The youngest of three girls and six boys, Makoto Imai was born on December 13, 1948, in the town of Gero in Hida, Gifu prefecture. 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.
Makoto’s 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 received 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 by 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. His brother-in-law, Osamu Hiroyama, opened Hida Tool in Berkeley to introduce a variety of high-end Japanese tools not just for woodworking, but professional kitchen knives and garden tools.
Makoto has since established himself as a true “shokunin” (master of ones profession), and many who were influenced by his woodworking demonstrations in the 1970s and former apprentices have gone to pursue their own path into Japanese woodworking. As one who prefers isolation and the quiet and privacy of the woods, he has lived in the Trinity Alps in Northern California and now over 25 years in the Pacific Northwest. With no plans to retire, he vows to continue his craft and continues to display his work in his workshop, creating new pieces of inspiration.
Makoto’s Influence in the United States
“I remember watching Makoto sharpening tools. Then he’d go to work, and I would marvel at where he ended up. It was magic to me. And I said, “This is what I want to do.” – In Menlo Interview with Mike Laine
“Around 1975 I saw a demonstration by Makoto Imai, a Japanese daiku (carpenter). I was so engrossed with that he could do with simple tools. He’d cut one piece with these incredible sharp tools and saws, then pass it around while he made another piece. Then he’d squeak together the two pieces. It was so impressive and accurate.” – SF Gate Interview with Jay Van Arsdale
“I was first introduced to my teacher Makoto Imai by my brother-in-law Masao Want in 1978 when I was 24 years old. Makoto is a tea house carpenter in Kyoto. When he moved to the Bay Area in 1977 he was one of the first to introduce the Japanese style of carpentry to America. At this time I had already explored several occupations but had not found any work that deeply satisfied me. I was interested in woodworking but knew nothing about Japanese carpentry. Upon meeting Makoto I was fascinated by his passion. His level of skill, concentration and connection to his work and the beauty of the outcome inspired me deeply. I was also drawn to the physicality of the work, perhaps the primal experience of tools, wood and muscle merging.” – EcoNest Interview with Dale Brotherton