Two traditional Japanese river boats, handcrafted by Bates students and launched into Lake Andrews five years ago, are part of the re-creation of feudal Japan for the TV adaptation of Shōgun, which debuts today (Feb. 27) on FX.

Back in 2019, Douglas Brooks, an author and expert in Japanese boatbuilding, led the Short Term course “Apprentice Learning: Building the Japanese Boat.” During the course, one of the practitioner-taught courses arranged by the Center for Purposeful Work, Brooks’ students built two long, narrow, flat-bottomed boats and then, in a ceremony reflecting Shinto tradition, guided them on a maiden voyage on the Puddle. 

Students in Douglas Brook’s practitioner-taught Short Term course, “Apprentice Learning: Building the Japanese Boat,” launched their boats in a traditional Japanese boat launching ceremony on the Puddle at 3:30 p.m., a prelude to The Annual Showcase Event for Short Term Redesigns and Practitioner Taught Courses held in the Perry Atrium of Pettengill Hall..
At the launch of the two traditional Japanese boats on May 22, 2019, Grace Murnaghan ’20 handles the pole as her boat executes a turn before the eyes of a crowd assembled on the Lake Andrews shore. At the bow, Alex Platt ’22 is paddling. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

From then until spring 2021, the two 21-foot boats remained in storage at Bates. In the meantime, FX, a subsidiary of Disney, was ramping up production of a 10-part TV series based on James Clavell’s 1975 novel, which is set at the dawn of the 17th century.

In the novel and in the TV series, traditional Japanese wooden boats are a central part of the seascape and riverscape, used for both transportation and military purposes. To ensure the authentic presentation of this important prop, the producers hired Brooks. 

He provided Disney with traditional boat drawings that their scenic boat builders, overseen by prop master Dean Eilertson, used to create a fleet of small samurai warships. Disney also asked if there were any existing traditional Japanese boats available in North America. “I told them about the boats at Bates,” Brooks said.

This image, taken on Aug. 20, 2021, shows some of the traditional boats on the set of Shōgun on Vancouver Island. Of the four boats in the lower foreground, the two Bates boats are next to the dock and furthest from the dock. (Photograph by Dean Eilertson)

Disney reached out to Bates and negotiated a purchase in spring 2021. Brooks traveled to Lewiston to oversee their shipment to the filming location in Vancouver, British Columbia; later, he was flown to the set to teach a few dozen extras how to use the Japanese sculling oar to propel other boats. 

To recreate feudal Japan, the filmmakers chose the rural west side of Vancouver Island, thick with wilderness. There, they created a town with a castle; a palace; and a coastal fishing village. 

This image, taken on Oct. 5, 2021, shows the two boats that the Shōgun producers bought from Bates resting near the film’s re-creation of Osaka, Japan, in Port Moody, near Vancouver Island. (Photograph by Dean Eilertson)

The Bates boats are a traditional fishing boat, which was often used at the mouth of the Shinano River in Niigata Prefecture, “a huge farming region,” said Brooks, where the river skiffs — often called honryousen, or “typical fishing boat” — were used for transport, fishing, hauling rice, and dredging. 

As far as Brooks could tell during his time advising on the filming in and around Vancouver, the Bates boats won’t appear on screen enough for viewers to create a drinking game (“Bates boats!”) of their appearance. 

This production image, taken on October 13, 2021, shows actor Cosmo Jarvis as the character John Blackthorne, seated in a traditional Japanese flat-bottomed boat, on the set of the FX series Shōgun on Vancouver Island. (Katie Yu/FX)

“I was told on set that the Bates boats would most likely be used to ‘dress’ the set, that is, provide a look of boats pulled up on a beach,” said Brooks. “I suspect if you see them anywhere, they will be at the fishing village.”

While many traditional Japanese boats are used throughout the series, most are of a different style used in battle scenes. “Primarily what you see in the film are small Samurai war ships.”

Since 1996, Brooks has apprenticed with Japanese boat builders and written several books on the practice. Back in 2019, just prior to the campus launch, he described the experience as “fantastic,” drawing the syllables out for emphasis.

(Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)
Prior to the May 22, 2019, launch of the boats that students built for a Short Term course, Douglas Brooks performs a Shinto purification ritual. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

“From the organization of this course, working with the Center for Purposeful Work, to the collegiality of faculty who contacted me with an interest in my course, to the students, who really were wonderful and worked very hard,” he said, “it’s been amazing.”

Additional reporting by senior writer Deirdre Stires.