The Forgotten Sumitsubo 忘れ物の墨壺

The Forgotten Sumitsubo

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay …

Christina Rossetti

The tool pictured above is a very old “split-tail” variety of “sumitsubo.”

Versions of this tool are used in many trades worldwide to mark a straight layout line on material being worked. In the West, the line is coated in chalk to produce a “chalkline” when snapped, but in Japan a silk line wound on the spool near the tail of the tool is soaked in ink as it passes through the “pond” near the pointy front of the tool to produce the same sort of layout line.

This particular tool is unusual not only because it is one of the best-preserved examples of sumitsubo in existence, but also because it was discovered during restoration work on the 27m tall Nandaimon gate of Todaiji temple in Nara Japan in 1879.

Since its discovery it has become famous as the so-called “Forgotten Sumitsubo.”

The reason for the unusual name, indeed the very reason it has survived in such a good state of preservation, is that Todaiji Temple’s Nandaimon gatehouse where this sumitsubo was found perched peacefully on top of a beam high in the structure was built in the year 1199, so it is likely this sumitsubo had remained there undisturbed for around 680 years, a long time for a wooden tool.

Was it really forgotten? I like to think some carpenter left it there on purpose to look after his work. But that’s just me…

Related image
Front elevation of the Nandaimon gate of Todaiji temple, Nara, Japan. The deer of Nara are like pigeons. The stall to the left is selling “deer crackers” for tourists to feed them.
The eaves of Nandaimon Gate
Related image
Looking up into the structure of Todaiji’s Nandaimon Gatehouse
Cross-section sketch of Todaiji’s Nadaimon Gate

So, if you ever misplace a tool at a jobsite, instead of fretting about it, just imagine that someone, someday, will find it hidden inside the building 700 years later and reverently put it in a museum. Certainly more romantic than any other more likely option. (ツ)

YMHOS

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The Strongmen Under the Veranda

Art is born of craftsmen. Art is not born of those called artists.

Tsunekazu Nishioka and Horin Matsuhisa “The Heart of Trees, the Heart of Buddha”

Having worked in architecture and construction in Japan for more than half of my life, your humble servant is fond of Japanese traditional wooden architecture. It has much to recommend it, not only for the visual beauty of the designs and the spacial experiences it often provides, but also the excellence of much of it’s execution, made possible through craftsmen’s skill with Japan’s excellent woodworking tools.

In this post we will examine a few details of Japanese traditional architecture, and the Japanese language phrase one structural member engendered, the origin of which most Japanese are unaware. Perhaps Gentle Readers will find this obscure phrase as interesting as your humble servant does.

The linguistically-intriguing architectural detail that is the primary subject of this article is a wooden structural member called the “en no shita no chikara mochi.”(縁の下の力持ち)which translates to “Strongman under the veranda.”

Some background is called for. As you can see from the photo at the top of this page, traditional wooden Japanese buildings are raised above the surrounding ground by a step or three with an ventilated crawl space beneath the floor. This is a practical feature commonly found in many countries, especially those with high groundwater levels, where it serves to keep soil dampness from penetrating the interior spaces thereby forestalling mold and wood rot.

In Japan, where exterior spaces, such as gardens, landscapes and even celestial spaces (e.g. moon viewing platforms) have been incorporated into buildings, the step up into the building is an important division between interior and exterior spaces. One may wear shoes into the entryway “genkan” of a building, but they must be removed before stepping up and entering the building proper. The genkan, therefore, being behind doors, is both an interior and exterior space. The wooden elevated veranda walkway around the perimeter of the building, called the “engawa” 縁側 in traditional Japanese architecture even moreso.

An engawa veranda in a traditional wooden structure. Notice the step-up from the ground level to the wooden veranda and an additional elevation change when entering the building’s interior with tatami-mat floors. Notice also the worse-for-wear sliding shoji screen doors to the left which separate interior and exterior spaces when closed, but expand the room into the garden when open. Please also notice, if you can, the groove cut into the floor of the veranda near the exterior edge in which lightweight wooden sliding doors called “amado,” meaning “rain doors” slide to enclose and protect the veranda when necessary. To the right of the veranda you can see a gravel-filled drainage trench constructed to receive rainwater dripping from the eaves instead of obtrusive, rudely gurgling rain gutters and pipes. Sitting on fragrant tatami mats, or on the wooden engawa floor with the shoji screens open of a spring evening or autumn afternoon while gazing out at a beautiful garden and listening to the sound of rainwater gently pattering on this gravel is a combination of sensory delights with which I hope Gentle Readers will someday be blessed.
Sorakuen in Kobe, Japan

The floor of the building is supported by a series of beams and purlins called “ Strongmen.” Those at the veranda are called “en no shita no chikaramochi” 縁の下の力持ち meaning “strongmen under the veranda.” In traditional Japanese architecture the veranda structure is designed so that these beams are both cantilevered and partially concealed creating a lightweight feeling, even giving the impression that the veranda floor is almost floating in air when viewed from some angles. The chikaramochi (chee/kah/rah/moh/chee) beams are seldom seen by the building’s residents, but without them, a building could not have a raised floor and would inevitably fail.

A phalanx of noble dragons supporting the first floor of the Taishakuten temple in Tokyo. In traditional Japanese architecture, ordinary uncarved beams supporting the floor in this way are called “En no shita no chikara mochi.”(縁の下の力持ち)which translates to “Strongman under the floor.” In the Japanese tradition, the dragon is a benevolent, noble creature that travels between oceans and heaven. The brackets supported on each dragon’s head in this photo represent clouds, as if the dragon team of strongmen are carrying the building through the heavens. In this case, the dragons have three toes on each foot, indicating that this is a private temple. Only dragons in imperial temples were allowed five toes.
Another noble dragon with waves at his feet and the kumimono clouds on his head. Amazing carving work.

Most Japanese people know and use the idiom without realizing it refers to this structural support.

To refer to someone as being a “Strongman Under the Floor” is to imply they are an “unsung hero,” or a person who quietly, selflessly and competently serves society and others by performing important but unseen tasks as a member of a team. From the Japanese dictionary it means “someone who toils diligently to support others in unseen ways and without recognition.” I salute all the strongmen under the floor, especially in the crafts and construction industry.

In our times we see an increasing trend for people in the public eye, especially actors, artists, musicians, politicians and journalists to display pyrotechnic levels of psychotic narcissism, the less talent and fewer accomplishments possessed the greater their frenzy to attract attention. These foul-mouthed, low-intelligence, often wealthy sociopaths, devoted to self-aggrandizement and the debasement of anything truly admirable, demand not only our unreserved celebration of their psychosis, but compliance with their ever-changing immoral opinions. In situations where individuals with a similar psychosis have managed to grab unlimited power, the resulting loss of innocent life has been horrendous beyond imagining. A former leader of the Soviet Union, himself a remorseless dictator dedicated to the destruction of Western democracies, enslavement of entire nations, and with the blood of millions on his hands once called such narcissists “useful idiots,” and made a science of how to foster and effectively use them to destroy entire nations. His work continues even today.

But while narcissists, sociopaths and their sycophant useful idiots receive all the attention, and sadly, praise, it is the stable, moral, selfless, hard-working common people that build and defend and perpetuate decent societies. In your humble servant’s opinion it is these good people that are the “Strongmen under the floor” that deserve our true respect.

The photos above and below show a happy team of noble three-toed dragons serving as “en no shita no chikara mochi” supporting the first floor of the Taishakuten Buddhist temple in Tokyo. A thankless but important task these several-dozen hand-carved zelkova-wood dragons perform with energetic poise and a toothy grin. Bravo!

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A phalanx of noble “strongmen” supporting a lavish veranda. These brave dragons straddle the waves of the oceans below them, and support wooden kumimono brackets which represent the clouds of heaven, on their prickly heads. The symbolism of these intricate carvings and complicated structural details is by no means haphazard.

Many professional woodworkers and blacksmiths are much the same as these dragons: inconspicuous, honest, hard-working, competently supporting the world within their scope without complaint, often with understated style.

YMHOS

The main entry into the Taishakuten temple. The carved figures at the top of the columns facing outwards to the left are Chinese Lions whose job it is to protect the holy precinct from demons and evil spirits. The figure with the elephant-like nose carved into the beam-end facing Gentle Reader is a mythical creature called a “Baku” 貘, a generally benevolent creature that eats bad dreams. The complicated brackets (called “kumimono”) supported on the columns have a structural purpose, of course, but in traditional Buddhist architecture they represent clouds, reflecting the link between the building and the heavens. Can’t have demons, evil spirits or bad dreams nesting up in there! Notice that, while the ends of the kumimono brackets have been painted white, the carved beams and columns are unvarnished, hand-planed, never-sanded Zelkova wood. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, hand-planed wood exposed to the environment lasts longer than if it was finished with abrasives and varnished or painted.

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the see the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may Mama Shishi bite my head off.

Just ask the next baku you meet if it ain’t so. They can’t tell a lie you know.