The youngest of three girls and six boys, Makoto Imai was born on December 13, 1948, just outside the town of Gero in an area called Hida. His family has farmed there for 300 years and have lived in the same farmhouse for 250 years.
As a child, Makoto made skis, sleds and toys for both himself and his friends. One example was a toy gun made of bamboo that shot cedar seeds. In school he was not very happy as he wanted to make things and play, not study. He said he was “dumb in the head”, but his body responded to physical play – as he had a great love of sports and excelled in physical activities.
His fondest memories are of returning home from school and stopping in on construction sites to watch the carpenters at work. He recounts with great enthusiasm and awe the first time he picked up a sharpened plane blade – and the scolding that ensued. In high school, Makoto’s family home underwent some repairs. Knowing her son cared little for school, Makoto’s mother appealed to the carpenters to accept him as an apprentice. At 15, he was accepted.
At this time, carpenters worked from 7:30am until just before dark, and every other Sunday was the only day off. As a striving apprentice, Makoto started work as early as 6am and there was no day off for the next two years. He earned approximately $25 a month. Traditionally, the apprentice learned by watching but always stayed busy, whether it was cleaning up or moving lumber. In addition, he had to attend high school classes at night, which typically went from 6-9pm. After his first two years, Makoto finally began hands-on work. He received a saw, a chisel, and a hammer and was given tough work. By the end of five years, Makoto completed his apprenticeship by laying out an entire house.
Eager to refine his skills, Makoto sought work in Kyoto where he spent three years working on teahouse construction and temple repair. It was during this time he first came to the United States, spending two months on a teahouse in Nevada City, CA, where he encountered enormous interest for traditional Japanese joinery. Returning home, still not satisfied with the level of his work, Makoto switched construction companies and spent another two years only working on temples. He then returned to the U.S. inspired the enthusiasm he received on his first visit. Disappointed in the increased use of machine tools in Japan, Makoto saw a brighter future in the U.S. to work and share his knowledge.
Makoto has since established himself as a true master craftsman, and many of his apprentices have gone to pursue their own path into traditional Japanese woodworking. He has done extensive projects from tea rooms, Japanese style homes, to restorations and cabinetry. He currently devotes most of his time creating exceptional tansu and furniture pieces.