Tom Wegener and the Itako of Japan

Stu Nettle picture
Stu Nettle (stunet)
Swellnet Dispatch

img_1753_0.jpgUntil 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.


zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Friday, 21 Nov 2014 at 9:54am

Very interesting read. You knew I'd be on this in a flash. I'm going to ask around about the Itako boards as my area has a big fishing and seafaring culture. It's been said that just north of here was the first area where Japanese fishermen first took to the water in boats to catch fish, thousands of years ago when they were hunter gatherers.

Also interesting is the Naminori Furoto name. Naminori is the old Japanese word for surfing (these days they say 'saafingu') and furoto I'm pretty sure is 'float'. The Japanese language is interesting in that they have adopted a lot of English words, mangled them and incorporated them into their language i.e. Kohi (coffee), Gasorin Sutando (petrol station) etc. So I'm guessing the Naminori Furoto is the 'Surfing Float'.

There might be an old Itako somewhere lying around here, would be a great addition to the quiver.

stunet's picture
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stunet Friday, 21 Nov 2014 at 10:04am

zenagain wrote:

Very interesting read. You knew I'd be on this in a flash.

Of course, thought of you straight away Zen. I never knew what Naminori meant, but I remember it spoken at the beginning of Martin Potter's 'Strange Desires'. "Martin Potter naminori ichibanima"

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Friday, 21 Nov 2014 at 10:16am

Martin Potter, Number 1 Surfer!

Thanks Stu.

Well literally 'Martin Potter surfing most now', but No.1 surfer makes more sense.

caml's picture
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caml Friday, 21 Nov 2014 at 11:25am

At last something to support the alaia style . Not to mention wegener , whos boards i ride ( foam alaias seaglass in particular ) i havent seen anything on swillnut before . Or nobody commenting either .traveling to a remote sou east lombok 10 yrs ago in a fishing village with a little wave nearby these kids came out & put on a display by riding their little slabs of wood paipo style it was memorable . Their boards were just the same style a few square or rounded nosed alaia / paipo shapes and they swam out and boogied

the-roller's picture
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the-roller Friday, 21 Nov 2014 at 12:50pm

Sweet article, Stu.

This calls for a heap of Japanese house music.

stunet's picture
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stunet Friday, 21 Nov 2014 at 1:01pm

Much appreciated Roller, but when it comes to Japanese music this is more my bag. Boris, 'Statement':

zenagain's picture
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zenagain Friday, 21 Nov 2014 at 1:38pm

Rolls, I thought this would be more your speed.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Friday, 21 Nov 2014 at 1:43pm

zenagain wrote:

Rolls, I thought this would be more your speed.


the-roller's picture
the-roller's picture
the-roller Saturday, 22 Nov 2014 at 11:28am

Zen and Stu, haven't a clue to your likes in music.

much more appreciative of works such as this...


and this.

can we gat a Yew?

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Saturday, 22 Nov 2014 at 2:55pm

Rolls, I'll give you a Yew for the first two.

I asked around about the 'Itako', and nobody had rreally heard of it as a surf craft but I did find out that Itako is a town in my prefecture and also an Itako is supposedly a lady that comes from snowy Aomori that has the ability to speak to the dead.

My research continues.

Before I forget Rolls-


zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain Saturday, 22 Nov 2014 at 3:00pm


(RIP people of JL123)

I focus's picture
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I focus Saturday, 10 Aug 2019 at 12:46pm

Beat me to it Zen, RIP Kyu Sakamoto, my world calms down when I listen to this remember it being a hit as a kid.