Tom Wegener and the Itako of Japan
Until very recently it was thought that surfing only began in Japan in the 1960s, and that the first boards were foam and fibreglass longboards similar to those ridden on the beaches of California, Hawaii, and Australia at the same time.
That has been the accepted history, yet Tom Wegener - a keen student of surfing history and the shaper who did the most to popularise the Alaia - has uncovered a divergent account with the aide of a Japanese friend. It now appears surfing has a very long history in Japan, however all evidence of the centuries of wave riding was nearly lost.
Tom Wegener picks up the story:
In 2008 I was traveling in Japan with my surfboard distributor trying to generate sales for my Alaias. Things were not going well so I changed tact and started asking if there was surfing in Japan on Alaia style surfboards. I spoke to many influential surfers and editors of Japanese surf magazine and I was repeatedly assured that there was no surfing at all in Japan before the 1960s. Finally, as I was leaving, I was contacted by phone by an older Japanese surfer with broken English who kept saying “Itako, Itako surfboard.”
Three years later Nobby, a top wood surfboard shaper, came to visit me and we made a little video about body boarding on wood. At the end of the video, we asked if anyone who owns or knows of old wood surfboards to contact us. Soon after Nobby returned to Japan, he was contacted by several Japanese surfers who had Itako surfboards.
Nobby became a historian and retraced Itako surfing in Japan and has made a very nice website showing what he had found. Nobby is responsible for discovering Japan’s very long surf history.
I went back to Japan in 2013 and met an old friend, Taisuke. He has spent his life surfing and has a well-deserved reputation as a top surf photographer. When I met him, he had an Itako surfboard. He told me that it was in his grandfathers shed and he saw it for many years, however, he did not know it was a surfboard until he saw what Nobby had uncovered. He was dumbstruck to find his grandfather was a surfer!
Nobby was kind enough to answer the following questions for Swellnet:
Swellnet: What does itako mean? Is there a literal translation?
Nobby: Itago is the name given to fishing boat floorboards by the shipwrights who built them. Initially, Itago were not designed as wave riding craft, but as a type of lifesaving device that could be thrown overboard in case of an emergency. Subsequently, Itago were used by children for the purpose of playing in the surf when the fishing boats were beached.
As time passed, the use of the name Itago was dropped and "Itako" became more commonplace. In the 1950s Itako turned very popular as wave riding tools for beach goers, and so beach houses made many for use as rental boards.
Itako are proof that surfing was in Japan earlier than first thought. How old do they date?
The oldest documented use of Itako is from the year 1821. Although the type of fishing boats where the "Itago" floorboards originally came from date as far back as the 17th century, so it is possible to assume that Itako wave-riding started around the same time.
It is important to mention that Itako riding became popular in the 1880's, when beaches were open for medicinal bathing.
Are they all belly boards?
Yes, they are a type of belly board, and were traditionally ridden prone. Beginners began using them in shallow water where they could push off the bottom with their feet to achieve take-off with an oncoming wave. More experienced riders would paddle outside in order to catch bigger waves.
Are they the only proof of early wave riding in Japan?
No. There are other examples of early surf craft in Japan, such as the Naminori Furoto, a type of short hollow paddle board.
Historically speaking, did the Japanese have a seafaring culture such as Hawaiians, or were they wary of the ocean such as the Indonesian?
Although the Japanese were not known as deep water seafarers, Japan, being an island, did have a strong relation with the sea. Thus, fishing craft and other types of short haul vessels evolved from simple hollowed out logs to complex assembled designs as the skill level in carpentry improved.
Do you think the act of waveriding would have been spontaneous, or perhaps by cultural exchange with the Polynesians?
As I mentioned earlier, Itago riding dates back to the 17th century. That is not to say that Japanese surf culture began then, as it is possible to assume that wave riding in Japan started much earlier, since the use of processing logs to build rudimentary boats has existed in the area for around 3,000 years.
Theoretically speaking, and given the opportunity to engage in leisure activities, an early type of surfing culture could have occurred among Japanese people at any time during that period. Unfortunately there is no record of this if it ever happened.
There are documented landings of Polynesians in Japan's southernmost islands, so it is equally not possible to rule out the chance of some form of cultural exchange. Both the Polynesian and Japanese are island cultures and so a very similar and parallel evolution of surfing culture may have taken place.
It is important to mention though that in Japan, unlike what happened in places like Hawaii, the sea is traditionally viewed as a place destined exclusively for labor and not for leisure. It is more likely then that the origins of surf culture in both societies is unrelated. Having said this, very early in the history of surf in Hawaii, wooden planks were used as primitive surfboards, much as it happened in Japan centuries later.
The greatest difference here is that while in Hawaii, this activity evolved into one focused on pleasure and enjoyment, in Japan it turned into a lifesaving skill used by fishermen under dangerous circumstances.
In terms of design, how do the Itako compare to the Alaia?
Itako, originally being fishing boat floor boards, are most commonly oblong in shape. They were regularly 80 - 210cm in length and 40cm wide. They usually posses 90 degree corners and flat bottoms and decks. Most have an orifice near the nose to enable the rider to hold on with one hand while paddling with the other.
Later versions introduced the use of round noses and chine rails, with outlines that transitioned in width from a narrow nose to a wide tail.
What sort of wood are the made from?
Traditionally they were made from the same materials fishing boats were made of, cedar and less frequently with paulownia, the latter being preferred by wealthier riders.