socks (tabi) worn in Japan and referred to as jika-tabi. It’s impossible to tell if the carpenters in the video below are wearing them, but there is such a thing as steel toe jika-tabi boots.
Speaking of safety, it’s interesting that virtually everyone on site in both videos wears a hardhat but no one wears a safety harness. Clearly, Japanese safety regulations are different than ours. I have no idea why—maybe those boots really do prevent falls.
As for ninjas, while they are frequently depicted as wearing jika-tabi, there is no way of knowing if they actually did. They worked “undercover” and would have worn whatever clothes helped them blend in.